Book Excerpt: On Inadvertently Launching Letterman’s Career

Less of a point of pride: passing on booking a young Robin Williams on a talk show
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I've only met David Letterman three times, but as my friends and family know, right up until the last day of Late Show With David Letterman, I watched him (on DVR) almost daily during workouts. I also liked to repurpose his jokes at my weekly “prayer meeting” aka my Thursday night poker game with the same guys for the past 30 years.

Also, at birthday parties and other events, I annoy everyone with my own lame top 10 lists. I've been doing these since Dave took over our 12:30 a.m. Tomorrow Show time period on NBC in 1982 (now Late Night With Seth Meyers).

For four years, I was a producer on the Emmy Award-winning Tomorrow Show, which followed Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for eight years at NBC. Tomorrow starred another of my biggest influences and mentors, the great Tom Snyder.

In the smallest of ways, I may have inadvertently helped sow the seeds of Dave replacing Tom. Six years earlier, in 1976, as a 25-year-old segment producer on Tomorrow, I booked Dave on network television for the first time.

I had the idea to do a show on up-and-coming young comics. The first thing I did was call the legendary talent manager Buddy Morra, who I had met and become pals with after doing a piece on his client and my favorite comic Robert Klein, for WNBC-TV. 

Buddy and his partners, Charles Joffe and Jack Rollins, were the deans of comedy managers, representing Woody Allen and many of the top comedy stars of that time. Also on their roster were a bunch of rising young talents including Billy Crystal, as well as Robin Williams and Dave. All three were starting their careers at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles.

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In a conversation with Billy many years later on his show, Dave affectionately referred to Buddy and his laid-back management style as “the master of the standing nap.” Buddy, in his mid-eighties now, still loves to recount that on-air tribute.

So when I asked Buddy who to book on the young comics show besides Billy (who I knew and liked a lot), he suggested Robin and Dave. Tom Snyder had just one rule: If you booked someone on the show, they had better be good talkers. He rarely got mad at his producers if things went sideways, but if the guests you booked were not good talkers, that was big trouble. Good rule for a talk show, huh?

Like producers on most talk shows, the central way we went about finding out if someone was a good talker was through what’s called a “pre-interview,” usually done by phone. Tom’s theory was if they were great on the phone, they’d probably be good on the show. If they were not great on the phone, then the pressure of the lights and cameras along with a nationwide audience probably wouldn’t help.

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Most of the time that worked out to be a good theory. In this one case, it did and it didn’t.

Billy was a quick yes and became a regular guest and someone I and my wife, Pat, worked with a few more times. Billy cast and directed Pat as Roger Maris’ wife in his wonderful HBO movie 61*, and Billy appeared on our series Rock and Roll Evening News and later Hollywood Squares with Robin and Whoopi Goldberg. More on that later.

Dave had never been on network television, but on the phone I found he was funny and easy to talk to. We chatted about his nightly gigs at the Comedy Store in L.A. and how different L.A. was from his home state of Indiana. He was relaxed, funny and forthcoming.

I booked him for what became his first network gig. His appearance on Tomorrow went well. Like he was on the phone, he was glib, confident in a low-key way. Dave, Billy Crystal, Merrill Markoe (Dave’s head writer and girlfriend at the time) and Rick Newman, who owned the comedy club Catch a Rising Star in New York, traded quips and funny stories with Snyder about the world of comedy.

Soon after Dave was booked on the first of many Tonight shows and his career blew up. From time to time over the next 20 years, I’d see Dave when I’d accompany Tom as a guest on Dave’s show on NBC, and later CBS. Dave to this day has been great to Tom, and did a long and moving tribute to Tom when he died in 2007.

Robin, on the other hand, as is the case with many comics when they’re not on stage, was practically monosyllabic during our pre-interview. I declined to book him. Soon after, the brilliant writer-director Garry Marshall cast him as Mork on Mork & Mindy and his career was off and running. He became a regular on all the major talk shows and destroyed every time.

So while I can brag about putting Letterman on network television for the first time, I also have to admit I passed on Robin Williams.

Fortunately, I got to work with Robin again and was able to tell him the story twenty or so years later when we were doing Hollywood Squares at King World, and he did a week of shows with Billy and Whoopi to promote Comic Relief.

I think the reason I took so immediately to Dave, more than any other comedian or host, is that there’s a lot of Tom in him. He’s so smart, articulate and interested in the world. He is one of the few guys on TV who, as he demonstrated after 9/11 and countless other events in the news, can speak live and extemporaneously on just about any topic. Dave has a natural gift for humor, of course, but he gets that jokes and scripted desk pieces are not enough.

Johnny Carson, Dave’s other mentor, had the same ability. He didn't need cue cards or a script to be funny or touch people’s hearts.

Talent like that is rare, and one of the great pleasures and privileges we have as viewers. As soon as he retired recently, I began missing Dave’s presence on the air very much. I hope he’ll decide to do something else soon to express his unique voice.

A week before his last CBS show, I sent Dave this chapter and asked him to please keep talking to us in some way--on the radio, a podcast or a new smaller show on cable or the web. I told him that the country needs his voice. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.

Andy Friendly, the son of CBS television pioneer Fred Friendly, is a producer and former executive at King World, CNBC and Entertainment Tonight. This piece is adapted from his forthcoming memoir, Willing to Be Lucky: A Life in TV.

©Andy Friendly

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