Two minutes to air. David Letterman wanders out on stage to warm up the audience. We need it. The temperature inside Stage 36 at CBS Television City has been set at 58 degrees. Johnny Carson apparently started that tradition——the colder the audience, the more responsive the audience goes the perverse thinking.
But the reaction from this mostly white, thirtysomething, hip-looking audience is far from chilly. The popular late-night talk show host, arguably the most famous thing to come out of Indiana, receives the first of two standing ovations.
Letterman tries to get the audience settled down as he grabs a microphone.
“How much time?” he barks.
“A minute-thirty,” shouts floor director and sometime comedy sidekick Biff Henderson.
Letterman scans the audience, thanking everyone profusely for showing up. He seems relaxed and in good spirits.
“Anyone here from my home state of Indiana?”
A woman raises her hand. Letterman asks her to stand.
“Where you from?”
“Tipton!” the woman yells.
“Ah, that’s near Ball State, where I went to school.”
The woman responds that she knows all about Letterman’s alma mater.
The talk show host smiles. “I’ll be sure to speak real slow for you.”
Zing. The audience roars. The woman laughs. She receives a canned ham as a prize as Letterman dashes offstage with a quick wave.
The stage has been set. Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, with Slash from Guns N’ Roses sitting in, file in quickly, taking their places, kicking into the opening theme song promptly at 5:30 p.m. The applause signs overhead being to flicker.
Why bother? The audience, numbering about 400 people, has been waiting outside for hours, the lucky few to score tickets for one of five L.A. tapings of “Late Show with David Letterman.” Wild, enthusiastic applause begins with the music. Another standing ovation follows for the man recently crowned “The New King of Late Night.”
And another show begins. Just like the hundreds of previous shows that loyal Letterman fans have seen over the years. The formula is familiar, comforting like an old comedy friend. Letterman does not disappoint. The audience may be freezing, but he’s hot as he launches into his monologue.
“Senator Ted Kennedy has a new health care proposal. I don’t know all the details, but I understand it has a two drink minimum.”
Zing. On to a comedy video piece featuring the L.A. Dodgers. Then the Top Ten List–“You Ten Surfer Pet Peeves” (No. 1: Getting Mouth-to Mouth From David Hasselhoff).
Zing. On to actor Michael Keaton, who delights the audience by jumping fully clothed into the swimming pool that is part of the southern California motif on the set. More laughs. Followed by another video piece with Letterman scouring L.A. for celebrities (They turn out to be celebrities lookalikes except for Florence Henderson who keeps popping up).
Angela Lansbury from “Murder, She Wrote” rounds out the show with a brief appearance. She does not go swimming in the pool.
Just like any other Letterman broadcast, fast-paced and emphasis on comedy. Zing-zing-zing. But there are actually two shows that the studio audience gets to see–the one being shown over the monitors and the one unfolding before our eyes.
For example, during each commercial, the routine remains the same. Letterman stands behind his desk. Removes his jacket. Puffs away on a cigar. He smokes the entire time. He’s joined during each break at the desk by his producer, Robert Morton, his head comedy writer, and his personal assistant. Are they conferring or just huddling together to keep warm?
When Letterman performs his monologue, he’s basically reading off large cue cards that are literally in his face. Everything the comedian says, right down to the “We’ll be right back,” is scripted out for him to read.
Once the taping begins, the studio audience becomes secondary, as the host focuses on the cameras and reaching the home viewers. Slash does a few guitar riffs with the band, but he doesn’t get a guest musical solo tonight.
It’s all over in a flash. As closing credits roll, Letterman dashes off with a quick “Thank you” to the audience. He races Angela Lansbury to the exit. Most of the production staff disappears faster than you can say Jay Leno. The ushers open the double doors and guide us out into the warmth of the LA sun.
A great experience? You bet.
It was cool.
San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (May 1994)