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. 

464September 18, 1995Jerry HallJonathan BrandisLisa Birnbach

And that I do not remember at all.

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