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

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.

On trying to get Dave to watch The X-Files…

Justin: There were two episodes in particular of The X-Files, he had never seen the show at the time. I don’t know if he has since or if he did after the story. But he hadn’t seen it and I was really pushing, “Oh, you have to see this.” I went out and I bought like two VHS copies of episodes and I’m like, “I want you to watch this.” And that’s the kind of thing he would remember for the next ten years.

Eric: So any opportunity, if something came up, or if you were just in the middle of a conversation — like five years after this happened – it would be, “How was your weekend?” And he would say, “Oh, you know, I finally got to those VHS copies of The X-Files.” And you had completely forgotten about that, but he remembers everything.

About the night they almost killed Paul…

Eric: There was a CBS Mailbag letter that we wrote – Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were in charge of Mailbag … it was some script where it was like, “Do you ever play tricks on Paul?,” or something like that. And we showed a flashback of when Paul was about to make himself a sandwich and Dave goes over and takes Paul’s peanut butter and shakes it like you would somebody’s soda. And Paul goes over, opens the peanut butter, and it explodes in his face, just like a soda would. Except that when they taped it, the technical effect was really, really powerful. So, it exploded right in his face. And Paul was just supposed to react and say, “Oh, who shook my peanut butter?” But, instead, it’s a combination of shock and terror and he goes, “AHHHHHH! WHO SHOOK UP MY PEANUT BUTTER?” He was kind of angry because that thing blew up in his face. It ran the way it was and only we knew that it had gone horribly wrong.

Justin: It literally almost blew his face off. It just made this noise, “BOOOM!” And he went, “AHHHHHH!”

Eric: It was just supposed to pop.

Justin: But it looked amazing. It really looked amazing. It was the loudest noise and the most jarring explosion. We didn’t even have to add a sound effect or monkey with it at all.

Paul

About the first time they met Dave…

Eric: The first time we met him, we came downstairs, it was the end of our first week, I believe.

Justin: When we started, it was an unusual week. There was no show that day and everything was sort of juggled around.

Eric: We went down to his office and we nearly walked right into him coming out of a room. We almost walked right into him and he turned and yelled for his assistant and said, “There are two guys here, I think they are stealing stuff.” And he went into his office. And I thought, Oh my God, that could not have gone worse.

Justin: And then, moments later, we were called back in and he’s like, “Hi, nice to meet you.” But, for one second, we were like, “We just blew it.”

On the bit that was the biggest bomb…

Eric: I’m not sure why we did it, but we did a Civil War reenactment on 53rd St.

Justin: I still stand by that.

Eric: On paper, it would be kind of interesting, but it was very expensive because you pay for the number of people you have. You have to hire pyrotechnics people. And even if they are cap guns, you have to get all of the union people, so it’s very expensive. So, we couldn’t book as many people as we would have wanted, ideally. So, there’s a Civil War reenactment on 53rd St. that probably had about seven people in it. And it was extremely lame. The actors were all doing their thing, but if you look around and you see the city and people walking by, no one cared. The audience didn’t care.

Justin: Again, this is why I stand behind it, because we weren’t like huge Civil War fans, we knew it was going to be stupid watching these guys reenact a Civil War battle in the middle of Manhattan. Taxis are driving by, businesspeople are walking by – we were doing it because it was so stupid, but it was so stupid, it just sat there.

Eric: It tanked, but at least it was long and very expensive.

Justin: We heard about that for years. If we liked something, Dave would compare it to the Civil War reenactment, “Well, at least it wasn’t one of those Civil War reenactments.” So, yeah, that was used as a barometer for a while.

On the biggest surprise success…

Eric: We were going to have some medalist on 53rd St. who was going to do the high jump, we had the whole thing set up. There was the giant pad and the bar and this was going to be really cool – we had a gym camera, lights, everything.

Justin: It started snowing. And it was a time of the year when it really shouldn’t be snowing. We didn’t think, “Oh, this could be a problem.” And the person said, “It’s too wet and slippery outside, I can’t do it.”

Eric: And yet we had to figure out something to do. So backstage, Justin and I came up with the idea of dressing a mannequin exactly like the guy and throwing it over the bar. So, we did the setup exactly as we would have done it and they threw the dummy over the bar and the audience went nuts. After the show, Dave made some comment about how we saved the picture that day and it was just a really good feeling.

On the 1998 Winter Olympics…

Justin: Eric and I went to the Nagano Olympics, we were writers on the show. We were with his mom and Biff. And we were pretty much there for a month. I would like to make it very clear, Eric and I are telling a lot of stories, but we’re not taking credit for everything. All the writers, all the people on staff work as hard as they can to try to make that show as good as possible. So, Dave told me right before we left that we were going with his mom and we were laughing and having a good time. He put his arm around me and said, “If anything happens to my mother, I’m going to kill you.” I’m like, “Oh my God!” I’m going to Nagano, Japan where there’s eight inches of ice everywhere. So, I made sure that that she was OK the whole time. A few times, he called her on the cell phone just to talk to her and make sure she was OK. And I’d be sitting across from her and she would say, “Yes. Yes, David. Yes, Justin is right here. No, David, I’m not going to say that to him. No, David.” When we get back, one of Dave’s assistants called and said, “Dave has a gift for you guys.” So, the assistants came to everybody’s house, Dave gave everybody a gold medal – a gold bar, one ounce of gold. Everybody got that except for me. I got a silver medal. So, that was the big joke, everybody laughed.

Eric: That’s all you need to know about Justin.

About that time Gene Siskel needed a joke…

Justin: A week later, Siskel and Ebert were on. I was in the edit room and I got a call transferred to me and it was Gene Siskel and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m coming on the show tomorrow and Roger has some funny jokes, can you write me some jokes? I’m like, “Yeah, OK.” So I wrote him some jokes and the next day I came in and I met him and give him the jokes, he looked at them and he’s like, “This is good.” And he goes, “I feel like I should pay you something.” And I said, “No, you don’t have to do anything. I’m fine.” And then he takes out the same box that everybody’s gold medal was in – and I open it, and there’s another silver medal. It’s another silver medal! A week later, we’re on vacation and I got on a plane and while the plane is in the air, a flight attendant came over and gave me a box and in the box was a gold medal. So I ended up with two silver medals and a gold medal.

About the 4:00 a.m. show that pissed everyone off

Eric: There was an idea that we pitched when we were head writers of doing a show that we taped at 4:00 a.m. – it was this concept and as soon as we pitched it, it of course got approved. Dave said, “Let’s do it; let’s do it at 4:00 a.m.”

Justin: And everybody on staff hated us.

Eric: Everybody hated us. They had to screw up their schedules, stay over, find babysitters – everybody was pissed at us.

Justin: And, as I remember, we had two shows that day. We taped the Thursday night show at a normal time and then we made everybody come back at like 4:00 a.m. and we taped the show at 4:00 a.m. for Friday’s show.

Eric: And it was great. It was so much fun. And at the end, when we were going to the production meeting, during the meeting the sun was coming up. It was a fantastic thing and it felt like we had all done it together.

Justin: One of the things in our pitch to Dave was that we’ll put a camera on the street and look for rats. He said, “I don’t think we’re going to find rats.” So, when we did the show, we found a rat in under a minute. There were rats everywhere.

Eric: Amy Sedaris, she did a live remote from the street that day.

Justin: Eric and I had a video camera and we were just documenting as much of this as we could. So we were behind the scenes and some people went home or took a nap at a hotel or they went out and came back. And the writers’ assistant, a guy named Bob Borden, they got him a hotel room and he went to the hotel and he was going to take a nap. Everybody was due back at a certain time and Bob was not back yet. I happened to be recording Eric and Eric put the phone on speaker. He called Bob, Bob answered the phone and he clearly was asleep and it was just like:

“Hello.”

I was like, “Bob, where are you?”

“What?”

“Are you asleep?”

“No.”

“Bob, where are you? You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”

Then you hear a long pause, and he just goes, “Awwwww, shit!”

So, we had all that on video and we just put art cards on either side and Dave set it up and it was the greatest piece of organic comedy ever.

On watching Green Lantern with Dave…

Justin: I ended up having to see Green Lantern with him. So he had a screening room and he’d say, “You boys coming to the movie tonight?,” and we’re like, “OK.” So here’s Green Lantern and like at the very beginning, there’s a purple guy, the original Green Lantern – the one who dies and the ring finds Ryan Reynolds. So there’s a purple guy and Dave’s yelling, “Who’s that guy?” And I’m like, “He’s an alien.” Dave says, “Well, how do you know he’s an alien?” I’m like, “He’s purple!” And then he’s like, “Well, does he know he’s an alien?” I’m like, “I’m pretty sure he knows he’s an alien!” And he’s just screwing around because he has to sit here and watch this movie about aliens and superheroes. So, he’s entertaining himself and just screwing around … what kind of question is that, “does he know he’s an alien?”

About the first show following the September 11, 2001 attacks…

Justin: There were many, many discussions. Rob Burnett, who is the head of the company, Rob is a genius when it comes to all of this stuff. So Rob and Dave talked and Dave had something in his head and Rob had his ideas. They were kind of looking at the show as a whole – and we were trying to write as much non-topical stuff as possible, like “Top 10 Words.” Just “words.” It was lowering the bar, making things as simple as possible and just not referencing anything. And it really was that we were going to feel our way through this episode. And that’s what he said there, “I have some comedy, I have stuff here on the pages, we’ll try some of this and if it doesn’t feel right, we’ll put it down.” If Dave has something like that in his head, he always knows, he always has the right instincts when it comes to that kind of stuff.

On the Softer Side of Dave…

Justin: Eric has one daughter; I have two daughters. When you have a child, Dave is the first one to call and make sure everything is all right. Dave is the first one to send stuff to congratulate you. Our father – who is a physician and a health nut and an exercise nut – had a mild heart thing happen several years ago. It turns out he was fine, but it was a scare while he was on vacation and my brother and I had to fly down to see what was going on. And Dave checked in morning and evenings and offered up his heart doctors and anything he could do – and it’s stuff like that that you end up not hearing a lot about.

On their most emotional moments on the show…

Eric: You know, I have to say, it’s maybe when he announced our kids’ births on TV.

Justin: Do you want to know something sad? I forgot that happened. And it happened twice! I guess that did happen!

Eric: It’s kind of cool because someday I’m going to show this to my kid and they’re going to understand how important this moment was. It was a really cool thing for him to do. Yeah, that was special.

Justin: There’s a whole side to Dave and it’s not our place to tell, but he’s a very charitable guy and there’s a whole side to him that’s different than the guy that’s on TV and different than the backstage guy. That’s the stuff that’s pretty amazing.

In their opinion, the perfect sendoff for Dave…

Eric: Maybe it’s time to bring back the Civil War reenactment.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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