with greatness

   Make the flight or see Letterman live?




















































The first words spoken on the first Late Night with David Letterman:  

Larry 'Bud' Melman: Good evening. Certain NBC executives feel it would be a little unkind to present this show without just a word of friendly warning. We're about to unfold a show featuring David
Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image -- without reckoning upon God. It's one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you don't care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to...well, we've warned you.

A brief piece on the origins of Late Night biography of David Letterman

"If you go, you'll miss the flight."

I am faced with one of the most difficult decisions of my life.  I am 19 years old and I am in New York City for the very first time.  I'm only here for 3 days, but so far I've done the city better than most.

I've walked from Midtown to Battery Park with my great uncle, Bob Gjessing, as we ducked in and out or slipped by Tiffany's, Carnegie Hall, Trump Tower, Washington Square, an automat, and China Town.  I've played Avery Fisher Hall in the Portland Youth Philharmonic in a dual orchestra performance with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

And I've got 2 tickets to a taping of Late Night with David Letterman in my pocket.

As soon as the orchestra locked in the tour schedule, I called Bob and asked him if he could get me tickets.  I knew that you could write in and ask for them, but Bob had worked in advertising in NYC for a number of years before retiring.  I was going to be there for a short time and I wanted to increase my odds of getting to the show.  Two weeks later, Bob called to let me know that he got them.

The problem is this: our flight to Yugoslavia takes off tonight.  The show starts taping at 5 p.m. and finishes shortly after 6 p.m.  Buses are scheduled to pick  us up at 6:30 and take us to JFK to make our flight.  I've got to make it back from Rockefeller Center to the Empire Hotel  (MapQuest says 1.77 miles, but that sounds farther than I remember it) in rush hour traffic.  The concierge advises me not to bet on a cab making it that distance in 30 minutes.

But here's the twist -- our Jugoslavian Airlines flight departure time is 9:45. 

Mustard Pillbox Hat (not her real name -- she bought the ugly mustard pillbox hat at Macy's for some exorbitant amount of money and then wore it a lot), our tour guide, didn't tell me not to go, but she gave me many Ominous Warnings.  Mustard Pillbox Hat did not have the full trust of the orchestra.  Tour leaders should be calm, confident and have an enduring sense of humor.  Unfortunately, she had none of these qualities.  (Incidentally, MPH looked a little like George Bush's wife, Laura.)  MPH's credibility would further crumble after we crossed the Atlantic.

So it all came down to this -- would the buses really leave at 6:30 p.m.?  It was less than an hour drive to the airport.  Checking in would not take 2+ hours...


Today is Monday, March 16, 1984.  Late Night has been on the air for 2 years.  The show is bizarre, raw and comes on at a time when nearly everyone is asleep.  And it's easily the hottest thing on television.  It is a parade of freaks, geeks and demented intelligentsia.  Peewee Herman in red high heels lip synching to "Fever".  Chris Elliott, as The Guy Under the Seats, busting out of a trap door and interrupting the show at random intervals.  Fran Lebowitz reclining, intensely puffing on her cigarette, wielding her sarcasm and wit like a stiletto.  Larry 'Bud' Melman in twisted sketch after sketch.  Brother Theodore and his dark ravings.  And Bill Wendell kicking it off each night, crescendoing the name from a deep bass up into that growl of L's, "Daaaaaaavvviiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidddd  Lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllleeetttrman!"

It is beautiful.


I was going to the taping.  If I have to, I can chase the group in a cab (spending the bulk of my remaining cash).  I called home to tell Mom that I was going to be in the Late Night audience and that I wanted her to tape the show for me.


I get out of the cab and walk into the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center, headquarters of the National Broadcasting Company (aka NBC).  For a building of its size and standing, it is a modest lobby.  The time is 11:30 a.m. and there is already a line of 20 people.  Ah, yes.  Just having the ticket isn't good enough.  You must stand in line.  I had my Walkman and a couple of books and I was going to stand in line for 5 hours to get a really good seat.

About an hour into the wait, a young guy about my age is asking people if they have any extra tickets.  I have 2 tickets and no prospects for a partner.  I give him the ticket.  Lucky bastard.  Later, Billy Crystal and Al Jarreau walked (separately) past us (Billy waved) to board the elevators up.

Late Night did a bit they called Brush with Greatness (sound familiar? ;-).  It started with genuine encounters that audience members had with celebrities.  Later it evolved into encounters with endings wildly fictionalized by Late Night writers, which was also pretty funny.  So here I am, 14 hours after playing for Leonard Freaking Bernstein thinking, let this be a Brush with Greatness night and I'm a lock to be on the show.

Guess what?  Didn't happen.  Aaaaaggghhhh!!!

Finally, the time has come.  The page takes groups up the elevator to the studio on the 6th(?) floor.  The elevator is small as is the hallway that runs along the outside of the studio.  They lead us in...where we find that two-thirds of the seats have already been filled.  WTF?!  This seems wildly unjust.  Friends/relatives of NBC staff?  Of guests?  Mucky-mucks?  Probably all of the above.

My chief impression of the studio is of how small it is.  You're used to seeing Dave's face fill the screen and the stage looking quite spacious.  Well it ain't.  Dave comes out 5 minutes before the show starts.  He is pretty loose and said a few words to us to get us warmed up.


A guy does 200 shows a year.  Some are going to be amazing.  A lot are going to be solid.  Some will suck.

This show sucked.

I am somewhat disappointed that in this age where Google picks up the most obscure tidbits of information that I can't find a listing of the guests for the show.  The reason I would need such a list is because these were people you have never heard of.

There was a model.  Not a supermodel like Paulina Poriskova or Christy Brinkley.  No, this was a woman who had made the cover of Vogue or Glamour or Better Housekeeping.  But her true sin was her vapidness.  Dave asked several questions that were met with one or two word answers.  He didn't really cut her down (maybe she was too easy a target -- maybe Dave forgot to eat his Wheaties).  And then she was gone.

There was some science guy who had something to do with a paper airplane contest.  Hmm.  Possibilities.  He throws some of them towards the audience.  Only one of them barely makes it to the first row.  Weak.

The best part of the show was the band.  Paul, Anton Fig, Will Lee and Sid McGinnis were jammed into this little space on Stage Right and they would jam through the commercial breaks.  It kind of made me want to get up and dance, but the audience was dead that night.  I was ready to get into it and do some "WOO!"s but you know, when it's not right, you just don't do it.

The band was also involved in the main sketch for that night.  Five translators were seated on the stage.  The translator on the left was given the lyrics to a song and translated them into Russian.  The next translator translated them from Russian into French.  The last translator translated the lyrics back into English and gave them to the band to sing.  It was the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand".

The credits run and it's over.


I don't allow the letdown to sink in.  I got to see the show -- now I had a flight to catch.  We waited to be escorted down, one elevator car at a time.  I busted out of the lobby into a gorgeous New York Spring.  The vehicles moved between the canyons like an ice flow.  I broke into a slow loping run north through along the sidewalks, across the streets, through the cabs, cars and trucks, homed in on my goal.

The anxiety of missing the bus mingled with the exhilaration of flying through Gotham on my own power.  This city which had been a stranger just three days ago was now mine in a small way.

In what seemed moments, I spied the hotel.  No buses!  Breathing hard, I pushed through the revolving door to find -- scores of my orchestra mates lounging about the lobby beside mounds of luggage and instruments, bored looks all around.  Transportation hadn't even arrived.

Yes!  I took my first major calculated risk and I came up aces.  If I had listened to the voice of fear, I would have missed...a very bad Letterman show live, but a once in a lifetime adventure as well.


Epilogue: Although it hadn't been a very good show, I would still prize the copy of it that my mother had made for me.  Weeks later when I returned home, I called Mom.  "Chris, I have some bad news.  Val (my stepfather) taped an episode of National Geographic over it."




more brush: I spazz face-to-face with Jonathan Richman     brush