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Mr. Letterman's Neighborhood

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Part of the early Late Show scenery: Mujibur & Sirajul; Rupert Jee.

Note to readers: The early years of CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman were marked by frequent remotes that took viewers to various venues in the vicinity of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Mujibur and Sirajul’s Rock America store and Rupert Jee’s Hello Deli were frequent founts of comedy gold. But there were other regulars, too. I visited them all during the show’s first year. Damn, that was fun. (This article was first published on June 13, 1994.)

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NEW YORK -- Behold the official Letterman Hoagie, available only at the hole-in-the-wall Hello Deli. Its ingredients are listed on a plastic plate displayed next to a head shot of the man himself: turkey, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoe (sic) sweet peppers, oil and vinegar. Proprietor Rupert Jee has just fixed one for Michelle Riley, a Baylor University student and member of the touring THEE Power & Light singing group.

Michelle and three friends from the group are patronizing the Hello Deli solely because it has become a bread-and-butter attraction on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman. They can’t leave without having their picture taken with the famous Rupert.

“Yeah, why not?” he says, agreeably sandwiching himself into a group shot.

Although it’s drizzly and muggy, this is yet another beautiful day in Mr. Letterman’s one-block Broadway neighborhood, where cash registers ring whatever the weather. Most business near the Ed Sullivan Theater have become part of the act since Letterman began taping his show here last August. Hello Deli, K&L’s Rock America, the Longacre Copy Center, Academy Clothes, Flash Dancers -- they’re all bit players in Letterman’s ad hoc repertory company.

All of this seemed scary at first, at least to the show’s producers. For 11 years at NBC, Letterman’s Late Night neighborhood was 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where the fellow tenants were the stars of Today, Donahue, the NBC Nightly News and Saturday Night Live.

“When we moved here, we at first felt isolated and we were quite concerned about it,” says co-executive producer Robert Morton. “What was the show going to be like without having Dave go out and harass the anchorpeople across the hall or steal a guest from the Donahue show?”

Late Night also would be without famed commoner Meg Parsont, the Simon & Schuster Pocketbooks publicist who worked out of an adjacent high-rise office building. Meg did Dave’s bidding on more than a dozen of the old shows.

“We were worried when we lost Meg,” says co-executive producer Peter Lassally. “What were we going to do? Now we don’t even think about Meg anymore. Poor Meg. She had her 15 minutes of fame.”

Late Show’s new star attractions -- souvenir shop workers Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam -- recently began selling T-shirts emblazoned with their pictures and the K&L Rock America logo. They also have been featured in People magazine and have had to join an actors union because of their frequent appearances on Late Show. Each earns between $500 and $1,000 per “guest shot.”

“It just evolved naturally here,” Morton says. “The guy next door at the sandwich shop (Rupert) was quite a character, and then we just hit gold with Mujibur and Sirajul. They were terrific, and the audience just warmed to them instantly. We’ve been very lucky. The neighbors have been very nice to us, and I think we’ve been pretty good to them.”

(Very, very good to Mujibur and Sirajul, who on Monday will launch their series of summertime Coast to Coast reports from America’s “most famous sites, historical landmarks and natural treasures.” The first stop is Niagra Falls.)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Sirajul is selling Late Show T-shirts at $19 a pop while a fellow employee, unheralded, stamps price tags on miniature Statues of Liberty. “They give limousine, they give hotel. Everything,” Sirajul says of the pair’s recent Late Show excursion to Los Angeles, where they received a standing ovation when Letterman brought them onstage.

Tourists eagerly snap up T-shirts -- the Mujibur-Sirajul edition is the cheapest buy at $16 -- and share the excitement of posing with the Bangladesh-born celebrities. “Next,” says Sirajul, smiling broadly.

“Basically, before David Letterman, this neighborhood was almost like a jungle,” says Mujibur, who has worked at Rock America for three years. “We had a lot of problems. People tried to rob. Muggings. After he moved here, the neighborhood got clean. No more hassling. No more problems here. It is very peaceful and quiet. A lot of decent people come from around the country.”

Rock America is owned by a longtime friend of Mujibur’s. He doesn’t begrudge her the store’s sudden profits.

“She treats me well. I don’t mind working for her,” he says. “It’s too much pressure to have your own business.”

The storefronts of Rock America and other nearby businesses are testaments to Letterman’s most-favored-neighbor status.

The “Top Ten Reasons to Shop at Academy Clothes” include, “Our jackets are well hung” and “Dave window-shops here.”

At the Longacre Copy Center, 15 identical pictures of Letterman’s Xeroxed face are labeled, “The More Daves the Merrier.”

Santino Photo Electronics’ “Famous Wall” includes pictures of Letterman, band leader Paul Shaffer, Sylvester Stallone, Billy Crystal, Michael Jackson and John Forsythe. All are tastefully displayed above a “New York MAFIA” license plate.

“In the beginning we didn’t like him,” Santino employee Joe Russo says of Letterman. “We thought it was gonna hurt the business and everything. He wasn’t doin’ much for us. But it turned out OK. We got no complaints against him. He comes down here and does gigs and stuff. He’s fun to work with, yeah.”

Elliot Chapnick, owner of the Longacre Copy Center, has watched his wife, Fern (“The Copy Lady”) become one of Late Show’s supporting cast. She’s at home this day, but her husband has become practiced in telling how it all began.

“Dave wasn’t actually in the store, but he was talking through the camera. He asked, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ and I pointed to my wife. Since then I haven’t been on the show. My wife really enjoys this stuff, but I get nervous and upset when I have to appear on camera. The reason I tolerate this and do it at all is because my wife gets a kick out of being on TV. It really hasn’t done anything at all for our business. But the area is more active, and they certainly take care of the streets a lot better now. In the winter I don’t have to shovel the sidewalk anymore. Dave’s guys do it for me.”

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Across the street at the Flash Dancers strip joint, uniformed doorman John Stancil was first targeted when Letterman had a pizza delivered to him. He since has been given a manicure while on the job and has played himself in a taped “Strongman, Fatman, Genius” sketch. At age 38, Stancil still has ambitions of becoming an actor or songwriter. But first things first.

“My next kind of little goal is to do either People magazine or Playboy or something like that,” he says.

Stancil says he has written a letter to Late Show suggesting “stuff I think would be cool to work with me on.”

“It would be nice if I could be used away from the club in a (Larry “Bud”) Melman-ish type of way. That would probably give me a new career, ya know? That’s my dream, because to be just a doorman at a topless bar the rest of my life isn’t what I aspire to.”

Stancil’s dream is quickly dashed by Late Show’s Morton.

“That’s the biggest danger,” he says. “When you hear that, that kind of queers the deal. It’s very nice when there are two guys who are very happy just working at the T-shirt shop and don’t pretend to be anything else.”

Lassally laughs at a strange set of circumstances in which people with low-paying or dead-end jobs suddenly are faced with “career decisions” about whether to quit or continue being Late Show regulars. Mujibur, for instance, had thoughts of returning to school and becoming a lawyer. Such plans are on hold, he says because “people like us. People want to wave the hand. And Dave is always nice to us. The whole thing is very exciting.”

Morton says the Late Show neighborhood has “limitless” comedic possibilities. “Anything can happen in New York City. There’s always something going on outside these doors.”

Some doors have been broken down. Being on Late Show in particular and television in general isn’t the intimidating big deal it used to be, Morton says. Witness the college student whom Letterman recently summoned off the street to co-host the show with him. She not only survived, but came off as a personable, seasoned pro. The latest word is that MTV wants to make a VJ of her.

“This is a generation that is used to performing before the video camera,” Morton says. “My nephew watches the show, and he looks at Letterman as if he’s just another one of his friends. It’s the same feeling he gets when he watches his birthday party video. Young people just have that camera savvy that our generation didn’t have.”

Indeed, 37-year-old Rupert Jee of the Hello Deli has “kind of lost count” of how many times he’s done Late Show. He has gracefully become an unassuming Somebody making Letterman hoagies and other sandwiches named after the show’s personalities. Interviews with reporters, autographs and picture-posing have become the new side orders of his profession.

“I wouldn’t say it’s disruptive,” Rupert says. “Dave has done a lot for this neighborhood. And the least we can do is reciprocate.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Highly unusual: Letterman meets the press before his CBS Late Show takes wing

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Bill Murray makes his mark on Letterman’s first CBS Late Show.

Note to readers: David Letterman does press conferences about as often as Donald Trump admits a mistake. In other words, they’re an extreme rarity. But he flew coast-to-coast in mid-summer 1993 to talk about his big, bold move from NBC to CBS after Peacock execs gave The Tonight Show to Jay Leno. Here’s the way it was at a time when the fates of “Stupid Pet Tricks” and Letterman’s nightly “Top Ten List” remained in the hands of corporate lawyers. (This article was first published on July 20, 1993.)

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
LOS ANGELES -- David Letterman, cigar in one hand and CBS in the palm of the other, stepped to the forefront of the late-night television battle Monday night.

“I don’t find myself in kind of a cloud of anxiety over this,” he told about 150 television critics gathered on a sound stage at CBS Television City. “Of course, I’m full of gin.”

There is a cloud of uncertainty over whether Late Show with David Letterman, which premieres Aug. 30th, can transfer the titles of hallmark comedy segments from his old show on NBC. The network has said it might take legal action if he uses “Stupid Pet Tricks” or “Top Ten Lists,” which NBC claims to own.

Letterman said he plans to do both, but “if they (CBS lawyers) say don’t do it, then obviously we won’t do it.” He expressed confidence, however, that both sides will “find each other all together on the high road.”

“The whole thing has struck me as being silly,” he added. “But if NBC is adamant and holding firm, it’s not gonna break my heart.”

There will be at least one casualty. The name Larry “Bud” Melman, a character played by Calvert DeForrest, is owned by NBC and will have to be changed, Letterman said.

Letterman took the stage with bandleader Paul Shaffer, uncustomarily dressed in a suit and tie, and producers Peter Lassally and Robert Morton. He is being paid $14 million by CBS, a figure he did not dispute, to battle NBC’s Tonight Show this season.

“I’m certainly not worth that kind of dough,” he said.

Letterman, 46, stood with a towering mockup of the New York City skyline behind him and with brightly lit “HOLLYWOOD” letters staring him in the face. A spangled CBS Eye logo hung behind him. Seldom willing to be interviewed during his NBC years, he alternately joked and answered questions seriously for one hour. Letterman even extended the interview session an extra 15 minutes after a CBS publicist tried to end it.

Letterman’s new home base will be the historic Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. Noting the “clouds of asbestos” permeating the theater, Letterman joked, “I just think it might have been easier to renovate Ed Sullivan than the theater.”

Letterman said he wouldn’t alter his irreverent style to fit an earlier time period. “It’s going to be the same show,” he said. On the NBC program, “I tried not to offend people, but it kept happening.”

CBS began promoting Letterman’s program during last Tuesday’s All-Star baseball game. The tag line is “Same Dave. Better Time. New Station.” The pitchman is Dave himself in more than 80 different on-air spots.

George Schweitzer, the network’s vice president of marketing and communication, calls it “straight-ahead Dave.” Some samples: “Love songs. Nothing but love songs.” “You might remember me as The Fonz on television’s Happy Days. Well, I’m all grown up now.” “Don’t you think that CBS Eye thing is kinda creepy?” “Here’s the good news. We’ve been saving the funny stuff.”

The disquieting news for CBS is Letterman’s late-breaking starting time on one-third of the network’s affiliate stations, including KDFW-TV (Channel 4) in Dallas. Late Show will go head-to-head with NBC’s Tonight Show in only 67 percent of the country.

In the Dallas-Fort worth viewing area, Letterman’s program will begin halfway through Tonight at 11:05 p.m. Channel 4 plans to air reruns of Murphy Brown immediately after its 10 p.m. newscast. The station bought the rights to Murphy more than a year before CBS landed Letterman.

“David Letterman will start with a significant handicap in terms of (station) clearance,” said David Poltrack, CBS’ vice president of planning and research. “Eventually, by year two, it will be a case of the best man winning -- and that will be David Letterman.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Dave does Vegas -- and welcomes crossbow artist Hans Pantar

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Early days: David Letterman during his NBC Late Night years.

Note to readers: One of David Letterman’s early road trips, as host of his old NBC Late Night show, took him to Las Vegas for a week. He was more media-accessible back then, as was his idol, Johnny Carson, during the formative stages of his career. A handful of TV critics were invited to join Letterman and his crew in Vegas for interviews, behind-the-scenes access, etc. Here’s how that went down. (This article was first published on May 24, 1987.)

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
LAS VEGAS -- Live from Greenwich Village, it’s the Merv Griffin Show!!!

O-o-o-o-h, stranger in a strange land. But consider the flip side: hip David Letterman on stage with Merv’s motherlode -- Lola Falana, Robert Goulet, crossbow artist Hans Pantar and Clint Carvollo and his Exotic Birds. A fish out of water in the land of the jumbo shrimp cocktail -- Late Night with David Letterman meets Vegas. Va-va-voom.

“Is there an absurdity to doing the show in Vegas? Yeah, I think so, Letterman says from Late Night headquarters at Bally’s Hotel, where Dean Martin and the Golddiggers are the headline act. “I think there’s an absurdity to the town being her at all. It’s a sociological phenomenon. It’s fascinating. You may love it or you may hate it, but you’re going to be intrigued by it.

“Nothing’s really changed. The fact that the Golddiggers are still in business and they’re still appearing with Dean Martin -- certainly the sensibility of the place hasn’t changed. It was never our intention to make fun of it, but for 60 minutes a night you sort of give a feel of it.”

Letterman and Vegas tend to mix like showgirls and Fred Rogers. He has packed no polyester for this visit to Wayne Newton’s kinda town. For an interview he wears a gray George Washington University T-shirt, red shorts and a Los Angeles Dodgers cap. Later he can be seen bouncing a baseball through the hotel casino.

“One night, in a matter of minutes, I lost 21 bucks playing blackjack,” he says. “And I just thought, ‘Boy, even if I’d won, it wasn’t fun.’ I mean, I could go into a casino and say, ‘Here’s 21 bucks, talk to me for half an hour.’ And it would have been about the same feeling.”

Until last week’s four shows, taped in the Ziegfeld showroom at Bally’s, Letterman had never performed in Vegas, nor visited it for recreational purposes. There was Lake Tahoe, though, a Nevada death trap for him when he opened for Falana at the Sahara in the late 1970s.

“I did my standup every night to absolute dead silence,” he recalls. “You could hear people with dull knives cutting through prime rib. From the time I appeared out of the wings until the time I got to the microphone -- maybe 30 feet -- the applause would die about 10 feet into that walk. So I got to walk the last 20 feet in complete silence. And the ignominy would build from there. If I had to come here and do my standup act in front of these people, they’d eat me alive.”

The Late Night tapings in Vegas have a life insurance policy. Tickets for the shows were handled through NBC’s New York offices, ensuring that Letterman’s audience would be predominantly young and suitably crazed.

“They’re here for us. They weren’t on the way to the Liberace museum,” says Barry Sand, executive producer of Late Night.

Some 15,000 requests were received but only about 4,000 lucky winners can be squeezed into the gaudy Ziegfeld showroom for the four mid-afternoon tapings of Late Night. Lines wind through the mammoth Ballys casino, past the slots, roulette wheels and gaming tables. Even Vegas is impressed.

“This is perceived as an extremely big deal,” says an entertainment writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which is giving front page coverage to Late Night’s visit. Radio DJs are sponsoring “Dave Watches,” with prizes awarded to listeners who spot Letterman and identify his whereabouts. Try the Hoover Dam, which he toured before turning it into a miniature chowder crock during Monday’s segment on “New Gift Items” from Vegas.

“Have you ever been to this thing?” he asks. “It’s unbelievable. No society builds things like that anymore. It was a real statement of our position in the world. I mean, it’s quite an edifice. You walk around, and your jaw just drops. And then you’re 30 minutes in a car and you come back and it’s Dean Martin and the Golddiggers. So it’s just, you know, it’s great.”

***

The roads to Ballys are lined with Vegas goop.

“Bob Stupak for Mayor? You Bet!” reads a placard promoting his candidacy. It’s a campaign peculiar to this town. Stupak owns the gargantuan Vegas World hotel and casino. And his placards are affixed to newspaper racks advertising hotel room service by “The Sexiest and Most Beautiful Triple X-rated Bodies in Las Vegas.”

Outside the main entrance to Ballys is a fountain featuring a humongous nude Greek god circled by four maidens whose bared, hand-cupped breasts spurt streams of water.

Another entrance leads to a mall area where one can gaze upon a life-size plaster statue of Wayne Newton. A commemorative plaque reads in part: “Although his talents have brought joy to many, he has endeared himself even more through his generosity in giving of himself for the benefit of others less fortunate. For this reason, Wayne is considered by many to personify the word ‘outstanding.’ “

Newton, who recently won a $19 million libel judgment against NBC, was willing to do Late Night had he not been otherwise engaged in Atlantic City.

“Oh yeah, he had no problem with that,” Sand says. “Once the 15 rounds are up, you usually shake hands and go to dinner.”

Sand also wanted Bobby Berosini and his orangutans, but “I guess that somehow they thought we were going to make fun of the orangutans. And the orangutan community would have been very upset.”

Hans Pantar, the crossbow expert, provided a chilling moment on Monday’s show when he blindfolded himself, turned his back on his wife and then shot an arrow through the target she held over her head. The seemingly gruff Hans had no time for Letterman’s small talk.

“We were his first television exposure,” Sand says. “He had maybe 10 minutes of rehearsal. You know, a millimeter off and she’s a dead person. And I’m saying, ‘Could you move it along, please?’ So this guy had a lot of pressure on him. He’s trying to think about how not to murder his wife, and we’re trying to kid around with him. Plus, he’s a pretty intense guy. It’s an intense profession, crossbow work.”

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Different temperaments: Letterman and crossbow artist Hans Pantar.

Vegas has a high-mockability quotient, especially from Late Night’s perspective. But Sand is an admirer of the city’s grind-away glitz.

“It’s show business,” he says. “It’s like being close to the reactor. It’s very hard to say it, but this is getting down in to the bowels to find out where the heating system is. We’re just getting sort of whiffs of show business in television. But the real core of it is Las Vegas. Just go to any of these casinos, and you’ll know what show business is. It is an am-a-a-azing place. I’m going to have a bellyful of show business when I go back to New York.”

***

It seems an impossibility, but David Letterman turned 40 on April 12th.

“For me, it came and went with little impact,” he says. “There was no celebration to speak of. The folks at the office gave me little token mementos, and that was about it. No trauma. I’ve never been a real good celebrator of anything, and 40 was no exception. It has had, at this point, no major impact on my emotional stability.”

Letterman continues his longtime relationship with Merrill Markoe, a Late Night writer and producer of the remote segments that in Vegas took him to Hoover Dam, through wedding chapels and on a tour of the city with Elvis impersonator Tony Roy and a 57-year-old drifter who ended up signing autographs for tourists.

The Letterman/Markoe partnership has endured through the brief run of his daytime show on NBC and through five years and three months of Late Night.

“I really would love to have kids,” he says. “I’m tired of spending all my waking energy worrying about the show, and I wish I had a more normal anchoring system, like everybody else in America. I wish I had a reasonable home life and stuff, but you work so hard and so long to get something that you want that you’re hesitant to relax -- at least I am -- because you’re afraid it might go away.

“I’m not lying to you. I do feel that way. And I know other people feel that way, because I had the same talk with Jane Pauley years and years ago, and she feels the same way, about it all slipping away. I don’t know why I just can’t sort of relax and be a little easier-going about it, but I can’t seem to do it.”

Told that Burt Reynolds seems to be doing an “I want to be a father” interview every other month, Letterman laughs and rejoins, “See, nobody should be in show business, because if you’re not an asshole, it’ll turn you into one. There should be no show business. It shouldn’t be allowed. You don’t need to be entertained, for God’s sakes.”

***

Late Night bandleader Paul Shaffer is still knocked out by the experience of doing an arrangement for Sammy Davis Jr., who sang “For Once In My Life” on Tuesday’s show.

“I love Sammy Davis,” he says in a voice that seldom rises above a golf announcer’s whisper. “People don’t understand. Or maybe I’m different than other people. A lot of people kid him, but I think that he’s just an incredible talent. Yeah, I got off on the experience of working with him. When Sammy sings, you gotta respect that.”

Bruised by negative reviews of his current cable special, Viva Shaf Vegas, Shaffer is wondering why nearly everyone nailed “what I thought was a pretty far-out show.”

“People didn’t get it. Nobody got it,” he says. “People don’t understand that I love these performers. I think I’m more of a celebrity here than anywhere else because people understand my ‘take’ on Vegas here. They don’t think that I’m putting them down. They have a sense of humor about themselves, and when I do my Vegas shtick,I think they appreciate that. I came to do my show here because I love the town. I don’t know -- Letterman -- why he came here. I think we’re all a little unclear as to what our attitude’s supposed to be.”

Although he has a reputation as a Vegas hound, Shaffer’s last visit, until this year, was as a 13-year-old boy whose lawyer father took him to all the top shows.

“Now that I think back on it, that’s what started me on this fascination,” he says. “My dad came to see good shows. We saw Nat King Cole, Juliet Prowse, Sarah Vaughan in a lounge. He refused to take me to the schlocky things. Ben Casey -- (actor) Vince Edwards -- was playing in a show. ‘Can’t we go see him?’ He refused. ‘No, that’s not any fun.’ And I sure never forgot it.”

Shaffer speaks glowingly of Wayne Newton “giving me a huge show business introduction!” upon spotting him in the audience. It’s a shame, he says, that Vegas has been cheapened by the likes of Larry Linville of M*A*S*H, advertised in Army fatigues as the star of Never Too Late at the Union Plaza showroom.

“I hate to say it, but that’s what Vegas is becoming now, a place where old TV stars can play and still live off their reputations.”

***

We pause now for a few riffs from Dave the Vegas tourist.

“I want to see the Brazilian show down the street. Fabulous Brazilian babes. It’s Oba, Oba, or Uba, Uba. Something like that.”

“And I did see Legends with Tony Roy. It’s an odd show. It’s all people impersonating dead folks. And I was thinking, if I die suddenly, I’d like to be part of the show. I went backstage and had my picture taken with ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘Louis Armstrong.’ It was just kind of an odd reach to the other side, almost an another-world experience. The kind of thing you read about in The Enquirer.”

***

He’s the son of Bob Elliott, of television’s storied Bob and Ray comedy team. His birth amounted to a commercial break.

“It was, ‘Dad, I gotta do homework.’ He’d say, ‘Well, let’s watch some TV first, young man.’ The TV was always on, from the early evening news to The Tonight Show, when I fell asleep.”

Whether he’s Conspiracy Guy, Fugitive Guy, Regulator Guy or the host of “Nightlife,” Chris Elliott’s contributions to Late Night are shot from a cathode-ray gun. On Monday’s show from Vegas, he played Skylark, a fictional Chris Elliott impersonator appearing in Kenny Kerr’s “Boy-lesque” revue at the Silver Slipper.

“Bad TV, that’s where I find most of my stuff, yeah,” he says. “The Mannixes and the Cannons and the Medical Centers are sort of gold mines for me. My goal is to have my own cop drama one of these years. I’d definitely like to have my own kind of Mannix show.”

***

“It’s only TV” is a trademark Letterman kiss-off. But he doesn’t really feel that way.

“I’m not that cavalier about it. I wish I was,” he says. “I wish I could say it’s vapor, it goes out into the universe and you never see it again. But I can’t be that relaxed about it. I know that on any given night we can do a pretty bad show ourselves. So I don’t want to sound effete and aloof and condescending, because I know we have cluttered up the airwaves with our share of crap.

“I do know, though, that I’d rather have something on television that would cause people to wince or look cockeyed, than to talk to somebody about Knots Landing. You know, ‘Tell me how your character has grown, tell me about that cliffhanger.’ We do so much of that on our show that I feel kind of oily sometimes. We’re as guilty as anybody else.”

For Letterman, the kick is to walk a tightrope between put-on and put-out. Was actor Charles Grodin really peeved at his host when he aggressively defended Ishtar against a dig Letterman took before introducing him?

“I think it was a put-on,” Letterman says. “But it’s fun to sit at home and wonder, ’Is the guy really ticked off or not?’ You hardly ever see anything on TV that you can’t figure out. I was watching Ted Koppel interview Ferdinand Marcos one night. And during a commercial break I turned over to watch Grodin and (Johnny) Carson. And I never went back to Ferdinand Marcos because it was one of those deals where Grodin was just working him and working him.

“He’d say, ‘Well, Johnny, what makes you tick? What makes you laugh? We don’t know anything about you. Who are you?’ It was relentless, but it was fascinating. I think Grodin’s absolutely great. He comes on with that snitty, little wimpy kind of weaselly attitude, and it’s quite amusing.”

Letterman remains acutely aware that a number of critics and entertainers consider him to be a jerk of an interviewer. Cher used stronger words a year ago when Letterman asked her why she finally had agreed to do the show.

“Because you thought I . . .” he began. She finished his sentence with an expletive.

“The trouble with me and our show is I still get people feeling that I’m nasty and that I’m hurting people’s feelings,” he says. “In the beginning it really bothered me that people had that perception. So I would work on trying to hold back and assess the situation a little bit better before I went in there. But I still get criticized. So for all my vigilance, it hasn’t paid off.”

NBC is paying Letterman multi-millions of dollars under the terms of a new three-year contract that will take Late Night into the 1990s.

“I’m just sure I’ve been screwed, but it’s nice to know you have a job,” he jokes. “It’s my constant fear that sooner or later the show will just start to erode and defuse and it just won’t be as good. Then again, I don’t know how good it ever was.

“I hesitate to say this, but I’ve always felt that maybe the show could never really live up to the impression many people have of it. I think that some people who don’t watch the show think it’s a much bigger, much more important show than it actually is.

“Then they turn it on and say, ‘This -- this is what they’re all talking about?’ “

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Brian Williams, Matt Lauer and the entertainment angles of network TV news

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In happier times: Brian Williams and Matt Lauer on Today show set.

In light of NBC anchor Brian Williams’ transgressions and suspension, much has been written about whether the celebrity status of today’s news anchors has been injurious to their journalism. They’re now pretty much expected to appear on late night comedy shows to further sell “the brand.” Eighteen years ago, when Williams was still an up-and-coming MSNBC anchor and Matt Lauer was in his first year as Bryant Gumbel’s Today Show replacement, I interviewed both men in New York about their willingness to straddle both worlds. Back then, Williams thought it would be “crossing a line” to host NBC’s Saturday Night Live. He eventually crossed that line while also “slow-jamming” the news with Jimmy Fallon on several occasions. This article originally was published on Nov. 24, 1997.

By ED BARK
NEW YORK -- Termed “unfairly handsome” by Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Brian Williams, 38, fairly oozes with aplomb and appeal. Not only that, he’s a terrific talk show guest.

If Williams isn’t the fastest-rising star in television news, then . . . Matt Lauer is. Anointed television’s sexiest anchor by People magazine, the 39-year-old babyface has kept Today’s ratings rising and shining since replacing Bryant Gumbel in January. Not only that, he’s a terrific talk show guest.

That both men work for NBC should send seismic tremors through rival news organizations. While they search and scramble for the next century’s superstars, NBC already seems to have the future in its hip pocket. Williams and Lauer are standard-bearers for a new generation of news dude. Good-looking and glib, but also geared for the hard-drive of pressing events, they seem equally adept at bantering on late-night television or grilling a slippery politician. Williams, who was NBC’s chief White House correspondent before becoming a full-time anchor last fall, underscores this point with an assist from President Clinton.

“My wife and I went to a state dinner,” he says seconds before slipping into a dead-on impression of Clinton.”We get up to the president’s receiving line and he says, ‘I saw you on Jay Leno last night. You were good.’ I just couldn’t believe it. It’s remarkable. An hour and a half earlier, I was on his front lawn kicking him in the shorts. But he’s never stood up at a press conference and said, ‘Who are you to make that allegation? You go on late-night TV and Eric Sevareid never did, you ninny.’ “

Not that Sevareid, television’s pre-eminent commentator of the 1960s, was entirely stiff, starched and humorless. But most earlier-era TV newsmen wouldn’t have come close to making People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” list, as Lauer and Williams have. Nor could they have segued seamlessly onto a late-night talk show to trade barbs and quips with the likes of Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.

Lauer, billed as Today’s “co-anchor” in NBC press materials, questions whether that shoe fits anymore. He is interviewed an hour after wearing a Barney Rubble costume on Today’s annual Halloween show. But he also is only 15 minutes removed from doing live updates on the trial of British au pair Louise Woodward.

“I don’t think I’m expected to be the “quote-unquote anchor” anymore. I don’t know that the word has the same meaning it did 20 years ago,” Lauer says. “The role has changed. I consider myself to be more of a host. I like the word better. It means you’re going to do the cooking and fitness segments and interview the celebrities. But you’re also going to be there when the stock market declines and the manny trial verdict comes in. People are used to seeing a more well-rounded personality from guys like me, and I think that’s better. I don’t know if in this day and age you can survive as a kind of one-dimensional news anchor.”

Both NBC newsmen grew up watching and worshipping Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years before giving way to Leno in May 1992. For each, being a guest on Tonight is a fantasy fulfilled.

“The first time I was on the show, I was a little upset that I hadn’t had the chance to do it when Johnny Carson was there,” Lauer says. “If you ask me who’s the one person I want to interview right now, it’s Johnny Carson. That would have just been a mind-boggling experience if he were still doing Tonight. I probably would have wet myself and sat there in a puddle.”

In a memorable Tonight appearance last year, Williams more than held his own with fellow guests Cher and Jane Fonda. When Cher cracked that he was handsome but looked “too Republican,” Williams told her she might try being a little nicer to one of the few people who had bought her “Half Breed” album.

“I use the same set of skills I use every night on the news,” Williams says minutes after completing another edition of MSNBC’s The News With Brian Williams at the fledgling 24-hour network’s eye-popping, future-is-now building in Secaucus, NJ. “You think on your feet whether you’re interviewing a head of state or Cher is serving up some line. It’s like a high slider and you may have an eighth-of-a-second turnaround time on that stuff. And you try to kill it.”

Williams is described as the “heir apparent” to Tom Brokaw so often that he might as well have it stenciled on his forehead. But he already has an arguably better job than the veteran Nightly News anchor. His acclaimed prime-time MSNBC newscast, which airs at 8 p.m. weeknights, is repeated the following hour on the CNBC cable network. Williams also anchors the Saturday edition of Nightly News and is the No. 1 substitute on Meet the Press and Today. NBC recently signed him to a new contract that runs through 2002. By then, might the Nightly News be looking rusty, dusty?

“They are a bona fide institution over there at 30 Rock,” Williams says of NBC Studios in Manhattan. “And the Nightly News is still an enchilada-class job, as in big. But this is a fabulous job, too. And what these ‘heir apparent’ stories miss is that I quietly have my own gig over here and it’s pretty wonderful. If this was only about getting myself seen in front of as many Americans as possible, I’d be a game show host. Or I’d be hosting a syndicated magazine show (such as Inside Edition or Hard Copy) that comes on after Tom.”

He instead settles for recurring appearances on Tonight, Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. He has declined invitations, however, to be a guest host on Saturday Night Live. That would be “crossing a line,” says the self-described “comedy dilettante.”

“I basically go on Leno because I can, and because it’s great fun,” Williams says. “I’m the son of an actress, a very loud Irish Catholic woman from the South Side of Chicago who at her death from cancer left behind a gene that gave me the ability to make my mouth move in front of people watching me. Not to say I’m Shecky Greene.”

Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Show with David Letterman, says Williams and Lauer are “just perfect talk show guests. You don’t have to worry about these guys. You can ask them anything. They know how to fill up time, how to be funny, charming and witty. Dave’s favorite thing is to go out there and just talk to people without using the prepared notes. And these guys can do that.”

On Lauer’s last two Late Show appearances, Letterman has introduced him as “everybody’s favorite TV pretty boy.” This doesn’t particularly amuse Lauer, but he understands the game being played.

“He’s trying to get you to walk out there and immediately be in a combative mood with him,” Lauer says. “He does like to banter back and forth, and that’s his way of getting it going immediately. The second time he said that, I told him, ‘That’s why nobody likes you.’ And we were off and running.”

Lauer says he’s always running scared, though. Outwardly smooth and conversational, he’s inwardly twisting and churning like a taffy-making machine.

“I don’t love it,” he says. “You take a deep breath, you suck it up and you hope you don’t bomb. But in terms of being real comfortable with these appearances, if it comes off that way, it’s a miracle. I dread them. I start thinking about them two nights before. I get nervous and then I usually do a post-mortem and think I was terrible.

“Brian’s hysterical. The guy could be a stand-up comic. He’s great on those shows. I’m OK being funny spontaneously, but I don’t like the pressure of being told that in your five-minute segment you’ve gotta have five funny lines. It’s not easy. It really isn’t.”

But in today’s crowded TV news environment, it increasingly seems to be part of the job. During a recent appearance on Snyder’s show, a woman caller who had never seen Williams before told him how impressed she was with his quick wit and ability to communicate. As a result, she planned to watch his newscast every night.

“This is someone I hadn’t hit before,” Williams says. “I hadn’t arrived on her radar screen.”

Lauer says viewers “are more comfortable hearing the news from people they’d actually like to spend time with. So on these talk shows, we tell them a little bit more about ourselves by showing our personalities. Then they know we have the same hopes and fears they do. And senses of humor that can be quirky and weird sometimes.”

Don’t expect competing networks to laugh, though. Williams and Lauer give NBC a leg up on the millennium while ABC, CBS and CNN watch their incumbent Big Dippers grow grayer.

“I can’t believe I’m seeing myself on television of any kind,” Williams demurs. “This is a coveted job I have in a very tough industry. And I think I’ve been able to get here without leaving a trail of blood or enemies. Of course, some people hate me. It’s the nature of the business. But I don’t think you’d find all that many. I’ve tried to do it nicely and be respectful to the people who have helped me on the way up. I’ve had a heap of luck, really. I’ve made some good decisions here and there . . .

“I’m starting to sound like Bob Dole,” he says before easily sliding into an impression of the 1996 Republican presidential nominee.

It’s a good one, of course.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Twenty TV seasons ago: Quality series and high ratings go hand-in-hand, with the old-line broadcast networks still setting the standard

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The cast of Friends and George Clooney from the early years of ER. NBC photos

Note to readers: It’s been a while since the Big Four broadcast networks have experienced a Golden Age of television. But back during the 1994-’95 TV season, NBC set the pace for a renaissance in which quality new series such as Friends and ER meshed with the ratings tastes of the viewing public at large. We’re now in times when most of the critical darlings are the property of cable networks or Netflix. Return with us now to 20 TV seasons ago, when the broadcast networks were newly determined to stand taller. This article originally was published on April 3, 1995.

By ED BARK
What’s this? The cream is rising to the top of the prime-time Nielsen ratings.

Formerly the stompiing grounds of savaged series such as Three’s Company, The A-Team and Dallas, today’s top 10 list is an amazing-but-true story of TV critics and viewers reaching critical mass.

We like No. 1-rated Seinfeld, and you do, too. Ditto for No. 2 Home Improvement and No. 3 ER. Of television’s 10 most popular series, only Angela Lansbury’s enduring Murder, She Wrote seems out of sync. And it’s no more than a harmless misdemeanor in even the toughest critic’s view.

“This is a great message to send to us,” says NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield. “Viewers are telling us to aim high, respect us, give us quality entertainment, and we’ll be there.”

An explosion in viewing choices and the increased targeting of 18-to-49-year-old viewers also are causing the networks to “raise the bar a bit” in prime time, says Betsy Frank of New York’s Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency. If moviemakers are “dumbing down,” television is smartening up. The “lowest common denominator” programming strategies of the past now seem as antiquated as a Dukes of Hazzard car chase.

“NBC has been targeting what they’ve always called the ‘mass with class’ audience,” says Frank, whose company brokers TV advertising time. “Everybody in effect is now going after those NBC viewers. It’s hard to say exactly how these things happen, but I think a more discerning viewer is a reality.”

Brian McAndrews, vice president in charge of ABC series, says the networks must compete harder than ever just to hold onto what they have. at the outset of the 1980s, ABC, NBC and CBS still drew 90 percent of all television viewers. Competition from cable, Fox, VCRs and hundreds of new independent stations has shrunk the network audience share to 57 percent this season.

“You have a lot more people competing harder for the same television universe,” McAndrews says. “So I think you do end up with more good shows. The audience is more sophisticated, and they’re not going to stick around as long if they don’t like something.”

NBC pushed quality in time when quality wasn’t necessarily cool. In the 1982-83 season, the network introduced Cheers, St. Elsewhere and Family Ties to an initially uninterested public. All three landed near the bottom of the ratings in a season when Nielsen’s top dogs included Dallas, Dynasty, Three’s Company, Simon & Simon, Falcon Crest, The Love Boat and The A-Team. Those seven series won a lone Emmy -- for music composition on Dallas. Cheers alone took home five Emmys that year.

NBC stuck with Cheers, Family Ties and St. Elsewhere through thin and thin. The network finally was rewarded in the 1984-85 season, when The Cosby Show burst out of the blocks at 7 p.m. Thursdays and fed massive audiences to the immediately following Family Ties and Cheers. By the 1986-87 season, these critically acclaimed series also ranked 1, 2, 3 in the prime time ratings. With Night Court and L.A. Law also on the docket, NBC promoted Thursday as the “best night of television on television.”

The network also has kept the faith on Thursdays this season with a revamped, ratings-rich lineup of critical darlings beginning with Mad About You and ending with ER. And it is having success building another tony night on Tuesdays with the transplanted Frasier and Wings and the new NewsRadio.

“In our past, when we’ve been smart and entertaining, the audience eventually has been there for us,” Littlefield says. “I also think it’s fair to say that (former NBC chairman) rant Tinker’s words of the ‘80s are still rattling around: ‘First be best, then be first.’ “

ABC has been a class act this season, too, with Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, NYPD Blue and Roseanne holding down spots in Nielsen’s top 10. It’s a marked change from the 1980s, when ABC relied heavily on programming produced by Aaron Spelling.

The Dallas native’s production company had an exclusive contract with the network, and in some seasons filled one-third of its prime time schedule. Spelling’s hits invariably were under heavy fire from TV critics, some of whom dubbed ABC the Aaron Broadcasting Company. Dynasty, The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, Hotel, Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, T.J. Hooker and the like were described as “mind candy” by Spelling himself.

In 1986, ABC’s new entertainment president, Brandon Stoddard, began to wean the network away from Spelling and toward a more sophisticated brand of series epitomized by Moonlighting. ABC is without any Spelling series at the moment, but McAndrews says that’s not by choice in light of the producer’s recent success on Fox with Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place.

“I think Aaron has done some very god work,” McAndrews says. “We don’t control what the critics write, and we don’t program for the critics. We program for the adult 18-to-49-year-old audience. There was certainly no strategic shift here away from Aaron Spelling. We’re developing something with him right now (the Fort Lauderdale-based Pier 6).

McAndrews notes that one of this season’s most critically acclaimed series, ABC’s My So-Called Life, was a ratings disaster on Thursdays at 7 p.m. True enough, although many viewers weren’t opting for junk instead of this cutting-edge, coming-of-age drama. They instead were tuning to NBC’s Mad About You.

Another high-quality series, CBS’ Picket Fences, also continues to struggle in the ratings. But that’s in part because it’s scheduled against NBC’s equally worthy Homicide: Life on the Street. CBS’ stellar Chicago Hope, buried early in the season opposite ER, has since found an appreciative audience at 9 p.m. Mondays, where it regularly prevails in the ratings. Another quality drama, NBC’s Law and Order, is enjoying its highest ratings ever in its fifth season.

“I don’t think viewers are necessarily brighter,” Frank says. “But with all these viewing choices, I do think they’re most selective. You come to realize that you can’t watch everything. So viewers have become more critical of what they watch.”

McAndrews says the success of adult-oriented sitcoms at 7 p.m. -- notably NBC’s Wings and Mad About You -- is turning ABC away from the more simple-minded comedy in “kid-driven” shows such as Full House and Growing Pains. Last week, the network moved Roseanne from 8 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights as part of a six-week experiment.

“Rightly or wrongly, since those shows (Roseanne, Mad About You, etc.) appeal more to adults, I think they appeal more to television critics, too,” McAndrews says. “Our strategy in the past has been to put very strong kid-driven series with adults in them at 7 o’clock and then attract both a kid and an adult audience. But we can’t take the adults for granted anymore. With two TVs in a house, we might lose them.”

Action shows replete with gunfire and car chases also are in virtual eclipse on network television. Concerns about violence and the heavier financial costs of action scenes have led to more cerebral, character-driven, ensemble dramas.

“The word ‘distinctive’ comes to mind,” NBC’s Littlefield says. “You can’t just throw something on the air as a place-saver anymore. Now when we listen to an idea, we asks ourselves whether it qualifies for network television or whether you can find it somewhere else on the dial. And if you can find it somewhere else, we move on.”

The result this season has been a bountiful harvest of Emmy-friendly comedies and dramas. And a welcome meeting of the minds between critics who get the first say and viewers who make the final calls.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net