Tag Archives: Late Night

THE HEIR APPARENT

1 Feb

29 years ago tonight, on Monday, February 1, 1982 Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC

Late Night with David Letterman: The Book was edited by Merrill Markoe, then Dave’s longtime girlfriend. It was published by Villard Books in 1985.

David Letterman, a former weatherman from Indianapolis, had moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to try his hand at the big time. In just seven years he had succeeded in a major way. Of course, like most comedians of his era Letterman’s real goal was to host “The Tonight Show.” But “Late Night” seemed like a huge step toward eventually reaching that goal.

TV audiences might have remembered Dave’s last TV show, a morning show on NBC called “The David Letterman Show.” It was clear that NBC executives were impressed with his talent and wanted to find a spot to expose it. However, Dave’s sense of humor just didn’t seem to fit with daytime audiences and the show, though critically acclaimed lasted just 4 months.

The Letterman Wit by Bill Adler, who I interviewed about Letterman in 1994.

I personally had predicted greatness for Letterman years earlier. In November 1978 my family went to New Hampshire to celebrate my Grandmother’s 75th birthday during the week of Thanksgiving. While there I watched “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and saw a new standup comedian making his first appearance on the show… his name? David Letterman.

At the time, there was the usual speculation about who might replace Johnny Carson if he left “The Tonight Show.” All the entertainers mentioned as potential successors had their strong points and their drawbacks. When I saw David Letterman that night I saw several characteristics that made me think that someday he might be the one.

(Let me say that I am not ALWAYS a great judge of talent. In 1987, while scouting standup comedians for a video I was producing, I passed on Drew Carey.)

Late Night T-shirt given to me for my 30th birthday – a gift from Jim Murphy, now Senior Executive Producer of “Good Morning America.”

First, he was Midwestern. In the late 1970s network executives still liked white bread hosts from middle America – no one too ethnic. Letterman also looked good in a jacket and tie. Comedian David Brenner, who was considered a potential replacement for Carson, always wore an open collar, which was popularat the time.

The third and most basic requirement Letterman exuded was talent. The man killed in his first appearance. In fact, I still recall one of his bits from that night. He asked if anyone had seen last night’s episode of “The Waltons.” Letterman explained that in the episode, the family had saved up enough money to “get that thing removed from John-Boy’s cheek.”

The “Late Night with David Letterman” Book of Top Ten Lists was published by Pocket Books in 1990.

Succeeding Johnny Carson was years away, but the “king of late night” did take an obvious liking to the new kid and Letterman became a frequent guest on “Tonight.” He also became a frequent guest host. Once NBC signed him to a development deal they tried to find the right place for him. The morning timeslot hadn’t worked out, so they had an idea.

The Tomorrow Show” hosted by Tom Snyder had been following Carson’s show for eight years. Over the previous year NBC had tinkered with the show until it was an unrecognizable mess. The network decided to cancel “Tomorrow” and put David Letterman in that timeslot. What they actually did was to give Johnny Carson control of the one-hour following his “Tonight Show” and that’s why “Late Night with David Letterman” was produced by “Carson Productions.”

Johnny Carson with “his favorite,” David Letterman, on the cover of Rolling Stone’s “Comedy Issue” November 3, 1988.

Most readers of this blog know the rest. “Late Night” became a huge hit and Letterman became a huge star. And while he didn’t ascend to host “The Tonight Show,” we all know he was Carson’s choice for the job. And that, I think, is a nice consolation prize.

Late Night with David Letterman” broadcast more than 1800 new episodes and ran until June 25, 1993. That’s when Dave left NBC and brought his show to CBS to compete against new “Tonight” host Jay Leno.

Esquire Magazine, May 2000 – Cover Story: The Fall & Rise of Dave.

So “Late Night with David Letterman” lives on. Only now it’s called “Late Show with David Letterman.” Dave’s CBS show premiered on August 30, 1993 and continues today after more than 3500 episodes.

David Letterman is right when he says there will never be another Johnny Carson. But I think the closest we’ll ever come is the true heir apparent, David Letterman himself.

CRYSTAL MIRTH

30 Jan

29 years ago tonight, on Saturday, January 30, 1982 “The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour” premiered at 10:00pm on NBC.

Billy Crystal autographed photo sent to fans of “Soap” in the 1970s.

Although crystal is the traditional gift for a 15th wedding anniversary, this Crystal didn’t even make it to 15 weeks. “The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour” was canceled after just five broadcasts.

Like “Late Night with David Letterman,” which would premiere on NBC two nights later, “The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour” was Executive Produced by Jack Rollins, who managed both comedians at the time.

Unlike “Late Night with David Letterman” Crystal’s show would not last three decades.

The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour” was a traditional variety show with Crystal heading a group of comic performers and welcoming guest stars each week… but for just 5 weeks.

Of course, Billy Crystal has gone on to many great successes in the years since “The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour” was canceled. In addition to one breakout season on “Saturday Night Live” (1984-85), he starred in several classic films, several lousy films, and he became “Mr. Oscar” by hosting the Academy Awards eight times, more than any other host since Bob Hope.

Flier publicizing Billy Crystal’s appearance at N.Y.U. in April 1979 and autographed after the show. His friend Robin Williams was also in attendance.

Back in 1979, when I saw Billy Crystal perform at my college (his alma mater), my ticket cost me just $3.50. Some 25 years later, when I saw him perform some of the same material on Broadway, in “700 Sundays,” my ticket cost me an additional one- hundred dollars. As Crystal’s Buddy Young Jr. might have said, ‘I hope he gets a tumor in his eye.’

Autographed baseball sold in the lobby of the Broadhurst Theatre, where "700 Sundays" was performed.

Billy Crystal, who has been a successful stand-up comedian, impressionist, writer, actor, producer, director, host, philanthropist, and Yankees fan, premiered a short-lived variety show on this date in TV history. It may not have played out as he would have liked, but in a career full of triumphs and awards, it is just a blip.

A PRINZE FOR TONIGHT

19 Jan

35 years ago tonight, on Monday, January 19, 1976 Freddie Prinze guest hosted “The Tonight Show” for the first time. Just 2 years after first appearing on the show, Prinze was the star of NBC’s “Chico and the Man” and now, at age 21, sitting in for Johnny Carson.

Freddie Prinze with Johnny Carson on an earlier "Tonight Show" appearance, circa 1975.

After the monologue, Bob Hope made one of his patented walk-ons to congratulate Freddie on his first time hosting the show. But Freddie’s first actual guest was his dear friend Tony Orlando, who was plugging his guest spot on “Chico and the Man” which would air January 28th.

Publicity photo of Prinze in "Chico and the Man" that was sent to NBC stations.

The night’s second guest was actor Richard Dreyfuss, followed by singer Anne Murray who performed a song. Freddie’s fourth and final guest was Helen Gurley Brown, the publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Freddie Prinze as Chico, in a photo taken later in 1976.

All in all, it was a successful night, especially when you consider the talented actor and comedian’s youth. Freddie Prinze would guest host “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” twice more. He might have gotten a chance to host additional times, but one year later Freddie Prinze was dead. 

Autograph signed by Freddie Prinze on September 27, 1974, after a taping of "The $25,000 Pyramid"

More on that tragic story next week.

IT’S A LATE NIGHT DAY

9 Jan

16 years ago tonight, on Monday, January 9, 1995 “The Late Late Show” with host Tom Snyder premiered after David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS’s late night lineup.  It would make Snyder the first and only person ever to follow both Johnny Carson and David Letterman on the late night schedule.               

1970s bumper sticker for "Tomorrow" (Between Tonight and Today).

Tom Snyder previously hosted “Tomorrow” (aka “The Tomorrow Show”) on NBC from October 1973 until January 1982. It aired right after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Both “Tomorrow” and Snyder’s version of “The Late Late Show” were unlike today’s post-11:30 talk shows. They had no audience and no band.  They were talk shows, with the emphasis on TALK, although “Tomorrow” expanded its format in its later years. But let’s not talk about that disaster.

Tomorrow” went off the air in 1982 partly to make room for “Late Night with David Letterman.” Perhaps that’s why Letterman selected Snyder to host the new program slated to run after his “Late Show” in 1995. “The Late Late Show” was, and still is, produced by Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants.

Snyder would host “The Late Late Show” until March 1999, when he was replaced by Craig Kilborn. Kilborn left the show in August 2004 and current host Craig Ferguson took over in January 2005.

CBS must have picked January 8th to premiere “The Late Late Show” because the network had had such good luck with the date 6 years earlier. That was when “The Pat Sajak Show” hit TV screens across America.

MEETING CONAN, 1988

4 Nov

Closeup of Conan from the Happy Happy Good Show, 1988

I first met Conan O’Brien and saw him perform in the summer of 1988 in Chicago. He was in town to do a sketch comedy show with my old college friend, Robert Smigel and several other former members of the local improv group All You Can Eat. With the Writer’s Guild on strike at the time, Smigel combined part of his old improv group with fellow SNL writers, Conan O’Brien and Bob Odenkirk to create the Happy Happy Good Show

Program from the Happy Happy Good Show (including Conan O'Brien), 1988

In the program for the show (above), which was performed at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Studio Theater, you’ll see a photo of the cast with an arrow pointing to Conan.

 Inside the program (below) you can read Conan’s bio, in which he refers to his rich uncle Conius C. Coneworthy, and the bios of Bob Odenkirk and Robert Smigel which are also highlighted by arrows. In addition to this trio of now well-known performers, several others in the cast have continued their careers in entertainment. Dave Reynolds, in fact, went on to co-write the classic Disney film “Finding Nemo.” 

The inside of the program from the Happy Happy Good Show, 1988

In a review of the show that appeared in the July 15, 1988 edition of “The Reader,” a Chicago alternative weekly newspaper, critic Tom Valeo wrote, “If any television executives see Happy Happy Good Show, they may decide to let the writers’ strike go on forever.” He also declared the show “remarkably unfunny” and said “almost nothing works.” On the bright side Valeo does call the performances “pretty skillful.” And in referring to one sketch with Conan and Bob Odenkirk, the critic says they are “wonderfully manic as ‘bithespians’ who team up to give a single performance.” 

Conan fans may remember that this was the summer Conan famously roomed with another unknown comedian named Jeff Garlin, now on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” On another occasion I will describe my 1987 encounters with Garlin and perhaps show a clip of the standup video I hired him to host that year.

NBC bio given out at the Press Conference introducing Conan O'Brien to the media, May 3, 1993.

 When he was selected to host “Late Night” in 1993 Conan O’Brien was best known as a writer and not a performer, so NBC included his Happy Happy Good Show experience in his official bio (see above). Months before his version of “Late Night” premiered I showed Conan the old program from Happy Happy Good Show and he was excited to see it. Apparently he never saved a copy for himself. So if he still wants one… he knows where to find me.

All items are from the collection of Paul Messina. ©Paul Messina

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