There is a terrific book about the early days of Late Night by Jason Zinoman. So, I don’t need to go into all of the nuts and bolts. It’s really good. I recommend it! I also highly recommend Bill Carter’s book “The Late Shift,” as a primer about how the world of Late Night was invented by Dave (while the Carson tradition was carried on by Jay). Interestingly enough, I was told that when James Corden got the Late Late Show job, one of the first calls he made was to Bill Carter, saying “The only things I know about having a Late Night show are from your book.”
Finally, I can’t recommend highly enough the recent Marc Maron WTF interview with Dave. If anyone ever asks me what he was like, I’d refer them to this.
And now.. As Marc would say, “Let’s do this, people!”
I’d been working on Late Night for all of one week when Chris Elliot snuck up behind me and whispered in my ear: “You suck. No one thinks you’re funny. You should quit now.” I went home and cried for an hour. Then I went back on Monday and asked Merrill Markoe, who had created Late Night with Dave, how I was doing.
“The thing you have to remember is, the name of this show is ‘Dave’s Attitude Problem.’ People tune in every night to find out what the hell is bugging Dave tonight. Just write to that. You’ll be fine.”
Dave’s “attitude problem” emerged from a cultural moment in the 80s that had its roots in the disillusionment of those of us who had grown up in the 60s and 70s. We had once believed that, somehow, the “revolution” was going to rid the world of phoniness and bullshit and lies and the creaky old habits of our parents.
In the 80s, we looked around and felt the first twinges of (in the words of Pogo) “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Anger, protest and fiery rhetoric gave way to irony and sarcasm. For many of us, and I’m guessing this was true of Dave, there was an underlying uneasiness. We were supposed to be better than this. Better than our politics, better than our compromised lives… and certainly better than American TV.
THE MISSION / LEADERSHIP
There are two kinds of mission-driven organizations. The internally driven org is doing the absolute best thing it can do, living up to its own high standards. The externally-driven org works to satisfy the needs and demands of an audience. (And yes, often organizations are a bit of both.)
Late Night was internally driven. Dave, his “attitude problem,” his high standards, his disdain for the niceties and superficiality of most talk shows, his desire to just do things differently, drove his staff.
Of course, he stood in front of a live audience every night. But when the time came to figure out how to satisfy that audience, he listened to himself.
As writers and producers, we knew that we were working for that one person. I think everyone on the staff lived to please Dave. That was our mission. Yes, the show was successful. Yes, we were growing in the ratings. But you never took your eye off the fact that this show was all about Dave.
In his Marc Maron interview, Dave talks about how he went into his ill-fated morning show: “I just thought that America was waiting for the kind of show I was going to do.” In the morning, that turned out not to be true. In Late Night, it was. But Dave didn’t work to entertain a large audience. His stock in trade was a kind of transparency about the fact we were doing a show, it was what it was, and let’s just get on with it. (Dave’s fellow comic George Miller used to joke that Dave’s form of foreplay was “Let’s get on with it… Shall we?”)
There are two great lessons in Leadership that I learned while at Late Night:
Years later, when I was running a programming department, a management coach suggested that I ask some of my staff to repeat some of the announcements I’d made at a recent meeting. I went around and spoke to them and was shocked at the game of “telephone” that existed between myself and my team. As a manager / leader, you really have to make an effort to make sure people understand who you are. You can never assume that you’ve been “clear” because everyone hears with their own ears.
Productivity: If you have one idea, you can have ten.
I was lucky to get one out of ten ideas on the air — and I lasted 8 years! The writers turned out 10 or so ideas a day, hundreds of ideas a month. You might ask yourself: how do you get people to do that?
You can never be too attached to any idea. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Kill Your Darlings.” Love the part of you that can keep turning out ideas, but don’t fall in love with the idea.
Turn ideas around. Every idea can be approached from many perspectives. Go the opposite way. What if the end is the beginning? If success is failure? What if the roles were reversed?
Keep your ass in the chair. Close the distractions. Tie yourself down.
Embrace boredom. Some of your best ideas come from just trying to amuse yourself.
Embrace the human. People are funny. Always. We are never funnier than when we’re doing mundane, everyday things.
Creative people should be encouraged to love their brains and support each other. Everyone has positively horrible ideas — and we often become attached to them! No problem. When you realize something isn’t going to work, take it out back and shoot it. Come back and keep working.
My generation of writers for Late Night were with the show for 6-10 years. The secret to that longevity, I believe, was that our day-to-day work life was managed as “a marathon, not a sprint.” On any given day, our offices hummed with the sound of diligence. Last night’s show was far behind us, today’s show bore down with unrelenting pressure, and tomorrow’s show was coming fast and furious.
A number of floors above us, Saturday Night Live was managed to a weekly sprint. The writers worked exhausting hours getting to each live show. They did 3 shows in a row, break, and then took a hiatus during the summer. Quite a few of their writers have survived for decades.
Despite what you might believe, you don’t get funnier when you’re high or drunk. And it screws you up for the long haul. Somewhere in the mid-80s, the vials you saw backstage on shows were replaced by vitamin bottles. (For the most part.)
Know your limitations. You’re performing. You’re an athlete. Stay focused and disciplined.
Out of all that discipline, real innovation emerged. At its best, not one element of the show was left unexamined for comic possibilities. From the “cold open” (before the title sequence) to the occasional “cold close” (little bits after the sign-off — I recall one cold close that had Dave and Paul climbing the spiral stairs on set to check on a lighthouse lamp, as if that were their nightly routine).
Every night was a “Minimum Viable Product.” What could we load into the show that would be new and different, given our resources? Usually, we had Dave’s opening monologue (three or four jokes, as opposed to Carson’s dozen or so), an opening comedy bit (Act One), a bit halfway through the show (Act Five). The writer’s board tracked shows three weeks into the future, with varying levels of planning.
Dave had an amazing memory for things that had been pitched to him. There’s no chance in hell you could pitch something he’d turned down a year or two ago — unless you had good reason to bring it back. And he was, as stated above, very demanding. Having sat in one or two meetings where he was being pitched, I’ve seen him dismiss ideas with a simple no — and immediately know why it was wrong. And I’ve seen him take an idea and turn it around so that it would be perfect. Like I said, he embodied the vision of the show, and we were writing to his tastes.
The writers never had a “playbook” of rules to go by. We internalized what got onto the show, what worked or didn’t, and what was rejected. That said, if I had to write some rules for innovation learned at Late Night, I’d include:
Recently, a producer friend and I expressed our utter disdain for Awards Shows. Why didn’t someone just take them out, rip them up, and start over? So we’re working on it. Looking over the above, it occurs to me: We should find a young host with a real attitude problem.