Since yesterday when David Letterman announced his not-exactly-imminent-retirement, I have been trying to find my segment on his show online. I found the date: September 19, 1984. It was the third season of “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC. I followed the newly-crowned Miss America and Bill Cosby.
Late Night With David Letterman Season 3 Episode 102
Show #0445 (840919)
Up until that day, I had never experienced such nerves in my life. I played Shroeder in a Peanuts-themed show in the 4th grade without my eyeglasses, and I was a wreck beforehand fearing the worst: falling off the edge of a stage I couldn’t see. I know I had major jitters when I had to take my Red Cross Junior Lifesaving Deep Water Test at sleep away camp, but Letterman trumped them all.
Earlier that morning, I had appeared on the Today Show, where I had been as cool as a cucumber. Afterwards, Robert Morton, my Late Night producer showed up to review my answers for later that night. We were discussing my college guide book, Lisa Birnbach’s College Book,
and since I had written every word and knew my material well, I wasn’t taking notes. ”Morty” handed me a pen and instructed me to write down my “lines.” Why, I asked. ”This isn’t an interview show; it’s a comedy show.”
Thus begat a day of agony. One hour before I was due to report back to 30 Rock, I found myself practically sleep-walking into a bar on 7th Avenue, by myself. It was about 4 in the afternoon. I was 25. Everyone else was a middle-aged or older doorman or elevator man, having arrived after his shift ended.
Who Was I? What in the world was I doing?
I ordered a shot of whiskey, which I downed standing up, and somnolently drifted out, walking the remaining blocks to Rockefeller Center. Once at NBC’s check-in, I misspelled my own name.
I am not exaggerating for comic effect, I misspelled my own name.
What you should know was that in those days, (Late Night season 3), David Letterman was a tough host — unlike most others, he was not interested in getting to know his guests beforehand or on air, not interested in making them look good — in fact, far from it. Our stumbles were tv pay dirt for the program. ”Wake the children, call the neighbors…” was a typical ironic preamble for those of us guests who weren’t famous.
And yet, I loved this show. I had become a committed fan to it over the preceding three years. I loved the back and forth between Letterman and Paul Shaffer. I thought the irony was modern and cool.
By the time I hit the greenroom I was thoroughly terrified. The scotch hadn’t helped. And not only was I surrounded by Cosby and Miss America and their entourages, but for the first time I had an entourage: my editor, my book agent, the publicity department of the publishing company (I believe I was their first writer who had been booked on the show), and a reporter from a national magazine whom I’d never met, who was… reporting a story about me.
I didn’t relax until the first time the audience laughed at something I said. And I heard my brother Jon’s laugh, which made me feel good. (He is not nor has he ever been a fake laugher.)
Jonathan B. in 1980:
The whole 5 or 6 or 7 minutes went by in a heedless flash, except somehow I remembered “my lines.” I acquitted myself. I didn’t embarrass myself. It was okay.
And of course…. I had a tape of my segment that I watched and rewatched. (It’s on an antique format — like a kinescope. I should have it transferred to a digital file one day.)
But if I were such a good guest, why was it another 11 years (Plus 1 day) and a new host until I was booked again?
I was back on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” during his season 3.
And that I do not remember at all.