young david letterman -- 10/03/17

Today's selection -- from I'm Dying Up Here by William Knoedelseder. Young David Letterman:

"In May 1975, twenty-eight-year-old David Letterman and his wife, Michelle, left Indiana and drove to Los Angeles in tandem, he in his 1973 half-ton Chevy pickup, 'Old Red,' and she in their 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass. The pair had met and married when they were students at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he majored in radio and televi­sion. After college, David became a minor celebrity in his hometown of Indianapolis as the host of a 2:00 a.m. movie show and a substitute weekend weatherman on WLWI- TV. It was there that he pioneered the concept of irony in weathercasting, making up fictitious weather phenomena and spicing up the daily temperature readings with wry comments like, 'Muncie, 42 ... Anderson, 44 ... always a close game,' which didn't always go over well in rural central Indiana, where most folks liked their weather straight. He also used the station to incubate what would later become some of his trademark late-night bits -- making fun of management and using staff members and passers-by (some­times cruelly) as unwitting foils.

"Unlike ... others, Letterman wasn't moving to Los Angeles hoping to make it big as a stand-up comic. Perform­ing live was not his thing. He'd been required to make all manner of public appearances as part of his TV gig in Indianapolis, and he'd hated every minute of it. The prospect of an upcoming event would cause him to lose sleep for a week, so that he constantly questioned himself, If it were in me to do this, then wouldn't it be easier?

"Letterman's ambition in going to Los Angeles was to land a job writing for television, preferably for Johnny Carson, his hero. He'd gleaned from watching The Tonight Show that performing at the Comedy Store was a good way to get Carson's attention, so he saw the Comedy Store as a necessary evil. Two months earlier, he'd flown to LA on a reconnaissance mission. Even though it was a Tuesday night, the Sunset club was jam-packed. The first comic he saw perform was George Miller, who was doing a routine about working in a Hollywood mailroom where the workers rated the executives as stamps; one guy was known as a 'five center,' an­other as 'air mail.' The punch line was about the stupidest execu­tive of all: 'Imagine what it's like to be known as "postage due."' It was a really dumb joke, but the crowd laughed, and Letterman did, too, thinking to himself, Oh, hell, I can do this.

"On his first Monday night in Los Angeles, he jumped right back into the fire, lining up with the other hopefuls waiting to audition for Mitzi Shore. His turn came just before midnight. As he stepped onto the stage, he was immediately unnerved by the white-hot intensity of the spotlight. It felt as if he were standing on a train track with a high-speed bullet train bearing down on him. The next five minutes seemed to take forever, and after­ward, he was sure he'd bombed. But Shore apparently saw some­thing she liked in his Midwestern manner. 'That was nice,' she said. 'You should come back.'

"The other comics quickly took notice of him because he wasn't like anyone else. For starters, he didn't tell jokes. He used everyday experiences as the setup and then supplied his own punch line, like the dreaded call from the mechanic telling you there's a lot more wrong with your car than you'd thought: 'Yeah, Dave, this is Earl down at the garage .... We were adjusting the dials on your radio ... and the engine blew up .... Yeah, it killed one of our guys.'

"The other comics also noticed that Letterman didn't sound like the rest of them. He didn't have the staccato cadence and hard sell delivery that usually came with being a club comic. He sounded more like a broadcaster -- smooth, controlled, conversational -- in the style of Carson, Steve Allen, and Jack Paar. That, combined with his caustic wit and ability to turn the tables on hecklers, cre­ated a presence on stage that belied his limited experience and cued his fellow comics that a major talent had arrived. It also helped to offset his appearance: the Hoosier clothes and scraggily red beard that Jay Leno said made him look like 'either Dinty Moore or Paul Bunyan's son.'

"Johnny Dark thought Letterman was a 'hayseed' when he first met him. They were standing in the hallway by the Comedy Store restroom waiting for Letterman to go on. Letterman introduced himself, called him 'Mr. Dark,' and said how much he admired his act. Dark then watched as the scruffy newcomer took the stage and faced a crowd that had been tough all night. 'They are going to eat this kid,' he thought.

"Instead, Letterman took it right to them. 'So what do you puds want to talk about tonight?' were the first words out of his mouth. From opposite sides of the room, two men heckled him simultane­ously. He fired back, 'Are you two guys sharing a brain?' The crowd roared. After that, he owned them. Johnny Dark was awed."



William Knoedelseder


I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era




Copyright 2009 by William Knoedelseder


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