David Letterman began his Late Night gig as a self-described “gap-toothed, unknown smart ass.” But thirty highly successful years later, Letterman’s comedy formula has evolved: he no longer attends all the meetings or makes all the decisions and stupid pet tricks are a thing of the past.
Letterman began his television career as a weatherman, but moved rapidly up to anchorman and talk show host. He left for L.A. and, after only three years on the comedy scene there, he found himself guest-hosting the Tonight Show. He talks to Alec about how a quintuple by-pass and the birth of a child have dramatically shifted Letterman’s priorities.
This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
When David Letterman started "Late Night" in 1982, The New York Times said he was “more of an acquired taste than most comedians.”
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We were used to Johnny, a true gentleman who could deliver a clean setup and punch line, occasionally helped by a wink. But suddenly with "Late Night," the ultimate punch line was the fact that some gap-toothed, unknown smart ass even had a show. His pet tricks were stupid on purpose. And so was he. Tune in, and you might catch him lowering himself into a water tank wearing a suit made from 3,400 Alka-Seltzer tablets.
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Dave seized every opportunity to remind us that his big network show was a ridiculous waste of time. But if you were in on the joke, and a lot of people were, it was also a stroke of genius.
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Today David Letterman is an institution, and has forever changed American comedy. Before Letterman, the extended drumroll was sincere. After Letterman, it would never be without at least a hint of irony.
His show changed America, and after 30 years, Dave’s changed as well.
David Letterman: I do a lot less work than I used to do. I just got to a point where I have no patience for meetings so I don’t go to any meetings. I can’t make decisions anymore; I don’t like making decisions. We have a dozen producers. They can have the meetings and they can make the decisions, and I’ll just come down and somebody tell me what to do and we go.
Alec Baldwin: But if was different before.
David Letterman: Yeah, I used to be involved in everything big and large. I don’t think that was necessarily good, but at the time I thought it was what was required. When you had your own show, you had to have everything in your view and certainly influence each little choice.
Alec Baldwin: The guests that are on the show, do you still help select the guests, or someone else takes –
David Letterman: Yeah, we have people who select them. Occasionally I will think of, 'Oh, I heard about somebody that did so-and-so. Could we look into that,' and this and that. Very little. Very little.
Alec Baldwin: Other people do that.
David Letterman: We’ve had the good luck of these people having been together for a long, long, long, long time. They all know what the expectation is. Of course, when you’re in that situation, the bad version of it is, 'Oh, God, it’s the same thing. It’s the assembly line. We’re just building the same car over and over and over again.'
Alec Baldwin: Do you feel that way sometimes?
David Letterman: Sometimes. I’m the biggest offender of that. I’m 65; I don’t have the energy I had when I was 35. There are certain things I like about the show now that I like more than before.
Alec Baldwin: Such as...
David Letterman: I like talking to people and the opportunity to learn something; or if I have a natural curiosity about somebody, I really look forward to that. Or if I have something that I know is gonna be silly and stupid and I want my authorship out there on this something silly and stupid, then I get eager about that. But in the old days, we just were going 20 hours a day. We’d be out on the streets, we’d be going to New Jersey, we’d be up all night shooting, and there would be contests. I can’t do that show anymore.
Alec Baldwin: The more successful the show has become and the more successful you have become, do you find that in terms of programming the show, you have to rely more on stars? Is there a kind of person—
David Letterman: Yeah, it’s completely different. In the beginning when we started the "Late Night" show at NBC, we had a liaison between Johnny Carson and ourselves named Dave Tebott. He had worked at NBC and then had become close with Johnny, and so Johnny hired him. He was a guy who honest-to-God talked like this. Dave came in to make sure there were no conflicts between our show and "The Tonight Show." Dave came in and he says, 'For example, let’s just say that Bob Hope is arrested for using drugs.' And we just all, just like, 'Really? In that universe is that a likelihood?' He says, 'You can’t, then, do jokes about Bob Hope.' We said, 'Okay, all right. We get that.' We were not allowed to do a monologue, and we were not allowed to have an orchestra, and we also felt that a way to distinguish ourselves, since Johnny had the big starts that people really wanted, we would then kind of have –
Alec Baldwin: Fringe people.
David Letterman: That’s exactly right. So we sort of mined that vein as much as we could. It was sort of a fortunate coincidence that we were prohibited in that sense, because we weren’t really interested in having mainstream people on, too. Again, I don’t know how effective it was in terms of programming; I don’t know if people noticed the different and appreciated it or just thought, 'Oh, they can’t get very good guests.' Now it’s completely different. It’s –
Alec Baldwin: Stars.
David Letterman: A Broadway cavalcade of stars. That’s fine; I have no problem with that. We’re always finding the Internet and they seem to be winning.
Alec Baldwin: In terms of what?
David Letterman: In terms of the small guests – the kid that swims out into the East River and saves the cat. But we’re always so far downstream from that story by the time it’s all over the Internet that there’s no point in putting it on.
Alec Baldwin: You started in radio?
David Letterman: Yeah. My first job was at a radio station at –
Alec Baldwin: You went to college?
David Letterman: Went to Ball State University. I studied radio and TV.
Alec Baldwin: Why did you study radio and TV?
David Letterman: Academically, I went to Ball State in those days, graduated with a – would it be Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science?
Alec Baldwin: I’d say Bachelor of Science probably back then, but who knows?
David Letterman: Yeah. No language requirement and no math requirement. I’m in! It really saved me because academically I was not very good. Early on, I was very lucky that I knew how to save myself. Sophomore year in high school, and I signed up for a public speaking course. The first day, you were supposed to get up and extemporaneously speak for five minutes. Everybody’s twitchy and sweaty and worried about this, as was I; and then I got up there, the nervousness and the twitchiness and everything dissipated. I love it, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, maybe this is a way I can distinguish myself.' And I did.
Alec Baldwin: But had you been the entertainer as a child in your household?
David Letterman: No – oh, in the household, yeah, sure, to what extent. Then my parents wouldn’t put up with it much. There was a fine line between being, 'Oh, isn’t he amusing,' and being a wise—
Alec Baldwin: And be erratic.
David Letterman: Yeah, and being a wiseass, and we don’t like that. I can remember my father was big and loud and noisy and always had stuff going on, and my mother completely non-demonstrative. I can remember every Sunday night after dinner, my dad would make popcorn, and we would sit in front of the TV and watch Ed Sullivan. Ed used to have this habit of, 'Come on, now, let’s really hear it for him,' and my mom used to say, 'I don’t like the way Ed begs the audience for applause.' So she was completely standoffish by the notion.
Alec Baldwin: She was a connoisseur of television hosts.
David Letterman: [Laughs]
Alec Baldwin: And then ergo incredible –
David Letterman: No, she was not a connoisseur. She resented the fact that somebody had to be encouraged to support what they had just seen.
Alec Baldwin: That Sullivan was whoring himself on network television.
David Letterman: That’s exactly right. That’s –
Alec Baldwin: The great Ed Sullivan. So you go to Ball state and you get this degree – Bachelor of whatever, we don’t know.
David Letterman: Mm-hmm.
Alec Baldwin: And what do you do after that?
David Letterman: Well, through a friend of mine at the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis where I lived, which was 60 miles away from where I went to school – and still is just about 60 miles – I heard that they were auditioning for they wanted a summer announcer. So I went down there and auditioned, never having been in a television studio in my life, and got the job. I mean it was a fixed fight because I had no business getting the job. I wasn’t very good, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no experience, and they gave me the job. And suddenly, the bulb that was turned on my sophomore year in high school now is burning white hot because it’s, 'Are you kidding me? I’m 19 and I’m gonna be on TV?' I mean it’s preposterous.
Alec Baldwin: And what kind of job did you have?
David Letterman: I was the booth announcer.
Alec Baldwin: I can’t believe you said that. Back when they had booth announcers on television.
David Letterman: Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I did.
Alec Baldwin: These guys defined my childhood, by the way.
David Letterman: These were the guys, the principal responsibility was to keep the program log.
Alec Baldwin: There used to be a lot of technical glitches in television back then. You had booth announcers who would pick up the slack when something went wrong with tape-to-tape.
David Letterman: That’s right, that’s exactly right. A station break was a huge process because you had a control room, you had a director, you had two or three 16-millimeter projectors, you had a slide chain, and you had the big 2½-inch Ampex tape. Let’s say you had four commercials in a station break. You had to roll the tape, then you’d have to count down and roll the film, and then you’d have to go live to the booth to recopy over a slide and then back to the film. It was an enormous thing. Periodically, the FCC would come in and check your log, so it was a big deal.
In a summer job in 1968 I was making $150 a week. I got to be the weekend weather man; I’d never done that before. I got to read the news on the morning kiddie show, and none of this would happen today. People are qualified to do that job now much earlier than I certainly was. This was Ryan Seacrest University. Put him in any job when he was nine or ten; he could have done a better job than I’m doing now. But for me, it was like holy cow! So I go back to school now to my radio and TV studies, and all of a sudden it’s, 'Hey, there’s Duck Lips. We’ve seen him on TV!' And oh, my God, what a progression that was for me!
Alec Baldwin: Now, that was what year?
David Letterman: I think I started there in 1968 and I stayed there—
Alec Baldwin: So the war is going on.
David Letterman: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And you avoid draft and you avoid ______.
David Letterman: In those days, you got the student deferment, and Ball State was principally a teachers college in those days, and so –
Alec Baldwin: They wanted teachers.
David Letterman: -- it was chock full of guys who wanted that student deferment and also the teaching deferment. I was not studying teaching, so the minute I graduated, I was reclassified 1-A. Went for my pre-draft physical in April, and they said, 'Okay, we’ll call you.' In the meantime, before I was called, Nixon announced the National Lottery. They were gonna end the draft. They were trying to step down the Vietnamese war. My birthday was 342 or something like that out of 356. So that meant even though I was 1-A and had my pre-induction physical and was ready to go, it was over for me. At the time I didn’t know how lucky I was. I felt guilty because I had friends who had gone, and I had friends who had been in the Marine Corps, and I just felt like, 'Why me? These guys went. Why shouldn’t I go?' Then it dawned on me pretty quickly I had been among the really, really lucky.
Alec Baldwin: What was the political landscape like at Ball State when you went there?
David Letterman: Well, it was just starting to – I used to make jokes that they’d have student protests, but it was to get the cafeteria cooks to wear hair nets. But it was creeping in. It was not a hotbed – it was not Madison, Wisconsin – it was Muncie, Indiana. But it was starting, and there were sit-ins and demonstrations, and Bobby Kennedy had spoken on campus. So it was starting. But I wouldn’t say it was – it wasn’t quite lit up the way it might have been in other regions.
Alec Baldwin: You mentioned booth announcers, and I remember I did a YouTube search. I wanted to find this guy that was literally the voice of my childhood. WOR, and he’d come on and say, 'Next on Million Dollar Movie, Barbara Stanwyk tells Gary Cooper where he can go in Ball of Fire!' And he just had this voice that just haunted me.
David Letterman: Well, that’s interesting. You mentioned that guy. I had the little kid voice from Indiana; I wasn’t that guy. But I still had to do the job. I can’t impress upon you enough how tedious it is to sit there for eight hours, watching programming and logging everything that happens. If you lose audio, you have to log that; if you lose video, you have to log that; you have to log sign-on/sign-off, every commercial, every station break. At first I was scared silly, but then like everything else, you get accustomed to it and you become blasé, and so I would just start wandering the building. It was so embarrassing. They would, 'Will the booth announcer please report to the announce booth.' And 'Oh, my God, I’ve missed the so-and-so.' The main announcer was a guy named Rob Stone. Tremendous voice and a hopeless alcoholic, I mean a real alcoholic.
Alec Baldwin: They go hand-in-hand, don’t they?
David Letterman: Yeah, kind of. Certainly in those days it was not uncommon. He would come in and he would bring a pint with him. So in the spirit of this, we who were working the sign-off shift, we would always send somebody out for beer, and we would be at the station late at night signing off – myself and the director and whomever else was there – we’d be drinking beer. Oh, my, was this fun! In those days you would do a five-minute news summary before sign-off – Nightcap News – and then you would do the broadcast statement. You’d read that over the slide of the station, and then they would go to the National Anthem with the waving flag.
One night, a guy in the props department said, 'I can reconstruct exactly the station as pictured on the slide. We can make it blow up. So as you’re reading the "Thank you and goodnight and why not tune in WLW overnight and blah, blah, this, and so until tomorrow, goodnight and good luck," we’ll have the thing blow up.'
Alec Baldwin: Kaboom, yeah.
David Letterman: And so we did. Oh, God, we were proud of ourselves! We really felt we had done something. Jeez, nobody ever said anything.
Alec Baldwin: No?
David Letterman: It was bizarre. Nobody got fired; nobody asked a question about it. It was this cult of four or five guys who had pulled this off, and we just thought well this is – one, it was fun; but two, you want to – but no, nobody said anything.
Alec Baldwin: But what’s interesting is from school and then doing the job and so forth in the booth thing, the comedy gland is secreting through the entire time.
David Letterman: Yes. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: What are you doing that, meaning other than blowing up the studio in the sign-off? Are you writing?
David Letterman: Yes, I was looking for any outlet, and it came for me doing the weather. I knew nothing about weather. You’d go downstairs and they’d have the AP machine, and the map would come over, the national map. You would go to the big magnetic board in the studio and you’d put the low system, and you’d put the high system, and you’d put the occluded front, and you’d put the rain showers. So it told you everything. Any time at all that I could monkey with that, I was very happy. I can remember two episodes: one I had forecast sunny and dry, and we’d go off the air and blah, blah. I go outside, there’s this horrible thunder shower. The rain is coming down in sheets, and I was just 20 feet away, just oblivious of this dangerous –
Alec Baldwin: Monsoon.
David Letterman: Yes, coming through one of these violent, Midwestern summer thunderstorms coming through, attacking the station. I got to be well-known because the Sunday night show was on after the ABC Sunday Night Movie. In those days, that was big programming.
Alec Baldwin: Big show.
David Letterman: We got a bunch of complaints, and this was when people were wearing bell-bottom pants. I don’t think you could buy regular pants. Got a lot of calls about, “He’s either not wearing underpants, or he needs to wear underpants.” That’s how I distinguished myself.
Alec Baldwin: Do you want to clear that up now? Were you wearing underpants?
David Letterman: Oh, of course I was wearing underpants; it was Indianapolis! We’re not taught to go out without our underwear.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, good God, we’re Americans!
David Letterman: Whatever problem was perceived was not mine, I assure you.
Alec Baldwin: Right. Then where do you go from there?
David Letterman: In terms of underpants?
Alec Baldwin: Well, if you wish.
David Letterman: I got tired of sitting in the booth and tired of working weekends, and also they didn’t want me there. They would keep bringing in auditions for my job. That really hurt my feelings, but I couldn’t argue with them because I didn’t know what I was doing. But the cumulative effect of being on TV a lot there, we got this memo once from the research department, and of all of the people – the anchor team and whomever else – I had the highest Q rating of anybody there, and it was only by accident, really.
So I started looking for a job, couldn’t get hired out of the market. Some people I knew were coming in to start a talk radio station, so I went to work at the new talk radio station.
Alec Baldwin: What was the format?
David Letterman: It was news/talk/sports, WNTS. When I resigned to quit, give my notice to the general manager, the guy said – and it chilled me at the time – he said, 'Really? You’re leaving this TV station to go work for a brand new radio station?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'You will never be heard of again.'
So I went to the station, worked there for a year, realized that I had to make a move. Nobody would listen; it was a daytime station. This was tremendous. They had a daytime license, which meant the radio station came on when the sun came up and went off when the sun went down.
Alec Baldwin: Literally?
David Letterman: Yeah. In winter we were off at 3:45 in the afternoon! I had the midday shift, and I’d come in at noon, and two hours later I’d be going home. It was great.
Alec Baldwin: Enjoy your afternoon. We’re signing off.
David Letterman: And then in the summer, conversely, you were on ‘til like 9:30 or 10:00. It was awful. It was Watergate, and people assumed, 'Well, the guy’s got a talk show on the radio; I bet he knows everything there is to know about Watergate,' and I knew nothing. People wouldn’t call in, and I’d have to read endless pages of wire copy. I remember reading a story about Gordon Strachan. His name kept coming up. 'Special Counsel so-and-so Gordon Strachan, advisor to the White House, Gordon Strachan.' Finally the phone light up, and I’m, 'Thank God!' I say, 'Yes.' He says, 'It’s not /Strah-chen/. It’s /Strahn./ You’re mispronouncing the guy’s name.' I said, 'Okay, thanks. Do you have a question?' 'No.' Click, buzz, so there you go.
Alec Baldwin: Were you ambitious during this time? Did you have an ambition?
David Letterman: Yeah, I wanted to – I really thought I could write half-hour situation comedies. I thought I could do it.
Alec Baldwin: What did you watch?
David Letterman: Well, in my childhood it was completely different. It would have been stuff like Saturday morning nonsense. Then as I grew older, you’d get Mayberry – "The Andy Griffith Show," "Ozzie and Harriett" [Nelson], the Nelsons and that kinds of. Then later on, in those days, it was all "The Mary Tyler Moore" things, "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." And I really thought, “Oh, I can write one of those "Mary Tyler Moore" shows. It turned out I couldn’t.
As you know, there’s a template for writing those things. They use the template because it’s successful, and if you don’t know the template and you think you can make a better version of it, it’s a very foreign object to them. To you, you think, 'Look, I’ve improved on the template,' but they don’t want that. They want something that works.
Alec Baldwin: They’re like Detroit.
David Letterman: Yes, that’s right. I mean we’re talking about "Mary Tyler Moore;" that’s pretty good stuff.
Alec Baldwin: Sure, smart. And you were in L.A. at that time?
David Letterman: No, I was still in Indianapolis, and I would be sending scripts and looking for an agent. Finally a guy said, 'Yeah, if you come to Los Angeles,' he said, 'I’ll be your agent.' So with that encouragement I just left. I don’t know about you, but your friends say, 'Okay, here, you can meet with so-and-so, and you can meet Mel Blanc’s son. You can meet with him, and I know this one and I know that one.' So you go out there with high hopes.
I guess it was like the pioneers in the Conestoga wagon, and they run out of beans there in Salt Lake and they got nothing to eat. So within the first week you run through all of your appointments, and then you got nothing.
Alec Baldwin: Then you’re Shanghaied.
David Letterman: That’s right.
Alec Baldwin: You’re just on the shoals there in L.A.
David Letterman: [Laughs] That’s right.
Alec Baldwin: I remember when I went to L.A., I did a soap opera at 30 Rock. The show was about to go off the air, and I’ll never forget this guy that was the producer. They were in the hallway and they asked me to extend my contract for a few months. And he says that line to me. He says, 'What do you think you’re gonna do, go out to Hollywood? Because a star in the movies?' I’m walking down the hall and he’s going, 'You listen to me! Come back here, you! You don’t walk away from me!' And I walk away from the guy and I go to L.A.
David Letterman: Now, were you ever haunted by that?
Alec Baldwin: [Laughs]
David Letterman: Honestly, because in my case I thought the guy was –
Alec Baldwin: Every—
David Letterman: -- I said, 'Oh, yeah, I haven’t considered that.'
Alec Baldwin: Well of course you do. Who did you ever think you were gonna be – I don’t want to get, you know, crass about it, but you live a very, very good life. You’ve been an enormously successful man. Did you ever dream you would be as successful as you are?
David Letterman: No. No.
Alec Baldwin: Never.
David Letterman: No. And I’ll tell you, the same for you, the same for most people in show business, you’re just lucky enough to get to do exactly what you want to do all your life. So that’s the success.
Alec Baldwin: You know, I always thought there was some commission that was gonna come to my door of my apartment – I was living in West Hollywood – and they would knock on the door and go, 'We’re the Motion Picture Acting Commission, and we’ve got the reports here, Mr. Baldwin. We’re gonna take you to the airport right away and send you back to New York. You’re not gonna get in the business.'
David Letterman: I know the origin of this is your personal fear, but I think that commission is not a bad idea and long overdue. Honest to God. Can we get that up and on its feet?
Alec Baldwin: Can we get a bill passed?
David Letterman: I remember there was a guy, a writer for the old "Tonight Show," somebody Cohen. His listing in the White Pages was – say it’s Marty Cohen; it’s not Marty Cohen – 'Marty Cohen, President of Show Business.' I thought, 'Oh, that’s lovely.'
Alec Baldwin: So when you – were you doing standup ever in Indiana?
David Letterman: No, never did. In fact, one of the things that I didn’t like doing was when I was at the radio station, part of the deal was, 'We just sold a thing to Kroger grocery stores, but part of the deal is we want you to go out there an emcee the so-and-so.' I hated it, and I finally told the guy. I said, 'I can’t do this.' So one of my big, built-in fears was getting up in front of people that I didn’t know and trying to hold their attention, let alone be funny.
But for me, the roadmap to pursue was handed to you via Johnny Carson and "The Tonight Show." They would have comics on – it would be David Brenner – and they would say, 'Oh, and they’ll be appearing at The Comedy Store.' That seemed to be that the connection between The Comedy Store and "The Tonight Show" was pretty close. So even though I –
Alec Baldwin: He mined that facility, that particular facility.
David Letterman: Yeah. It was the farm system for The Comedy Store. And great guys were coming out and getting on, and Steve Landesberg, and on and on. I say, 'On and on,' because I can’t remember the names, so I just –
Alec Baldwin: It works.
David Letterman: Yeah. Even though I wanted to be a writer because I didn’t have the courage to tell my family and friends that what I really want to do is somehow get famous and be on TV, when I went out there, the first Monday I was in California when I moved in 1975, I wrote down some stuff and went to The Comedy Store and got onstage.
Alec Baldwin: How’d it go?
David Letterman: It was awful. I’d never been in a darkened room with a spotlight, and it was just like a train coming at me. So I did my little five minutes from rote, left, and then the owner of the place, 'Oh, you should come back and do some more!' I thought, 'Are you kidding me?' and she’s, 'No! You can emcee!' So I came back and I was the emcee.
Alec Baldwin: 'You’re fantastic —'
David Letterman: Yeah. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: 'Derek. Great!'
David Letterman: That was 1975. 1978, three years later I was on "The Tonight Show." That worked so much better than it should have. I think it must be harder now to get –
Alec Baldwin: And was it three years of just working that room and working the mike and working standup?
David Letterman: Yeah, but I mean it was fun because every night you go there, and you were hanging around guys – Jay Leno, and Robin Williams, and George Miller, and Tom Dreesen, and Jeff Altman. Anybody now who you’re aware of, you would see every night, and it was great fun. My God, it was great fun! It didn’t make any difference what you did during the day; you knew that when it got dark, you’d be on Sunset Boulevard, the place would be packed. And in those days, the only room she had was this tiny, little, original room. And it was next door to Art LaBelle’s. He would have a '50s dance party in the next room on the weekends, and you would get a lot of gang guys going to Art LaBelle’s '50s –
Alec Baldwin: Mob guys?
David Letterman: Mm, no.
Alec Baldwin: What was “gang” then? Biker gang?
David Letterman: Barrio.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, okay.
David Letterman: Is that all right?
Alec Baldwin: Low riders.
David Letterman: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Okay.
David Letterman: And one night, a friend of mine, Johnny Dark, is onstage and a guy comes up; and he’s got a gun, and he’s standing next to Johnny while Johnny’s doing his little singing impressions of whomever. And he had to quietly talk his way out of the guy using the gun. It was exciting. Richard Pryor would come in, and Freddie Prinze would come in. So you say yeah, night after night, but still and all, how could that not be fun?
Alec Baldwin: So did Carson find you there?
David Letterman: Well, he had a guy. They had a team of guys when I was there that would come in, and in the meantime I got on this "Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Alec Baldwin: To write.
David Letterman: To write and perform. It was me and Michael Keaton, Jim Hampton, and Dick Shawn, and Swoosie Kurtz, and Julie Conn – or –
Alec Baldwin: Judy Conn?
David Letterman: Judy Conn. Thank you very much. So from that show, they said, 'Oh, well, we’ll put you on because you’re on that show. You can come out and do standup, and then you go sit down and talk to Johnny.' Without that, you never know what the formula is. You could be on nine times and never get to sit down with Johnny; you could be on for six years and never – or you could be bumped 40 times and never – but because of this, 'Oh, and he’s appearing on the so-and-so show' – the Mary Tyler Moore show – I got to sit down with Johnny. Again, that was craziness. That was another one of those –
Alec Baldwin: How did you feel?
David Letterman: Well, you know what it is.
Alec Baldwin: ’Cause you idolized him.
David Letterman: Oh, yeah. It’s such a jolt. The material is so committed, you don’t have to think about anything. You just have to start talking, and it all comes out. The adrenaline takes days to burn out of you. Holy God, you’re sitting next to Johnny Carson! I mean you just can’t believe it. To me, and I think most guys my age who were out there doing that, one, the fact that it worked. You know, really. I drove in a pickup truck with my wife to L.A., and three years later I’m sitting next to Johnny Carson. That’s not supposed to happen. It’s just not supposed to happen. But it did.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think that Carson was someone who – do you think he saw himself in you? Do you think he saw the Midwestern gene in you?
David Letterman: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean it was so easy for other people to make that comparison, and that seemed to be the formula, but I don’t know if he felt that way or not. I can’t answer that [crosstalk].
Alec Baldwin: And then what happened after that?
David Letterman: Well, your life changed immediately. Suddenly you weren’t just a guy who was at The Comedy Store; you were the guy that had been on with Carson. Then I was on I think two or three more times, and then I started hosting the show, and again, that was another – you just feel like – it’s like winning the World Series your rookie season.
Alec Baldwin: What’s the gap of time between when you first sat down with him and when you started hosting?
David Letterman: The first time I was on was November of 1978, and I think I hosted it was Monday night opposite the Academy Awards. Good God!
Alec Baldwin: So it was the spring.
David Letterman: Yeah, in April. It would have been April – March, April.
Alec Baldwin: Right, right. Johnny had other things to do. He’s having a big Oscar party. Turn the lights out, kid.
David Letterman: It was just – I was just frozen. I can remember Peter Lassally coming up to me during the commercial break, and he said, 'You’ve got to loosen up. You’ve got to loosen up!' And I said, 'Thanks.'
Alec Baldwin: That helps, too. They get that in a manual.
David Letterman: 'Thanks for that tip.'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, Page 49.
David Letterman: I remember the first night I was on "The Tonight Show," and I’m telling you, for guys at The Comedy Store, this was it. This was like people lining up to squeeze through a funnel. This was it, "The Tonight Show." Fighting and competition and backstabbing and badmouthing to get to "The Tonight Show." It’s gonna make or break you. If you don’t do well, you’ll never be heard of again. There’s no such thing as a guy bombing his first time on "The Tonight Show" and then having a delightful career. That just doesn’t happen. You’re gone. So there’s a lot of pressure.
So I’m getting ready to go out there just behind the curtain, and my manager at the time – Buddy Morra, who was with Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe. The handled Robin Williams, and Woody Allen, and Dick Cavett, and some other guys. So that was a big deal for me to be with these people. And Buddy and I, nice enough guy, but we never saw eye-to-eye on much, and I think a lot of it was my immaturity about show business – or just ignorance, not immaturity. I had no time to be immature; I was just ignorant. So we’re standing there, and Johnny’s saying, 'Our next guest is a young blah, blah, blah, blah,' and Buddy says to me – and Buddy always whispered; everything was a whisper with Buddy. He says, 'Robin got Popeye.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' His final words to me as I’m going on "The Tonight Show" for the first time, telling me about a booking for one of his other clients. You know, and I just never got over that.
Alec Baldwin: Right. But you realize that – and I don’t know if this has been your experience – but you’re a lot mellower now than you were obviously.
David Letterman: Yes, absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: And you’d say that when you did the show, no matter how crazy or how wired you and the whole experience was of the early show, when you said running around and doing all the taping and all the other bits and so forth and contests and everything. But I mean just your own nature seems like there was a kind of an edge to it – not that you’ve lost, but you seem like you’ve really just become so much more – what’s the word? – charming.
David Letterman: Well, I don’t know about charming –
Alec Baldwin: As a rule.
David Letterman: -- but I know exactly what you’re talking about, and the fact that it’s noticeable by others is an indication that maybe I’m on the right track. Because to the exclusion of every other thing in my life, it was the success of this show. As a result, I waited to have a child 20 years too long. I just didn’t do anything else. It was the show. It had to be the show, and if it wasn’t the show, then find out a way to make it the show.
Alec Baldwin: Did you come from that world – like Lorne, for example, says to me – he lives a life where his credo is, 'Work is play.' We have just interesting jobs; you don’t stop working. Just work, work, work.
David Letterman: Well, that’s part of it, and that is one of the great residuals of you’re around all these funny people and you have silly ideas and you have silly conversations, and you laugh yourself sick. But for me, it was like 'Oh, my God, you know, if I fail at this, it’s all going away. If you fail at this, you gotta get at the end of the line, and the line keeps getting longer.' So to the exclusion of other important things, other aspects of life, I pursued the show. Then that changed, finally changed.
Alec Baldwin: Did you want it to change?
David Letterman: No, at the time I didn’t know there was another way to live your life. I thought you had to keep banging your head and banging your head and banging your head, and I kept saying to myself, 'This is what they say. It’s like pushing a rock uphill; it’s like pushing a rock uphill, and one day everything will change. Everything will be great. You’ll succeed and everything will' – well, it never quite worked that way for me. I think – well, not too difficult to assume – this is one of the reasons I had the quintuple bypass surgery. Then my doctor, he said, 'You know, you don’t have to be this way.'
Alec Baldwin: Flogging yourself.
David Letterman: Yeah. He said, 'You can' –
Alec Baldwin: Delegate.
David Letterman: Yeah. Or you can – he says, 'There are – they’ve made pharmaceutical advancements here. You can help yourself.' I said, 'No, no, no, no, I can’t because that would ruin this and that would ruin that.' And then Regina got – we were able to get pregnant. I went into this stark-raving, anxious depression.
Alec Baldwin: When she got pregnant?
David Letterman: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
David Letterman: Well, I was fine with it. I thought, 'If not now, when?' She had wanted to have kids, like I said, 15, 20 years earlier. This is a very complicated, uninteresting story –
Alec Baldwin: No, that’s okay. We’ll –
David Letterman: -- and it has to do with having shingles, and being on exotic pain medication for the shingles, and getting fed up with the exotic pain medication, and saying to the pain doctor, 'I’m done. I’m not taking it anymore.' He said, 'Well, you know a lot of those things, you can’t just' – I said, 'Forget it.' Click. And I stopped taking these things, and within a couple of days I had just turned into this twitching unicell –
Alec Baldwin: Altered States.
David Letterman: Yeah, it was very odd. The guy said, 'Well, you’re in an anxious depression.' And Loo says, 'You know, there are things we could do here to help you out.' I said, “I’ll try anything, because I can’t go on like this.' So it’s a small dose of an SSRI. Suddenly, I realize I can have myself, my personality, the person that I’ve known and then lose what was detracting, what was hurting, what was actually an impediment.
Alec Baldwin: Groom out the things that you wanted to groom out.
David Letterman: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: When I came to show business and I was in Los Angeles, and I was like Gomer Pyle. I swear to God. I came to work in these –
David Letterman: Really, I have trouble that you were Gomer. Really.
Alec Baldwin: No, I don’t mean in terms of lacking any sophistication, but I’ll never forget the first job I got. I go to an audition. I had done the soap in New York, and they paid you, you know, a very small amount of money, and I thought I was Rockefeller. They paid you $450 bucks a day, I was the richest member of my family. My dad was a school teacher with six kids; he didn’t make any money. I go out to L.A., and I’ll never forget. When I go to the old Lorimar, which is now Sony. And I go to the gate at Lorimar, I say Alec Baldwin, and he’s like, 'Here’s your map. You’re parking in Building 67, ninth floor, slot Red 12.' And they send me to like the Ukraine. I gotta go all the way – and I go, 'Now, where’s the office I’m going to for the meeting?' He goes, 'Right over there. You’re right next to me.'
So I go, I park the car, trod all the way down, do an audition for the show Knots Landing. I get done, I leave the thing – and no cell phones then; this is 1983 – and so I pull up to a phone booth. I call my agent; it’s late in the afternoon; they’re still in the office. He goes, 'How did it go?' I go, 'How did it go? I think it went pretty well.' 'Pretty well? You moron! They want to hire you.' And I go, 'You’re kidding me.' He goes, 'Yeah, of course. We’re making a deal right now; we’re closing the deal right now. You’re gonna get 25 for the pilot and 12-5 an episode.' I swear to God, coming from my background, I went, 'Golly! Y’all gon’ pay me $2,500.00 for the pilot and $1,250.00 per episode every week? And he’s like, 'No, you moron! They’re gonna pay you $25,000.00 for the pilot and $12,500.00 an episode.' And I literally urinated in my trousers. Now I’m standing in a phone booth on the corner of like Walker and Washington in Culver City, and the guy tells me this, and that’s when my life changed.
David Letterman: Yeah, for me, it was always you were competing against yourself. We didn’t go out and do a lot of reading. Sometimes I remember there was a – The Jackson 5 had a summer show, so they would say, 'We need comics,' and they’d call The Comedy Store, and if Mitzi like you, you’d get to go be on the Jackson 5’s show. It was never so much of one guy over another. Or there would be shows like The Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that they would routinely use comics. So there was plenty of work, and it wasn’t I think as in acting as you describe guys elbowing each other out and higher-ups wanting to step on their hands and hurt their feelings.
Alec Baldwin: But when you’ve done the show back from the NBC days and now through the many years at CBS, it’s a very hermetic situation, for you and nobody bothers you, and there’s never questions about your budget, and there’s never questions about – nobody calls you, you don’t have to deal with them. Or do you have to fight with the network about things like other shows do?
David Letterman: Well, it’s never a fight; it’s a negotiation. But we don’t have the fight. If we want to do something, we can pretty much do it. And, again, what we want to do now is far different in level and scope than we wanted to do when we were – ’cause when we came into this show, myself and Marilyn, the writers – we just thought, 'Oh, America has been waiting for us. We’re gonna change the face of television for America.' And boy, it didn’t happen that way. It just didn’t happen that way at all.
We did a sketch on the old "Late Night" show, and it was with one of the writers, Tom Gammill, and it was 'Dale, the Psychotic Page.' We had to set up nine holes of a miniature golf course. He would come in with a NBC page blazer, and he would play miniature golf. And with each failing attempt on the hole, he would become more and more psychotic. There’s your comedy, America! This is what you’ve been waiting for. Aren’t you glad we’re here?
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. They’re holding your breath. I love on your show – I haven’t done this in a while, I miss it when – ’cause everything – I guess they can’t do this staff all the time. Maybe this bit is a victim of global warming, but I get there one time and they want me to ride the snowmobile on the roof of the building years ago. They’re all very droll, and Biff always calls me 'Alex.' I love that. You’re on the roof and it’s snowing, and we’re on the roof of your building and it’s snowing, and Biff’s like, 'Okay, now Alex, you’re gonna ride the snowmobile around the roof a few times, and gonna be men on every corner to catch you to keep you from goin’ over the side. Is that all right? All right, Alex!' I’m like, 'Great. Let me go.' Danger, I love it. Elements.
David Letterman: Well, I was thinking about a year ago, I was looking around the Ed Sullivan Theater. What a tremendous stroke of luck that was! I used to love working in the studio, and I remember one day running into Lorne Michaels, and he said to me, 'How long did it take you to get used to doing a TV show in a theater?' And I knew exactly what he was saying because to him, TV comes out of a studio, and I always felt that way myself. But I’ve really grown fond of the theater at CBS, the Ed Sullivan Theater, for reasons like that and many more. It’s comfortable; it’s fun; it smells of decades and decades and decades of show business. There’s tunnels, and alleys, and rats, but it’s fantastic. I mean it’s just so versatile and so great. And also the way Hal set it up in the beginning, it’s fairly intimate. You can have a pretty reasonable conversation there in this 500-seat room, and so I think it works fine as a TV studio now.
Alec Baldwin: What’s a good show for you now? What defines a good show for you now?
David Letterman: I think the last time you were on – I say this, of course, to suck up.
Alec Baldwin: Good idea.
David Letterman: It was a very pleasant, easy give-and-take and exchange. I love it when a good, smart, funny guy just comes right back at me. In the beginning when, 'Oh, he’s so mean. Why is he mean to everybody?' I never thought I was being mean; I just thought I was goofing around. So when you were coming on and you were going after me, ah, that was delightful. I loved that.
Alec Baldwin: But those segment producers who you work with, it took me a while to be able to – I mean I would do the show with you a number of times – and the segment producers, they would say that to me. They would say, 'No, give it back to him. He loves that. Give it back to him.'
David Letterman: So many people, I think that runs against their nature. Other people are ill equipped to do that. But there are a few like yourself, and to me that’s – we had a guy on a couple of weeks ago, Sean Hayes, and I hadn’t seen him in years. He had been across the street doing – here we go – "Hi, Ho, Promises" or whatever that show was –
Alec Baldwin: "Promises, Promises."
David Letterman: Yeah. And the kid comes out, and God, he was funny. I mean just from the jump he was funny, and I just thought, 'This is fantastic. This is just great.' If you can’t be entertained by your own show, you got the wrong part of the channel, so that was good.
Alec Baldwin: You live a pretty under-the-radar lifestyle. Do you do that by choice? You live a very quiet private life.
David Letterman: Well, yeah. First of all, I don’t get invited many places. Secondly, I just, you do the show and all of that comes to you during the day. You have the same people at the gala, the same people at the opening, the same people at the benefit. Well, be there –
Alec Baldwin: Show with that expression of all that for us.
David Letterman: -- so I don’t feel the need to go seek that. And secondly, like so many people, I’m uncomfortable with large groups of strangers. I mean, I think people are.
Alec Baldwin: What is your downtime like now? What do you like to do?
David Letterman: Well, sleep is a precious commodity. There’s virtually no sleep between my eight-year-old son and my two-year-old dog and my wife. My wife, honest to God, has not slept eight hours in eight years. She’ll go to bed at midnight, get up at six, so that’s six hours. You can do that once or twice, like when you’re 18 and you’re in the Marines.
Alec Baldwin: I’m dying from insomnia. I have terminal insomnia.
David Letterman: Yeah, that’s it. Now, explain to me, when you were in the audience back at 6A, and you raised your hand and had a question, what was that and how did that happen?
Alec Baldwin: When you did the NBC show?
David Letterman: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: There was a woman, and she was a writer, and she was an associate producer on our show. She was friends with Ackroyd and Belushi and all that original "Saturday Night Live" crowd. This woman’s name was Shirley something, and she was – she’s gonna reach out to us now when she hears this podcast. We have to broadcast this section of it so we can get a hold of her. She was the one that came to me, and through some connection said, 'They want you to come on Letterman and do that thing and ask the question.'
David Letterman: But do you remember what the bit was?
Alec Baldwin: I have no idea.
David Letterman: But you were objecting to something. Something had rubbed you the wrong way.
Alec Baldwin: Yes. I was there to register a complaint.
David Letterman: Yes, that’s right. [Laughs]
Alec Baldwin: I was gonna complain about you and your taste.
David Letterman: That’s exactly right. Yeah, that was tremendous. That was just great.
Alec Baldwin: So when you’re not fighting insomnia, what is it? Do you travel?
David Letterman: Oh, travel. You do things when you have an eight year-old – as you know, when you have a child you do things you never thought you would do, and it’s fun. We went to Alaska a few weeks ago because it was my birthday, and I was talking to my son, and I said, 'Well, you know we’re thinking about maybe going up to Alaska. This guy tells me there’s a place to ski up there.' He said, 'Oh, let’s go to Alaska!' and so I said, 'Well, we’re still thinking about it, and still thinking about it,' and then I hear from Regina that Harry’s gone to school and told everybody that, 'Daddy and me and mom are going to Alaska!' And I thought holy crap, we’re going to Alaska.
Alec Baldwin: See, that’s how he gets you.
David Letterman: So a lot of that stuff is kid driven, and, you know, I’m all for –
Alec Baldwin: No tennis, no golf.
David Letterman: No, no tennis, no golf.
Alec Baldwin: No movies.
David Letterman: I see plenty of movies. We see all the movies.
Alec Baldwin: At home.
David Letterman: No, not at home so much. It’s all with the kid.
Alec Baldwin: Do you find that your son – ’cause this is very common – he pulls you into the world, into his world, and you have to show up at things and show up at places, and everybody treats you very respectfully.
David Letterman: Yep, yep.
Alec Baldwin: They don’t bother you. You’re there as a dad.
David Letterman: Yeah, people – yeah, the last time anything untoward happened was a Christmas party. My wife is friends with a very famous couple, and I have great admiration for the couple. They’re family. I think more people should be like these people. And as a result, I’m afraid to be around them because I’m Duck Lips.
Alec Baldwin: They make you look bad.
David Letterman: Yeah. Oh, I make myself look bad. Went to a Christmas party, and it was so packed that you couldn’t move. It was all vertical; nothing happened horizontally. And as people kind of from their positions about the apartment spotted me, it was as though there was methane gas leaking in the apartment. It was, 'Oh, no!' And 'It’s the holidays and why is he here?'
Alec Baldwin: No!
David Letterman: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, come on.
David Letterman: True story.
Alec Baldwin: People love you.
David Letterman: People don’t love me.
Alec Baldwin: People love you.
David Letterman: People love you.
Alec Baldwin: No, no. But the thing is that you get a lot of that quotient on the job. And then when the job’s over, you want to go home, be with your family.
David Letterman: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right. Especially now, with the eight year-old, because – and I feel stupid talking about it because I’m like the 40 billionth person to have a child – so I have no insights.
Alec Baldwin: He might claim he has no insights but if David Letterman ever writes a book on parenting, it’s guaranteed to be a best seller.
David Letterman: Are we done? I don’t want to be done. Where would a person hear this if a person wanted to hear this?
Alec Baldwin: This might be a good time to tell you that you can hear other conversations at heresthething.org. This is Alec Baldwin. Here’s the Thing is produced by WNYC Radio.