The 'Ghoul'-ish Cleveland underpinnings of 'Late Night with David Letterman'
It wasn’t the “Today” show, and it wasn’t the “Tonight” show. When it debuted 40 years ago, "Late Night with David Letterman" brought a new, surreal, sometimes sarcastic voice to television. And although the host was from Indianapolis, there was a distinct Cleveland influence behind the scenes.
When Larry “Bud” Melman welcomed viewers late on the evening of Feb. 1, 1982 — technically, half past midnight Feb. 2 — it kicked off a 33-year-run of what Letterman himself sometimes called, “Dave’s TV funhouse.” Watching that night was a young man who worked in the NBC tape library but would soon begin writing for “Late Night.”
“It was the greatest job in my life. I still have dreams about it at least once a week and now I'm a pekid, old pensioner.”
Within a year, Steve O’Donnell would be promoted to head writer for most of the show's run. When the program was recognized with a Peabody Award in 1992, O’Donnell was singled out by name for shepherding nearly a decade of groundbreaking television. And it all started when he was growing up on West 95th Street in Cleveland.
“I felt that Northeast Ohio had an impact on my thinking—and even a little bit on Letterman’s thinking, in a way—because when I got there, the thing that was always in the back of my head was a show that had really impressed me and filled me with excitement when I was a child.”
'Am I looking at this?'
He’s talking about “Ghoulardi,” the horror host who drew monster ratings with sketches and monster movies in the mid-1960s in Cleveland.
“Young people now in Northeast Ohio will go, ‘Oh yeah, I've heard them talk about Ghoulardi, this late night show with Ernie Anderson.’ And the various shows that followed it, like 'Hoolihan and Big Chuck' [and 'Big Chuck and Lil' John'].
“They seem crude now when you look at them, but they were messing around with a late night format and they were irreverent and they made, admittedly, blatantly clumsy and careless little pre-tapes; we just thought it was the greatest thing in the world that Ghoulardi would insert himself into the movies and he would have all these catchphrases. He would blow up a model car with a firecracker in front of the TV camera and we’d say, ‘Is that allowed?’ And I knew that Letterman and the original head writer on the show, Merrill Markoe, wanted to do things like that. They wanted people to go, ‘Is that on television? Am I looking at that right now?’”
Ernie Anderson, who portrayed Ghoulardi from 1963-66, is today best known as Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s father. But in the 1970s and ‘80s, millions of people heard him as the voice of the ABC network. When he appeared on “Late Night” in 1983, the staff prepared a series of satirical promos.
Another Northeast Ohio guest who O’Donnell pushed for was writer Harvey Pekar. His sometimes contentious appearances on the show are exemplified by this 1987 exchange with Letterman.
Letterman: “You come [here] because you like me?”
Pekar: “I don’t even know you, man!”
O’Donnell recalls, "I just went like, 'You're not—that's not what you're supposed to say on television.' And for that reason, I just thought, 'This is where I belong.' And of course, it added a little kick for me that these were Clevelanders and Northeast Ohio people."
Some of those Northeast Ohio people were showbiz legends with whom Dave seemed to have a special rapport, such as Paul Newman, Bob Hope, and Jack Paar:
Letterman: “I was lucky enough to see part of the special which airs Saturday night, and one of the things that struck me, in addition to the guest list—“
Paar: “Richard Burton was marvelous-“
Letterman: “Can I ask a question?”
Paar: “How many questions do you intend to ask tonight? You’re getting near your quota.”
Letterman: “I’m licensed to ask four.”
CBS inspires NBC
The guests could provide just as much comedy as the scripted desk pieces on “Late Night.” One enduring segment began in 1985 and led to a series of four books, all edited by O’Donnell. But he’s quick to share credit for the origins of the Top Ten List.
“I think there was a lot of simultaneous inspiration. My metaphor: if a bunch of people are stranded on a desert island and a crate full of food washes up on shore, whose idea is it to eat the food? And we were so desperate to have any kind of running extra that you could do again and again and again.”
The very first Top Ten list was “Words Which Almost Rhyme with ‘Peas.’”
The genesis of the list began with a blurb about William S. Paley, then-head of CBS television.
“The Daily News or some local New York periodical had a list of the Top Ten Eligible Bachelors. And I was just going around showing it to everybody like, ‘Isn't this ridiculous?’ Because he's 89 years old or something. So, what I say now is that the credit goes to Jim Downey and to Kevin Curran and to Merrill Markoe and to Randy Cohen…”
Curran was also the driving force behind one of the show’s most surreal experiments, the “Summer Time Sunshine Happy Hour,” an entire episode of “Late Night” made up to look like a 1960s summer replacement series.
Other experimental episodes included one which was formatted as a daytime show. An experiment which never made it to air was fully animating an episode in Claymation, the brainchild of writer Matt Wickline, from Willowick. Growing up, he recalls being influenced by “Houlihan and Big Chuck,” and was star struck after presenting some of his early Super 8 films to the quietly charismatic, lantern-jawed Chuck Schodowski aka Big Chuck. A Devo fan, he nearly attended Kent State University for its experimental film program. He eventually settled on Ohio University and then interned at “Late Night.” In 1983, when several writers left at once, an opening was created and Wickline says, “I was caulk.” He was also on staff as the show won Emmys for writing, such as for “Christmas with the Lettermans.”
Wickline: “While I was there, my boss at the time said, ‘You're kind of funny. Why don't you write some jokes and put them on Dave’s desk, because he's always hungry for opening remarks.’ And so, like an idiot, I did what she said, not thinking that this could get you fired really fast. But I did it, and he liked them, so I kept doing that and then, about two months later, a bunch of the core writers were leaving to work on [“The New Show”] with Lorne Michaels. Suddenly there was this big hole to fill.
“One of the early pieces that I did, which was the first time where Dave said, ‘Wow, that's nice! Do more of those,’ was a response to viewer mail. The viewer was from Pennsylvania, and the letter itself was funny. He was putting Dave down and saying, ‘Dave, in the larger scheme of things on planet Earth, you're just minuscule; you don't matter.’ So I did this sort of parody of a Carl Sagan ‘Cosmos’ episode with the music and shots of the planets and stars. It was just a comparison of Dave and his celebrity and this kid in Pennsylvania and his crummy life, and putting that in another perspective.”
Bhatia: “Pennsylvania isn’t too far from Ohio . How did growing up in Willowick shape your sense of humor?”
Wickline: “When I was really young, the big hit in my house was Ghoulardi. My older brothers kept him alive doing his bits for years to come: ‘ova dey,’ and playing Frankie Yankovic’s ‘Who Stole the Kishka?’ And then in the later 60s, when I was growing up, we had ‘Hoolihan and Big Chuck.’ So I watched these guys who were doing funny sketches around the monster movies at night and just went to copying it myself.
“When I was 10 or 12, I'd borrow my Dad’s camera and go make my own little sketch parodies that were basically an attempt to do what Ghoulardi and Big Chuck did. In fact, I got to meet Big Chuck once and took him a couple of my movies and he was very encouraging and sweet. It was sort of a shot in the arm to me to think, ‘maybe I should keep doing this.’”
Bhatia: “Since we’re talking about filmmaking, I heard that at one time you were trying to find a way to animate an entire episode of ‘Late Night’ in Claymation?”
Wickline: “That was just a disaster [because] basically, it was difficult to do for the budget that we had. So rather than being able to afford professionals to do all the different things necessary to make it happen, we got some college kids who were talented. But everywhere in the chain there were little things that broke down, so it never quite materialized. In the imagination section of it, it was a blast because we had fun ideas that never came to fruition, such as Dave and Paul -- at the end of a work day -- getting in a little worm car with a sort of drill nose on it and driving home to beat the freeway traffic, by just drilling under the Earth. There were just odd, strange things you could only do in animation that were a part of it. It was just beyond the budget of NBC.”
Bhatia: “Didn’t Conan O’Brien eventually do that while he was hosting ‘Late Night’?”
Wickline: “Yes, he did [and] did it very well. So, I'm sure he stole it from me. In fact, I do remember at one point he was up in the office and he might have gone through my desk.”
Bhatia: “You've probably got an airtight lawsuit on your hands.”
Wickline: “He looks like he's got some dollars, so I'm coming for him! (laughs)”
Bhatia: “Tell me about some of the pieces which did make it on-air, such as the recurring pieces with Chris Elliott.”
Wickline: “Chris was just fantastic and so fun to work with. We did all the ‘guys’: The Panicky Guy, The Guy Under the Seats, The Fugitive Guy, The Regulator Guy. It was, ‘We've done nine weeks of that. What we need is another guy.’ So we’d just find some other thing, like Chris with a goofy accent, that’s The Regulator Guy.
“One of my favorite things that I did with Chris, which I think nobody would remember, was a talk show of his own called ‘Night Light.’ Basically, he had a smaller replica of Dave’s desk and guest chairs, 15 feet from where Dave’s desk and guest chairs were. Chris was just doing the exact same show and then Dave would just interrupt it and say, ‘How is this different than what I'm doing?’”
Bhatia: “Chris Elliott grew up in a showbiz family, and of course you and Steve O’Donnell didn’t. Was there some kinship among you, Steve, Dave, and even Jim Downey, since you’re all from the Midwest?”
Wickline: “There definitely was a shared sensibility there. I felt like I walked right into heaven in a way because I had been at college at Ohio University and his morning show [in 1980] was on. Every morning, in the main lobby TV room, it was just packed. Everybody was up and watching it. It was a revelation and so much of what became ‘Late Night.’ So, when I suddenly had the opportunity for the internship and then was on the show, it was a little bit like if you'd gotten that job with Big Chuck down at WJW, but it was Dave and it was New York.
“I imagine we were all watching the same kind of Midnight Monster movie schlock and the sense of craziness and absurdity that existed at that hour. It absolutely translated right to what we were doing at 12:30 at night. Dave was in this new time slot in the middle of the night, where you were just allowed to stay on and fail. You know, so there was that same feeling of experimentation going on that I'm sure Ernie Anderson and people like that felt, that you're in a time slot where nobody cares. You can try anything.”
Steve v. Scotty
That inevitably meant that jokes sometimes didn’t quite land with the audience, even back in Northeast Ohio. O’Donnell’s father was a welder who spent his days working by the Cuyahoga River and had a terrific sense of humor.
"I'd go home for Christmas and he would say, 'It's very funny, but that Paul Shaffer. He seems kind of like a phony baloney.' And I'd go, 'Yeah, it's sort of the joke, Dad. He doesn't really like all that showbiz stuff, but actually, yes, he does. It's hard to explain [that] he loves it, and he knows it's horrible and he loves it again.'"
Although O'Donnell's friends back home loved the show, especially when he snuck their names or common expressions into sketches, some complained it was on too late. And after the show of Aug. 5, 1982, O'Donnell recalls his Aunt Vera was quite angry. "Letterman actually had me come sit down and be a guest. And then he goes, 'Okay, Scotty, tell me about what you're doing here.' And she said, 'He couldn't even get your name right!' And I'm going, 'It's a joke!'"
On occasion, O’Donnell would appear with his twin brother, the late writer Mark O’Donnell. Mark wrote for "Saturday Night Live" at several points, but he's best known for his Tony Award-winning work writing the book for "Hairspray." The pair would occasionally appear on "Late Night" when a sketch called for identical twins.
Growing up, they attended Wilbur Wright Elementary and John Marshall High School in Cleveland before making their way to Harvard. Steve eventually spent several years at American Greetings, providing more fodder for Letterman.
“The last week I was at American Greetings, one of the executives took me in his office and shut the door. He says, ‘If you stay here instead of going to New York, I think you could be the next Bob Hammerquist.’ And I had no idea who that was, the greatest greeting card writer of the day. But I told that to Letterman about a year into our working relationship. He liked the word, the name ‘Hammerquist,’ [given] how verbal he is. So whenever something would go really wrong on the show, he would sometimes just look at me and go, ‘You're no Hammerquist.’ And I would have to agree I was not.”
(One of Hammerquist's credited humor pieces is in "The Greeting Card Writer's Handbook," published in 1968.)
O’Donnell was hired after submitting material to Merrill Markoe, the visionary behind much of the show’s comedy. He recalls receiving her phone message and racing from the NBC tape library upstairs to the “Late Night” offices on the 14th floor of 30 Rock.
“And she calls Letterman, ‘Oh, Don.’ He had a lot of little code names— Tiny, Mr. Henderson—and he came in with the glasses and the baseball hat, which I didn't quite recognize at the time. He said, ‘We like that submission. You got here awful fast.’ I said, ‘Yes, I work in the building, so I decided to eschew the return phone call.’ Letterman was like, ‘You hear that, Merrill? Eschew. We've got a writer here. We're going to get our money's worth.’”
Looking back 40 years later, writers like Wickline also got a great deal out of writing for “Late Night.”
“The sense of gratitude I have for a first job where Dave Letterman is the guy teaching you comedy. I mean, I don't think there's anybody better out there to learn comedy from. He just had the perfect gut and the perfect sensibility of what can get a laugh, but also what can be beautiful and absurd and needs to exist even if it doesn't get a laugh. He was just our North star for all of that. He was a writer as well as a stand up before doing the show, so he brought a writer’s sensibility to editing and making all the pieces better.
“They'd send me to the editing room, I remember I'd constantly be bringing up these pieces and think, ‘Oh, this is great. He's going to love this.’ He would sit and watch something and laugh and I'd think, ‘Yes, it's a home run! Fantastic.’ He would say, ‘That's long. I think you can find 20 seconds of air in that. Cut the weakest joke.’ So, I feel like he, with everything he did, although it looked very relaxed and loosey goosey on the show, he puts so much thought and so much effort into all of it. And so that's the guy we watched. And that's the guy we learned from and I'm so grateful for that.”
Today, Wickline lives on the west coast. So does O’Donnell, who still looks back fondly at his hometown and the Midwestern sense of humor which shaped one of the most revered television shows of all time.
“There's something to it. There's something about the Midwest and the sense of humor, I think because it wasn't quite professional. It wasn't like ‘joke-boom-payoff-boom-Friars Club-boom,’ which has its own delights and charms, of course. But it was just a little more strange, a little more glancing, a little more surreal.
“[Letterman] is someone you wish always to please your whole lifetime. I'm 67 years old now and I still feel like I'm 18 when I meet with him and talk with him, just because he remains an idol and someone that you don't want to disappoint. He certainly has been good to me.”