The day that David Letterman announced his retirement as host of CBS’ Late Show, I happened to be in New York City working on a documentary film project. I was walking up Broadway with the Ambassador to Madagascar, Zina Andrianarivelo-Razafy, whom I was about to interview in a hotel just a few blocks away. We noticed a number of satellite trucks parked outside of Ed Sullivan Theatre.
“I went to the same college as Mr. Letterman.” I said, pointing at the big, blue Late Show marquee.
The Ambassador started laughing. “Ball State! Me too!”
I thought he was joking. Or confused. “Uh, you went to Ball State?” I said.
“Yes. Go Cardinals.” He said, smiling.
Turns out the Ambassador had ended up in beautiful Muncie, Indiana to earn his Masters degree. It was his first time in the States. Things had turned out well for him, it seemed.
I asked the Ambassador if he knew Mr. Letterman, who is just a few years his senior.
“No, I was there at a later time. You must have, though. You’re in the same business, right?”
“Kind of.” I said. “But I did meet him once.”
I glanced up at the building and we walked on to do our interview about lemurs.
Surly. That was the word someone used to describe Letterman to me. I was nineteen and had no idea what it meant. I only knew he was from the same state as me and had transcended a Midwest upbringing into something much, much larger. I knew I wanted to do the same. Besides, I could handle surly. I had attended Bob Knight’s basketball camp and had a grandfather who enjoyed his Greyhounds just a little too much. Indiana at its finest.
I had watched David Letterman on television for as long as I could remember. Although I was a little too young to catch everything he was doing in the infancy of Late Night, I always felt like I got it. The irreverence. The absurdity. Despite his reputation I felt I could sense a deeper compassion from him. It always seemed to me that he felt too lucky to be doing what he was doing. Like he was almost embarrassed by his success yet worked like a dog to maintain it. I felt I understood.
That feeling followed me as I began to make horrible homemade movies in my basement as a 12 year-old. It continued as I entered a TV production class in High School and it reached its zenith as I entered Ball State in the Fall of 1995.
Almost immediately, I worked my way onto a cable access show called Man on the Street that featured interviews with drunk people on campus and the occasional celebrity. The show’s creator and host, Matt Liston, was in his last year of school and had an innate ability to bullshit his way into all kinds of crazy situations. Fortunately, I had a partner – a cameraman and editor named Bill Baker. Bill was two years older than me and, fortunately for both of us, much more organized than me. Together, we made that show work.
In that first year we had managed to interview Henry Rollins, Dr. Ruth and sneak backstage at Farm Aid just in time to catch Willie Nelson smoke bombing his tour bus with Dave Matthews. We got kicked out of the world headquarters of McDonald’s and I had watched Liston get knocked out in the parking lot of a Louisville liquor store by a couple of hammered rednecks who didn’t like his long hair and Doc Marten’s. We had a lot of quality moments under our belts but Letterman, for any TV student at Ball State, was the Big Get and Liston had been working on it for years.
As Spring Break approached, Liston felt that he was close to getting the interview. We were instructed to stay on call over the break. He was planning to go to New York for the break and would summon us as soon as he got the green light.
On Tuesday morning, he called me at my parent’s house, about an hour north of Indianapolis.
“We got it. Tomorrow night. 7:30. Can you get here?”
It was 9 in the morning. We needed to travel 740 miles. There was a blizzard coming and I had about $5.00 to my name.
“Of course we can. See you tomorrow.”
I called Bill, borrowed my mom’s Pontiac and we were on our way within a couple of hours. The blizzard seemed to follow us the entire way out. I can’t remember how we even paid for gas. Maybe Bill did. Driving through the night, we had several close calls on the road. Somehow, we made it to New York City by dawn and I promptly drove us right into a traffic jam in the middle of Times Square.
Neither of us would admit it but we were a little nervous. Having never been in the city, pre-cell phone, we really didn’t have a clue what to do. Exhausted, we somehow found the hotel where our Liston was staying. We walked in just in time to see him checking out. “I’m out of money. Besides, we’re shooting outside all day today.” He said.
We looked outside. It was the middle of January. It was raining sideways. We were going on hour 24. Lovely.
The next eight hours were a miserable blur. Walking the streets, we shot horrible, handheld footage of city landmarks. Liston hustled an interview with the owner of the Hello Deli, Rupert Gee, mostly for the opportunity to dry off and charge our camera batteries. We put everything we had on a single outlet and tried to dry off our cameras, hoping they would hold up through the interview with Letterman.
At 7:00pm we walked to the Ed Sullivan Theatre and found the talent entrance at the side door. Miraculously, someone came to greet us and ushered us inside. That evening’s show had just concluded taping so the building was relatively empty. Our guide, an intern, took us directly into the theatre and across the famous stage.
“This is where the Beatles came…”
I was dizzy.
We walked through the backstage area where the intern stopped us. “This is where Dave walks from his dressing room to the curtain. We refer to it as ‘The Moment.’”
We couldn’t believe our luck. I kept waiting for someone to kick us out.
Next, we were in a backstage elevator, headed several floors above the theater to the Late Show offices. A woman who said she was a producer for the show met us. She showed us into a small office room that had an empty desk, bookshelf and one lamp.
We didn’t have lights. Hell, if we did we wouldn’t have known what to with them. We were shown the room, turned on the lamp and said, “Ready.” The producer looked at us, amused.
“Okay. You’ll have five minutes with him. Don’t take pictures.” She hurried out of the room and within a few minutes we heard someone deadpan from the hallway.
“What the hell’s going on in here?”
It was Dave. We froze. Then tried to look busy.
Letterman sized us up quickly, shook everyone’s hand and seemed appropriately amused. We were a sight to behold, armed with two S-VHS cameras, a metal pole for a microphone boom that was held together with duct tape and we smelled. Badly.
Perhaps we reminded him of his time at BSU or maybe he was just being nice but Letterman sat down, lit a cigar and proceeded to give us nearly 45 minutes in a hilarious and wide-ranging conversation. It went on so long, in fact, that Bill’s cameras died before we were done.
Letterman seemed happiest when talking about his memories of Ball State. Getting drunk on the roof of his fraternity house, hosting his first radio shows, and scraping by to get his degree. Although I skipped Greek life, I once again felt the similarities. I spent all of my free time working in the television building, throwing together projects that will (hopefully) never see the light of day. Burning for it. Loving the entire process. Willing my way into something more than I was.
As we were wrapping up, one of the guys snapped a photo. Once Letterman left, we got a little slap on the wrist from Producer Lady. No matter though; we were buzzing. We gathered our gear and, right as we started to walk out, I swiped his box of matches off of the desk.
As we walked out onto 53rd Street, there was much high-fiving and holyfuckingshits. As I have since learned, those incredibly brief moments of satisfaction come seldom in this job. We’re always moving on to the next thing. The next Big Worry. Besides, we didn’t have money for a hotel. We still had to drive back to Indiana that night.
Mr. Letterman, I wouldn’t assume that you will ever read this. Lord knows, you’re going to be flooded with much more important stuff over the next few weeks. But, if you do, please know that the few minutes you gave us that day in 1996 did not go to waste.
Twenty years later, we’re still at it. I’ve traveled the world making documentaries, TV and video projects. They even gave us some Emmys a few years back. I am married, raising a tremendous, young family and have a growing production business based in Indianapolis. Bill and I still work together damn near daily. Liston went on to work for Seinfeld and produced a well-received documentary about the Chicago Cubs.
Our brief time with you was amazing. Everything it could have been. I was 19 and, although I was totally sure about what I wanted to do with my life, I was also a timid and naïve kid from a small town in Indiana. My resources were limited, to say the least, and I knew this experience was something that would stay with me forever.
You have inspired so many people in so many different ways. For me, the vote of confidence came in knowing that someone who came from the same place I did, with average grades and a bit of a chip on his shoulder, could make it. I wanted the same for myself. I still do and it keeps me going every day.
People say you’re a grouch. Surly. That you’re indifferent. Whatever. I think most of us know better. Anyone who works as hard as you have for this long must care deeply for the craft and for the people he works with. It’s obvious.
Thank you for the example. Thank you for giving a bunch of smelly kids from Indiana a break. It meant the world to us. Still does.
Sorry about the pictures. And the matches.