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David Letterman Praises Jay Leno In An Interesting 1981 ‘Fresh Air’ Interview

By / 08.29.13

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson - Season 17

All this week Fresh Air has been running interviews with people involved in late night television and last night I finally around to listening to a 1981 interview Terry Gross did with David Letterman. Here’s how she described it in the intro…

On this first day of our series, we’re going deep into our archive for an interview I recorded with David Letterman back in 1981, when Fresh Air was a local radio show in Philadelphia, and Letterman was in town to perform at a club. This was an in-between period of his life. It was the year after his morning show was canceled, and the year before he started “Late Night with David Letterman.”

One of my favorite parts of the interview involved Letterman talking about his first paid comedy writing gig writing jokes for J.J. from Good Times.

The first, the gentleman I actually worked for was Jimmy Walker, who was a comic who was the star of a television show called “The Good Times,” and who is black. And I think he may have been the first black person I ever saw. So it was difficult for me to – we would go to meetings and Jimmy was quite generous because I just moved from Los Angeles and had no money to speak of and he hired me to write with him and some other people, and it was funny. And sitting there pretending that I knew the first thing about what it’s like to grow up in a ghetto situation was silly in itself. But it wasn’t so much that our sensibilities were out of sync as it was he wanted personal anecdotes from his past to get his laughs with and it was tough for me to, you know, I had grown up in the middle of Indianapolis and, so that was interesting.

But by far the most interesting part of the interview was when Letterman talked about his favorite comedians at the time, one of which was a young upstart named…wait for it…Jay Leno.

The best person in a nightclub situation now is Bill Cosby. It’s just unbelievable what this man is capable of doing. And he doesn’t really tell jokes, per se, but he comes out on a stage and sits down in a chair and this is interesting because the purpose of your appearance here, you have to dominate this group. And to dominate and control from a seated position is interesting. And he does it.

And he is unbelievable. And I would guess he would be the best in a nightclub situation. And then there are, you know, the newer guys. Steve Martin is just a phenomenon. And, you know, it goes on and on. And then I have my own peers that I think are great. There’s a guy, Jay Leno, who I think is probably the best new – not so new – but best at really observational material.

The whole thing is quite interesting, if only to hear how different Gross and Letterman sounded 32 years ago. And speaking of Letterman, heads up: this guy is going to be guest on the Late Show tonight…

Late-Night-letterman

(Lead pic via Getty)


TAGSdavid lettermanfresh airterry gross

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