Letterman’s Longtime Head Writers, Eric & Justin Stangel, On The Time They Almost Accidentally Killed Dave

05.20.15 2 years ago 7 Comments

It wasn’t easy getting Eric and Justin Stangel to go on the record about their 17 years at Late Show with David Letterman (mostly as head writers and executive producers). As we spoke, over and over again, the brothers who served as the longest-running head writers in the show’s history made it clear that they didn’t want this to be about them, that it should be about Dave, which is why they were so hesitant to do this in the first place. (And at least three times they wanted me to make clear that even though they are sharing these stories, Late Show was a truly collaborative production.)

My job here was just to listen to stories about David Letterman, the late night host I’ve watched dutifully for more than 30 years. (I was one of those kids who would record Late Night, but my twist is that we didn’t have VHS, we had Beta.) Oh, and I laughed a lot. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much during an interview. Anyway, why don’t we just step out of the way and let Eric and Justin tell their stories about working for David Letterman for 17 years … including the separate times they almost accidentally killed Dave, and then almost accidentally killed Paul.

About that time they almost killed David Letterman…

Eric: There was some piece that we did at the desk and it was summertime and Dave was pointing out that here are products that are new for summer or banned by the FDA or something like that. It was like Kingsford’s Edible Charcoal Briquettes, and whenever we do something like that, we always ask the prop people, “Is this edible?” Or if it’s something weird, “Can Dave drink this?”

Justin: Because if it’s perfume, Dave always sprays it in his mouth. Whatever the product is, Dave will eat it or drink it and the audience goes bananas.

Eric: So, in this case, it’s a charcoal briquette and we’ve been told, “Of course, we wouldn’t put it on the desk if he can’t eat it.” So, he did the piece and he took a bite of this charcoal briquette and his mouth turned black. Whatever chemical was on there, there was a lot of it.

Justin: And then one of the props people came out said, “No, no, no, you can’t eat that!”

Eric: Even though we had been assured that it was safe to eat. And then all of a sudden it was really not funny. Because then it became, “OK, what was on there? How much was on there?”

Justin: His whole mouth turned black! His teeth, his gums, his tongue — it was just a void in the lower part of his head. So there was drinkable Windex that was blue Gatorade and he sprayed that in his mouth and he swore he could taste the actual Windex from the bottle. He was convinced it was still in there because he could taste it and his mouth was still jet-black. And then someone ran and got him some water to wash out his mouth, to get it off his gums and his teeth and they ran out and they gave it to him. Dave rinsed and drank it, but what they were not able to tell him on the air when they handed it to him was that it was a cup of hydrogen peroxide. So he drank it and said, “Oh, that wasn’t water.” It was three things in a row! We were convinced, “Oh my God, we just killed him.”

About the time Dave got new binoculars…

Justin: So Dave says, “Look, I just got this new pair of binoculars.” And he has this giant pair of binoculars. And he’s like, “They’re really powerful.” He goes, “You know what? Go down the street; go down three blocks, let’s see if I can see you.” So I went down there and I’m standing on the corner for like 15 or 20 minutes. And I realize, I don’t know when to come back! So I call Dave’s office, “Can he see me?” And they say, “Hold on. Yeah, he says just stay there.” So I stood there for another 20 minutes and I’m like, “What do I do now?” I call back again and they say, “Hold on. Yeah, he says stay there.” I’m there now like 45 minutes and I realize he’s not looking at me in binoculars, he just wants to see how long I’m going to stand out in the street. So, after an hour, I end up coming back. I believe it was raining.