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Dave, We Hardly Knew Ye

Joe DeLillo speaks with some of David Letterman's former writers about his legacy.

My friend Tracy Abbott (herself, a former writer for Dave and also for Jay) sent me this article and asked what I thought of it. I was a huge fan of Dave on NBC, a lesser fan of his early CBS shows…and I've rarely watched him the last ten years or so. I thought he was great for a long time but I also think people tend to praise him for inventing a lot of things that others did before him…and also things for which his writers, including the ones interviewed for this article, deserve serious credit.

One reason Dave's early shows seemed so revolutionary is the unavailability of the talk show that Steve Allen did for the Westinghouse company from 1962 to 1964. If ever a program turned that format on its head, it was that one. Not only did you never know what was going to happen on it, it was obvious that Steve rarely knew. I have a strong belief that whenever someone next "reinvents" the talk show, they'll be doing something very much like what Mr. Allen did fifty years ago, especially the last months of that series.

Speaking of the uniqueness of Letterman in the article, Gerry Mulligan asks, "Who knew the name of Jack Paar's stage manager? Also, the whole idea of letting the home audience see the internal workings of the show – taking the camera into the green room, the control room, even the show's offices." That wasn't the modus operandi of Mr. Paar but Steverino did all that, including making his stage manager a character on the show.

The stage manager was named Johnny Wilson. If the producers thought an interview was getting dull, they sometimes sent Wilson out to hit Steve Allen with a pie that Steve didn't know was coming. No one on Letterman's staff would dare do anything Dave didn't know was coming. (This, by the way, is all my opinion. I didn't discuss this with Tracy.)

On one episode — and this was planned — Wilson hit Steve with a shaving cream pie. Then Steve pied him back. Then Wilson fled into the audience where every person had been supplied with a plastic raincoat and a couple of pies to throw at the stage manager and at each other. It was quite an amazing moment in television history.

I have heard that all or most episodes of this series still exist and that the Steve Allen estate is sitting on them, waiting for the right moment to market them. If this is so, I wish that right moment would come soon. You'd see an awful lot of things that Carson, Leno, Letterman and others later did…and an awful lot of things they would never in a billion years do, mostly involving putting the star on the spot to do something slightly dangerous. Or, scarier, to ad-lib.

Here's a 16 minute segment from that series featuring a then-unknown musician named Frank Zappa. The show had a much more leisurely pace than might feel right today but note how Steve was utterly unprepared for the spot. As was done often, the show's announcer, Johnny Jacobs, brought on the guest and introduced him, not only to the audience but to the host. Steve Allen apparently knew little about it before: No pre-interview, no questions or jokes on cards, etc. Today, that would all be planned out and even rehearsed…