Top 10 Things to Love About David Letterman Shows

RealClear Staff

            

10. The Guy Under the Seats

Chris Elliott was a staff writer for David Letterman in the 1980s, when "Late Night With David Letterman" was on NBC. He played several disgruntled reoccurring characters, including The Panicky Guy -- in which he would pretend to be an audience member, who panics and runs from the studio at the slightest threat of danger. Once in the hallway, he would be run over and crushed by, say, an advancing floor waxer, with his hands raised in terror. Other characters were The Fugitive Guy, The Regulator Guy and The Conspiracy Guy.

But our favorite was The Guy Under the Seats. The premise: he lived under the seats at the Ed Sullivan Theater and he would pop up and complain about the noise. His threats would always end, "But until that day, I'm gonna be right here, making your life ... a living hell!!!"

Elliott, by the way, is the son of Bob Elliott, one half of the famous comedy team Bob and Ray.

9. Crispin Glover Air-Kicking Dave

In one of the most bizarre talk-show appearances ever, Crispin Glover (George McFly in "Back to the Future") was on Letterman on July 28, 1987, to promote the movie "River's Edge." Glover appeared as "Rubin," his character from a then-unreleased movie "Rubin and Ed," wearing platform shoes and a wig. After being goaded by a woman in the audience (who some argue had been planted), Glover challenged Letterman to an arm-wrestling match, then delivered an impromptu karate kick a few feet from Letterman's head. Letterman then abruptly ended the segment by walking off stage, saying "I'm going to check on the Top 10", as the program cut to commercial. When the show came back on, Glover was gone.

8. Drew Barrymore Flashes Dave

Back in April 1995, around the time of Letterman's birthday (April 12), Drew Barrymore's hair was bleached blond and cut short and she was playing crazy girls in movies like "Mad Love" and "Boys on the Side." On this day, the actress got up on Letterman's desk, turned her back to the camera and flashed him. Greatest birthday gift ever?

7. Larry 'Bud' Melman

"Turkey!"

While working as a part-time receptionist at a drug rehabilitation center, sometime actor Calvert DeForrest was hired to work on a new NBC show that would appear following Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show": "Late Night With David Letterman." Why was he hired? It seems DeForrest appeared in a New York University student film project called "King of the Zs", by future Letterman writers, Stephen Winer and Karl Tiedemann. When they got hired, they brought DeForrest along.

Over the next two decades, DeForrest would be an integral part of the show as the strange old curmudgeon Larry "Bud" Melman, who wandered in and out of the show spouting nonsense. 

He unwittingly became a part of television history when on May 13, 1994, David Letterman announced that that night' Top 10 List would be read by retired "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson. With the "Tonight Show" theme blaring and the crowd roaring, out walks Larry "Bud" Melman and hands a blank card to Letterman.

"That was worth every penny, pinhead. Good night, suckers!!!" Melman bellows, and walks off the stage.

Then the real Johnny Carson appears, to wild applause -- and it would be the last television appearance by the comedy legend.

DeForrest retired in 2002 and died in 2007 at age 85. 

 

6. Stupid Pet Tricks

"Stupid Pet Tricks" goes back even beyond Letterman's tenure as host of NBC's "Late Night." He actually first introduced the segment on his NBC morning show, "The David Letterman Show," which only ran for a few months in the summer of 1980 (that's the one where NBC veteran newsman Edwin Newman would read the day's news -- to rapturous applause).

Where else can you see a ladder-climbing dog; a dog who could drink from a cup; Buddy, the beer-buying dog; Spot, the tightrope-climbing cockroach; the terrier with a bag on his head; Gretchen the Dachshund giving a back massage; and many more.

5. Stupid Human Tricks

"Remember, this is not a competition, it is only an exhibition — please, no wagering." 

Musical razors, grapes in nostrils; a ladder-balancing chin; a human bowling ball, squirting milk out of an eye; a toilet plunger landing on a head -- who knew that human evolution was progressing this rapidly?

Stupid Pet Tricks came first, but Stupid Human Tricks soon followed on the 1980s NBC show, and remains a staple today.

 

4. The 9/11 Response

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the country was in shock and virtually shut down; remember, all flights were grounded and airports closed for a week, all sporting events -- NFL, college football, major-league baseball, etc. -- were canceled. All the late night comedy shows, from Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" to "The Late Show With David Letterman" were canceled for the week. 

Then, on Sept. 17, Letterman decided he would be the first to go back on the air. His "monologue" was delivered from his desk, but it wasn't a series of jokes. It was a heartfelt response to the attacks, and our emotional reaction to it. His remarks helped a nation to heal, and are a part of television history. A transcript is below:

cold open and applause

Thank you very much.

Welcome to the Late Show. This is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked, and I need to ask your patience and indulgence here because I want to say a few things, and believe me, sadly, I'm not going to be saying anything new, and in the past week others have said what I will be saying here tonight far more eloquently than I'm equipped to do.

But, if we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes, and so that's what I'm going to do here.

It's terribly sad here in New York City. We've lost three thousand fellow New Yorkers, and you can feel it. You can feel it. You can see it. It's terribly sad. Terribly, terribly sad. And watching all of this, I wasn't sure that I should be doing a television show, because for twenty years we've been in the city, making fun of everything, making fun of the city, making fun of my hair, making fun of Paul... well...

So, to come to this circumstance that is so desperately sad, I don't trust my judgment in matters like this, but I'll tell you the reason that I am doing a show and the reason I am back to work is because of Mayor Giuliani.

Very early on, after the attack, and how strange does it sound to invoke that phrase, "after the attack?", Mayor Giuliani encouraged us -- and here lately implored us -- to go back to our lives, go on living, continue trying to make New York City the place that it should be. And because of him, I'm here tonight.

And I just want to say one other thing about Mayor Giuliani: As this began, and if you were like me, and in many respects, God, I hope you're not. But in this one small measure, if you're like me, and you're watching and you're confused and depressed and irritated and angry and full of grief, and you don't know how to behave and you're not sure what to do and you don't really... because we've never been through this before... all you had to do at any moment was watch the Mayor. Watch how this guy behaved. Watch how this guy conducted himself. Watch what this guy did. Listen to what this guy said. Rudolph Giuliani is the personification of courage.

applause

And it's very simple... there is only one requirement for any of us, and that is to be courageous, because courage, as you might know, defines all other human behavior. And I believe, because I've done a little of this myself, pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing. He's an amazing man, and far, far better than we could have hoped for. To run the city in the midst of this obscene chaos and attack, and also demonstrate human dignity... my God... who can do that? That's a pretty short list.

The twenty years we've been here in New York City, we've worked closely with police officers and the fire fighters and...

applause

...and fortunately, most of us don't really have to think too much about what these men and women do on a daily basis, and the phrase New York's finest and New York's bravest, you know, did it mean anything to us personally, firsthand? Well, maybe, hopefully, but probably not. But boy, it means something now, doesn't it? They put themselves in harm's way to protect people like us, and the men and women, the fire fighters and the police department who are lost are going to be missed by this city for a very, very long time. And I, and my hope for myself and everybody else, not only in New York but everywhere, is that we never, ever take these people for granted... absolutely never take them for granted.

applause

I just want to go through this, and again, forgive me if this is more for me than it is for people watching, I'm sorry, but uh, I just, I have to go through this, I'm...

The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are dead, these people are missing and dead, and they weren't doing anything wrong, they were living their lives, they were going to work, they were traveling, they were doing what they normally do. As I understand it (and my understanding of this is vague at best), another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we're told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor... religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any Goddamned sense? Whew.

I'll tell you about a thing that happened last night. There's a town in Montana by the name of Choteau. It's about a hundred miles south of the Canadian border. And I know a little something about this town. It's 1,600 people. 1,600 people. And it's an ag-business community, which means farming and ranching. And Montana's been in the middle of a drought for... I don't know... three years? And if you've got no rain, you can't grow anything. And if you can't grow anything, you can't farm, and if you can't grow anything, you can't ranch, because the cattle don't have anything to eat, and that's the way life is in a small town. 1,600 people.

Last night at the high school auditorium in Choteau, Montana, they had a rally (home of the Bulldogs, by the way)... they had a rally for New York City. And not just a rally for New York City, but a rally to raise money... to raise money for New York City. And if that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the... the spirit of the United States, then I can't help you. I'm sorry.

applause

And I have one more thing to say, and then, thank God, Regis is here, so we have something to make fun of.

If you didn't believe it before (and it's easy to understand how you might have been skeptical on this point), if you didn't believe it before, you can absolutely believe it now...

New York City is the greatest city in the world.

lengthy applause

We're going to try and feel our way through this, and we'll just see how it goes... take it a day at a time. We're lucky enough tonight to have two fantastic representatives of this town, Dan Rather and Regis Philbin, and we'll be right back.

to commercial 

3. Johnny Carson's Last TV Appearance

Referenced in No. 7, Carson never actually read the Top 10 list -- when the wild applause wouldn't die down, he left, shaking Letterman's hand on the way out. It later was said that Carson had a sore throat that day but had decided to go ahead and do the bit, but the applause choked him up so much he felt he couldn't get through the list.

Still, it's TV history. Carson heavily influenced Letterman, and Letterman viewed Carson as the man who made his career (Letterman was on "The Tonight Show" many times, and even guest hosted before getting his own show). Letterman was Carson's choice to replace him over Jay Leno -- NBC disagreed. After Carson's death in 2005, Letterman revealed that Carson still wrote monologue jokes that he sent privately to Letterman over the years.

2. Paul Shaffer

There's no right or wrong answer to this, but who in your opinion is the band sidekick who was more important to the success of a late night talk show?

a) Doc Severinsen (Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show")

b) Paul Shaffer (2 Letterman shows, at NBC and CBS)

c) The Roots ("The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon")

We would argue Shaffer, because Shaffer acts two roles -- as sidekick and bandleader, or Severinsen and Ed McMahon combined (or The Roots and Steve Higgins).

Shaffer, who is Canadian, was already successful (he worked on "Saturday Night Live" and was a songwriter, writing "It's Raining Men" for The Weather Girls), has been with Letterman every step of the way since 1982.

 

1. The Top 10 List, Of Course!

What else would it be?

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