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The Man Behind the Curtain

Dan Dunn

I went to New York and saw The Late Show with David Letterman last week, and I will never look at television the same way again. I've always had a healthy distrust of the small screen, but the producer's trickery on Thursday was on a pretty impressive scale.

The evening was, of course, interesting. It began with a longish wait, standing outside in the sleet. We had numbered tickets that placed us around the corner on 54th St. We hid under an awning and were joined by a Letterman intern in a snazzy CBS jacket.

"What's it like working for Dave?" I asked.

"It's OK. They don't pay me much. But then again, I sure don't do much."

As far as I could tell, her job consisted of trying to keep people from jumping in line while standing in some nasty weather. She was easy to believe, and the most trustworthy of the night.

After a while, they let us stand in line indoors. Beforehand, we had been next door in the Ed Sullivan bar. Our Ed Sullivan beers were screaming for the Ed Sullivan bathroom, but we would lose our place in line. We crossed our legs and waited.

Once seated (and relieved), we were treated to an outtake of David Letterman working at the drive-through window at Taco Bell. A middle-aged woman was harassed about her choice of "hot beef," stared at the speaker and said "I know your voice! Are you Howard Stern?"

We all laughed. The piece was doing its work, warming the crowd up. But the warm-up had just begun.

A roly-poly man in a leather jacket bounced onto the stage. He was the warm-up comic, and he launched into a lame routine about advertising by electric companies. We sat in our seats and whispered about how low on the totem pole the warm-up comic must be. Unable to get a real job doing standup in a club, he gets an audience that couldn't care less if he lived or died they just want to see Dave.

Dave came out, dressed in a mismatched suit with his pants pulled up way too high. It may work on TV, but in person he looked like your grandfather. You just don't want to see a belt that high.

He announced the next bit of trickery. Did you know that Letterman is taped the day before it is shown? It was Thursday night, but we were encouraged to "yell and scream, its Friday night!" This was a bit hard to swallow.

Letterman in person looks very skinny. Not surprisingly, he does perform for the camera more than his audience. He runs in and out, looking at the camera and making faces. But in person it just doesn't work as well.

One of the funnier points was right after the Top Ten List. Dave had been on a string about the Winter Olympics, Nagano, and the fact that there is no snow. "There's gonna be a s---load of trucks" he said.

We were so excited. Dave had said the "s" word! We watched TV the next day, waiting to see him wiggle his way out of it. The Top Ten List came and went, and the show jumped straight to ads. No public humiliation, no FCC sanction, nothing. Lost to the cutting room floor. Maybe someday he'll put out a "Too Hot for Television" highlights reel.

The largest piece of trickery was yet to come. The producer told us that the band Jars of Clay had come in the day before, and would not be with us. So, Letterman introduced them, and we watched a tape of them playing. Afterwards, Dave announced their new CD and thanked them for coming.

Watching the show at home, it was seamless. No one watching would know, but we did. Jars of Clay was not there, no matter what it looked like.

This made me wonder about the rest of the Letterman shows that I have watched. How many bands, guests, and comedy bits were recorded earlier in the week, or earlier in the year? I always knew it was taped and edited a bit, but I had just assumed there was more. I liked my ignorance better.

There are a few final notes. First, Sandra Bernhard is just as weird in person as on television. Who does her hair? Who dresses her? Who does her personality?

Finally, the CBS Orchestra is quite good. The songs they play for the live audience during the ads are worth listening to. It is too bad that they are lost every night while the ads play on.