Back in April, my editor at Amazon Kindle Singles commissioned me to write an oral history of Late Night with David Letterman. Since, I spoke with somewhere between 40 to 50 people who worked or appeared on the 12:30 a.m. NBC talk show — the one that transformed comedy forever with its ironic obsessions and enabled a generation of writers to flourish, from Jimmy Kimmel to Judd Apatow to Jon Stewart. But many are likely unaware of Letterman being some kind of comedy god; the master tapes of his years at NBC have been locked in a vault since he changed networks in 1993. “To those people [who haven’t seen the original Late Night], Dave is like this old guy on TV,” Jay Mohr explained on his podcast in 2012. “Dave was Chappelle’s Show. It was that underground and that young and that cool.”
Mohr isn’t the only one who can attest. In AND NOW…An Oral History of “Late Night with David Letterman,” 1982-1993 — available for download to your Kindle app for the low, low price of $2.99 — one of my interview subjects is actor Mark Hamill, a recurring Late Night guest in the early years who is easily in the running as one of its all-time #1 fans. In August, Hamill and I had a hour-long phone call in which he shared his questionably unhealthy Letterman obsession — keeping a journal, recording episodes for decades — and how he became something of a de facto archivist for the show. The majority of Hamill’s interview didn’t make it into the e-book, but I felt it deserved a place somewhere for posterity, i.e. for other fanatics to document in their Letterman journals. They’re out there. Believe me.
Here’s an abbreviated version of that call.
BRIAN ABRAMS: Rolling Stone’s David Browne wrote in 2011 about your keeping a journal [of Late Night] when you lived on the Upper West Side and how in love you were with the “Viewer Mail” segments.
MARK HAMILL: It wasn’t specifically “Viewer Mail,” but that gets into it. First of all, I love comedians. I’m fascinated with the form. It seems to be one of the more bold and brave things to do in show business where you have no one to blame but yourself if you’re not successful. You can always blame an author, a playwright, a director — it’s never your fault. With comedians, they’re just “out there.” When I saw Letterman, I liked him from the beginning. He had a sense of irony and attitude that reminded me of other comedians I liked a lot. He seemed to, like Johnny Carson, have this secret weapon of not being able to bomb because he would make flatter moments funny by commenting on them. Other comedians do that too, but something about Letterman I thought was just gold.
BA: When did you first catch Letterman?
MH: When I saw his [short-lived 1980 NBC] morning show, I said, “This is the next wave of comedy.” It harkened back to Steve Allen, who I loved as a kid, who would go out into the street and do observational humor that was so clever. And I thought, “This is really odd” because this show is so wrong for morning TV, but I can’t get enough of it. And of course it was cancelled. I was really depressed. I have this feeling that things that I love too much are destined to be cancelled. I don’t get over it very easily. I’m still mourning the loss of Square Pegs and Dabney Coleman in Buffalo Bill. Recently I was upset that they cancelled The Neighbors on ABC. Sometimes I have a feeling that, if I love it, it’s the kiss of death. Somehow I’m responsible.
BA: So you definitely caught Letterman’s morning show.
MH: His audience was stay-at-home housewives and so forth — people that would watch game shows or soap operas, which was so wrong [for him]. They did a lot of things that would later carry onto that Late Night show, but I was depressed [when it got cancelled]. I think I read an anecdote at the time, that Letterman himself was sort of in a funk after the show was cancelled and went to see The Empire Strikes Back. And, of course, at the end we all got our butts kicked by the bad guys and it ended on a really down note, and he said that cheered him up. I never asked him about it personally, so I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if the exact timeline is right for that story.
BA: He started the morning show in June , and it was cancelled in October.
MH: Oh, well [ESB] was still in theaters in October. So it could have happened. When the announcement was made he was doing his new show called Late Night, I remember it started in February of ’82. I was just absolutely a fan from the get-go. The reason where I got to the point where I was keeping shows and was keeping a journal was that I was going away to make Return of the Jedi. And I had somebody housesit in my house in Malibu. And I bought a huge box with a couple of cases of videotapes.
BA: So this must have been spring/summer of ’82?
MH: Yeah, I had an apartment in Manhattan, and [told my house-sitter], “Look, we’re going to be gone for a few months — three or four months, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take — but there’s a show I want you to tape because the odds are, by the time I get back, it’ll be cancelled. And so tape every show.” When I came back, there was this huge backlog of shows. So I would start watching them at my leisure, and one of the things that struck me was that there were elements of shows that I couldn’t conceive of taping over them. I said, “Oh, I’ve gotta keep this.” So I got that setup where you have two VCRs, and you could transfer from one [VHS recording] to another. And I went through and took out mostly his bits where he went out into the streets — the so-called “found humor,” the misspellings of restaurants or whatever it was. When I got back, I started a compilation tape of all of his best bits, including “Viewer Mail.”
BA: I believe June of ’83 was when you first guested.
MH: You don’t meet Dave until you really go out [on the set]. I think I saw him in the makeup chair, and I asked him “Where in the world did you find Larry ‘Bud’ Melman?” I wasn’t really speaking to Dave. I was sitting next to him, and I was kind of talking to the makeup artist. When I asked that question, he said, “We suspect inbreeding.” Which was funny, but he’s not someone who comes into your dressing room to say, “Welcome to the show.” He’s very much to himself, which is fine with me. I sometimes don’t like meeting people that … I like the people that I watch to be, you know, the people that I watch. Sometimes you meet people, and they’re disappointing or they’re not what you think they are or they give you a dimension that alters your perception of them when you watch them as performers. But be that as it may, I started a little sort of catalog so I wasn’t repeating stuff that I had taped. And it becomes almost like an addiction. You can’t stop. Once I started, I said, “When am I going to stop this? It’s just crazy.” It was kinda fun. I put Letterman on the timer. Sometimes I’d watch it live and mentally note, “Oh, I’m gonna keep that. I’m gonna keep that.” But also, too, if you put it on the timer, you get a backlog and you can watch most of ’em over the weekend. Or you can watch ’em the next morning when you and the wife are making breakfast or whatever.
BA: So you would tape everything, and then you would edit and transfer everything into your own personal “best-of” compilation tapes.
MH: Yes, exactly. They were almost always his comedy bits. I’d keep comedians. And I remember when John Carpenter was on [June 9, 1982], I couldn’t believe that clip from The Thing, where The Thing was transforming from the Alaskan Husky. We’d never seen anything like that in our lives. And then when they came back from the clip and everyone was stunned, Dave said, “So it’s basically a story of a boy and his dog.” So I’d occasionally keep [guest appearances]. You’d see stuff that was absolutely jaw-dropping, like the Andy Kaufman-Jerry Lawler thing. There were moments on the original Late Night where you’d go, “That’s something I’d never seen on TV before, or rarely.”
BA: I wonder if Late Night will be taken for granted if and when NBC releases the tapes from the archives — if the generation now wouldn’t appreciate it because the format has been so heavily influenced by Letterman. What we see Kimmel and Fallon or whoever do on a nightly basis isn’t understood to be groundbreaking anymore. Like, back then, it would be weird for Letterman to go off-camera, talk to people backstage and create a sense of self-awareness. “Yes, we are this crummy show on in the middle of the night.”
MH: To be fair, Dave was obviously very influenced by Steve Allen. Allen did backstage stuff and stick a camera out the window. It’s generational, but you’re absolutely right. Dave’s techniques and contributions to the format have become part and parcel of the very fabric of talk shows. I was only a guest once, but later down the road, they asked me to do comedy bits in “Viewer Mail” segments. One was asking something ridiculous about how to accomplish cracking an egg in one hand. So [on April 19, 1984] I did a bit where, basically, it was a parody of those behind-the-scenes special effects documentaries. “First, the eggshell is lined with squibs and scored slightly so the crack will appear exactly where it is anticipated.” It was an overelaborate explanation, using green-screen and all that stuff. I really enjoyed doing the comedy because there’s more pressure being a guest. You have to deliver. You’re plugging something. With comedy, I could play it deadpan, and I got their style. I wanted to become more of a utility player, but Tony Randall started showing up to do those kinds of bits. I get why. He’s more ironic than I am. He’s an establishment guy, and it’s funnier coming from a seasoned performer. I thought nothing of it.
BA: When did the people at Late Night discover that you were sitting on this deluxe Letterman collection?
MH: I think I ran into [Late Night writer] Chris Elliott in a little mom-and-pop grocery nook on Columbus Avenue, and I had met him somewhere when I was doing one of those three appearances. Somehow or another, I mentioned the fact that I had kept a bunch of the bits. At some point after that, they contacted me and I thought, “Oh, boy, I get to do another comedy bit.” But, no, they were thinking they were going to celebrate the 1,000th “Viewer Mail” letter [which would air on 12/18/87] and amazingly enough asked me if they could look in my journal or if I could figure out with them what letter that would have be. That’s when my wife and I first met [talent coordinator] Laurie [Lennard], who would later marry Larry David. She came over to the house with one or two people. I think I might have lent them the journal or they sat down and took notes. I continued doing this to the point where I said, “This is ridiculous. I’m just doing this now — collecting the shows — because I’ve started.” I didn’t expect to get up to volumes 9, 10, 11, 12 into the 20s. They’re all at six-hour speed just packed with Letterman comedy.
BA: So in the late ’80s you were still taping.
MH: I was. I thought well “I’m gonna break when he moves to [Late Show at] CBS.” But then he moved to CBS [to the 11:30 p.m. slot in 1993], and I thought, “Well, I’ll just get a feel for the new show.” And then I was still watching and always taping it, so I wouldn’t have to watch from 11:35 a.m. to 12:35 p.m. And here was the turning point: I was doing a play out of town at the Coconut Grove [Playhouse] in Florida. It was a pre-Broadway play so it was a tryout [in 2003]. The rehearsals were intensive. I would go home exhausted and pretty much straight to bed, and get up and go to the rehearsal the next day. And so I looked at myself and looked at these boxes of tapes, and it really sort of illustrated how this obsession got out of hand. I remember the exact day I decided, “Not only am I going to stop with this David Letterman obsession, but I’m not going to watch any more talk shows ever again.” It was all or nothing, and it was Valentine’s Day of 2003. I was working on Comic Book: The Movie. I had done this mock-documentary and had 100 hours of footage I was looking at. It put in perspective the fact that I was committed to two much more important projects — this play and the fact that I was meant to help the editors of this mock-documentary I had done. I said, “That’s it. No more talk shows for me.” I’ve stopped, and I’ve never watched another talk show. I know who all these people are — Craig Ferguson, I think, is fantastic — but I’ve never watched a full episode of another talk show since.
BA: So no Colbert Report …
MH: Daily Show and Colbert I don’t consider talk shows. I consider them comedy shows. I mean traditional, Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon or Seth Meyers — never. Ellen DeGeneres, never. And if you write about that, you have to say that I like all of those people. I really do. But talk shows to me are not what they used to be. When I was a little boy you could watch Jack Paar, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin or even Virginia Graham. It seemed to me that they were more interested in getting disparate people in one room. They’d get a boxer with an opera singer or a movie star or a comedian, and they’d all be sitting around talking. It didn’t seem so cut and dry. Nowadays it’s a promotional machine where you’re plugging your TV show, your movie, your CD. You have a clip, and it’s all pre-interviews and so there’s very little spontaneity. You remember Leno on Dave’s original show? That guy would absolutely kill. Nobody could touch him. He was the funniest, most biting and sarcastic person. “What’s my beef, Dave?” and he’d pull out a TV Guide and just read descriptions. He was much more edgy than he had to be to appeal to middle America. I mean, I’m not criticizing him. He did what he had to do to get what he wanted, but I don’t know if there was a specific moment [that it all changed]. I mean, it was pretty cut and dry back in those days. I remember the one time I did The Tonight Show and there was a pre-interview. When I went off what I said in the pre-interview on Carson, someone after the show said, “Well, you’re not going to be able to do this show again.” I said, “Why?” He goes, “They don’t like it when you go off your pre-interview answers.” I said, “Really?” Because in those days there were so many of the same questions. “Did you think Star Wars was gonna be a success?” and all that stuff. You just wanted to keep yourself from being bored. Maybe I forgot what I said in the pre-interview. I didn’t do it maliciously.
BA: It’s interesting that you continued [taping shows]. I was expecting you to say that you stopped in the late ’80s. I’ve heard opinions from people that felt that the show kind of lost something at that point.
MH: I think what happened was he wasn’t as hungry as before. He sort of settled into an easier place. In the beginning, he had something to prove. As time continued, that sort of evened out. I have to tell you: Somewhere in the early ’90s, I did stop keeping the bits. By the time they started doing “Will It Float?”, you go “Oh please.” I mean it’s funny once, but you don’t make it an ongoing feature. In fact, the last time I did a bit for them — it must have been during Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks on Broadway and we needed publicity — so I jumped at the chance to do a comedy bit for them. They didn’t use it, but I didn’t mince words when I was there. I said, “C’mon you guys, what’s up with never going out into the streets anymore?” I had three or four pet peeves because I thought they’d really become complacent. On the other hand, I thought, “Who am I to tell them?” I didn’t think they didn’t use my bit because I was critical of what they were doing. They couldn’t care less.
BA: So one more question for you: Where are the boxes of tapes?
MH: They’re all in my basement. When we bought this house, we had to add a second story because the family got bigger. We were able to build a separate garage with an apartment over the garage, and we built a basement so the kids could play with their rock-and-roll bands and not drive the neighbors crazy. It’s not completely soundproof, but it’s buried enough so we don’t get complaints, and down in that basement are boxes of all my video tapes. Which you always mean to eventually transfer to DVD, but I never have. So I haven’t watched them since pretty much I made them.
AND NOW…An Oral History of “Late Night with David Letterman,” 1982-1993 is available at Amazon Kindle Singles.