“May we see your photos please?” Yours truly, left, and David Letterman, December 1998.
In the Summer of 1998, my dad and I packed our bags, hopped into his maroon Ford Taurus, and drove from Madison, Wisconsin to New York so that I could interview for an internship with the Late Show With David Letterman. Technically, we never drove into New York City. Rather, we stayed in Tarrytown, a Hudson River town less than an hour outside of the Big Apple. It was more practical and less stressful to park the car, stay at a nice hotel, and take the train into town for the three-hour-long interview. So off we went, through the soul-crushingly flat lands of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, then the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, until we finally crossed the Tappan Zee bridge (twice; my fault as my dad will tell you) and got to Tarrytown. We had driven straight through, about 24 hours.
My interview was the next morning, and it was indeed about three hours, as I was warned. It was a whirlwind: First with Janice Penino, who was the internship coordinator, and then with each department: Writing, Production, Talent, Research, Audience, Website, Music, and Mailroom are what I remember. Then a closing interview with Janice again, and suddenly I was out the door on 53rd Street. My dad, who had never been to New York City and rightly thought it smelled like urine, spent the time walking Central Park. It was the closest he could get to nature, I suppose. Anyway, we hopped back on MetroNorth, found our car, and hit the road back to Wisconsin.
Why not fly? I’m not sure, except that gas was then about $1.06 per gallon. There were definitely some contentious moments battling road-hogging semis in the middle of the night in Pennsylvania on zero sleep. But we made it.
The call came a couple of weeks later. “The talent department would like to hire you,” Ms. Penino said in her rapid-fire New York accent. I was on a land line at the offices of Oscar Mayer Foods, where I was working that summer on the Wienermobile Hotline. That makes me sound like some kind of Commissioner Gordon for ground and encased meats, but in fact I was answering 800-number calls for people interested in auditioning their kids for an Oscar Mayer commercial. The Wienermobile, which my cousin Amanda was at that moment driving with a team of coworkers across the USA, was making stops at state fairs, ballparks, zoos, and the like. (Every single relative of mine in Madison has worked at Oscar Mayer at some time or another.) Oscar Mayer products advertised the Wienermobile tour along with the 800 number for more information. I told customers where and when the giant phallic automobile would be in their neck of the woods. “Rainier Stadium,” I’d tell the Seattle-Tacoma callers, for instance. “Navy Pier,” for the Chicagoans, with the dates of course. This was not before the internet, but certainly before its ubiquity. Sometimes PETA would call, pretending to be regular folk so they could show up to protest. We knew it was PETA because we had caller ID, and besides, they always sounded so forced in their role-playing. But we played along and told them because what’s so bad about a little free publicity? I’d heard that once a PETA protester arrived at an event dressed in a plush pig outfit, climbed to the top of the Wienermobile, and got stuck head-first in the sunroof, his feet dangling above it, his torso trapped within. The news crews were all there to capture it. Now that’s publicity you can’t buy.
Anyway, there I was at Oscar Mayer, accepting the internship for Late Show. With David Letterman. Yes, I put a full stop in the title for effect. I’d been dreaming of getting this internship for several months, and had already applied for summer but did not get an interview. When I called to ask if I could reapply for fall, Janice said sure, “but don’t put a Top Ten list in your application this time.” Touché. My plan was either to do a late night internship in New York or Los Angeles, or study abroad in Sydney. I figured Sydney would be good for me since it was as far from UW-Eau Claire as I could get and still be in school. But it never came to that, or perhaps I’d be there now, surfing on a crocodile right by the opera house.
I readily accepted the unpaid internship, worked out the academic credit with my school, and got my finances in order for a semester in New York. (Read: I saved and borrowed a lot of money.) All of the accepted interns were given each others’ contact information so we could work out potential roommate arrangements. Two other interns, Pete and Brian, got a place with me in what was advertised as a brand new loft building in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is an old, brownstone neighborhood, and it’s where the Huxtables lived on TV. It’s what you imagined yourself living in if you were from Wisconsin and thought some day you’d be in New York. You’d have a stoop, and a bay window, and there’d be a bunch of colorful characters hanging out nearby, including maybe a large feathery bird that sang.
Arriving at the address weeks later, we all discovered that the “loft” was in a renovated warehouse at 200 Tillary Street. Today it’s probably a luxury condo, but then it was just another building near the projects, a beer wholesaler, and the exit ramp for the expressway. It wasn’t in Brooklyn Heights. It wasn’t, so far as I could tell, in any neighborhood, just a crossroads of urban eyesores, all the things about big cities that no one wants to see or deal with, with the exception of the beer wholesaler. Our apartment was a big open floor plan, no private bedrooms, painted in weird Miami Vice-style pastels and with giant, warehouse windows. Sometimes the shower worked, sometimes it shut off mid-stream. At one point, management crammed an overflow tenant into our unit, which led to a major argument and a slight rent reduction. Pete was from Oregon, Brian was from Indiana, and Owen the overflow tenant from England, and we were all experiencing our first lesson in New York apartment living: There’s no looking out for the little guy.
I had thought the lack of privacy would be an issue, but we were so exhausted from the long hours on our feet at Letterman that there was very little time for anything but sleep when we were there. My first work day, I came home and collapsed on the bed. Interning in the talent department meant going on a lot of runs, often for dressing room accoutrements for talk guests. We also had to update show calendars constantly, run copies of news articles and entertainment gossip pages that were faxed in, record and dub segments, answer phones, get lunches for staff, and be available to other departments when needed. There was hardly any down time, but I didn’t care. I had so much fun seeing how the show was put together, the “bitch work” didn’t phase me one bit. It was better than any course in college I’d taken.
There were priceless payoffs, of course. Twice each intern got to sit in the control room and watch the show being directed, which is a fascinating experience for anyone interested in TV production. We constantly bumped into celebrities; I remember briefly meeting Cal Ripken, Jr., Melanie Griffith, Joaquin Phoenix, and Cyndi Lauper, off the top of my head. Dave and Steve Martin pre-taped a classic bit called “Dave and Steve’s Gay Vacation.” Jim Carrey and Jerry Lawler showed up to film a scene for Man On The Moon. We helped put together the prime time 5th Anniversary Special that November. I got to sit in on a private performance by Elvis Costello, quite by accident. We were surrounded by and working near the show’s legendary supporting cast, people like Paul Shaffer, Biff Henderson, Alan Kalter, Rupert Jee, and Larry “Bud” Melman. Sometimes writers would cast interns as extras in comedy bits, meaning our parents might see us on TV, and we’d get paid the AFTRA union rate on top of it. Zoe Friedman, who booked comics, used to call me into her office to ask my opinion of submitted stand up tapes of comedians trying to get on the show. The timing of the internship coincided with the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which provided plenty of amazing nightly material and surreal New York Post headlines in the morning. It was an electric, high-energy, high-pressure place, and it was totally unpredictable. You might get yelled at for failing to transfer a call from a publicist, or you might be given a Late Show sweatshirt for running out to pick up something for Dave or the staff. You never knew when you woke up how the day would go, but you knew you wouldn’t be bored.
Not every intern who goes through this crucible comes out satisfied. Some seemed indifferent; others were downright disappointed. One of the first things you learn is that you’re not going to be chumming around with Dave, or even see him that often. He’s just not the type to interact with a lot of the staff, let alone interns. One of the interns I worked with came into it fresh-faced, star-struck, and innocent. By December he seemed completely jaded. His experience was different from mine, so I can’t say I’m any better than he is. Others didn’t seem to be fans of the show per se, but just looking for experience. It struck me as odd that someone would apply for an internship in late night TV on a whim.
Whatever our challenges, we all got to drink them away on Thursday nights at McGee’s on 55th Street. As many talk shows do, Letterman taped its Thursday and Friday shows on Thursday, allowing the staff and crew to catch its breath on Friday. The second show usually wrapped by 8 or 9 PM, and then it was off to McGee’s. I came to New York in late August with what I thought was enough money to last the semester, but I was thoroughly unprepared for Midtown Manhattan bar prices. In Eau Claire I could sometimes stretch a sawbuck into a pretty good night on Water Street. In New York, that got me a Guinness. By my last day there I was scraping pennies together, and it didn’t help that I’d gotten a ticket for jumping a subway turnstile. If I could do it over I’d do it all the same – except jumping that turnstile. That was dumb.
The semester concluded that December with a staff Christmas party right there on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater. I knew companies threw Christmas parties, and here I was at my first such party, and it was at the Late Show for God’s sake. Just a few feet away from me was Mr. Letterman. I’d barely exchange a “hello” with him all autumn, but here now I’d noticed he was briefly by himself. I took a swig of Heineken and mustered up the courage to approach him and thank him for such an exciting time. He was incredibly gracious and appreciative, and we engaged in a little small talk, and an assistant named Helen Stoddard snapped that photo and mailed it to me.
I flew home that Christmas morning feeling triumphant. I’d not only worked on the show of my idol, but I hadn’t folded under the pressure. I couldn’t wait to move back and take another swing. College held nothing for me now, and yet I had to go back to Eau Claire in the dead of January. Not only did I have to finish my semester, but I had to take a winter term class. It was a required Phy Ed course I’d been putting off for four years, but now I had to pay the piper. To add insult to injury, it was at 8:00 in the morning. Every weekday for four weeks, I’d wake up in the zero-degree northwoods tundra, put on my layers, and hike to the frozen Chippewa River, over its windy footbridge, up the punishing hill to upper campus, and into the fitness center. Then I’d strip down to gym shorts and a t-shirt and we’d run laps or lift weights or whatever. Then put it all back on and march home. It being “Winterim,” my roommate was not there, nor were any of my friends. Nor, for that matter, was roughly 80% of the campus. The sun sank around 4 pm, and in the cold darkness I’d drink Jack Daniels and listen to Frank Sinatra and draw maps or write letters. Coincidentally, my apartment in Eau Claire was on Broadway, same as Late Show some 1,000 miles east. The similarities ended there, though. The sparse street lighting, the slow-moving auto “traffic,” the utter silence, hell, the lack of urine scent, it was all like a sick joke. Just a few weeks prior I was running to catch subways, flying around in cabs, getting coffee for Bob and Elizabeth Dole, and now I was wearing a winter hat indoors and drinking a highball of whiskey to keep from going insane. I vowed that I would get my degree and move back to New York before 2000 and, God willing, work at Letterman again.
I did move back, but I never worked for Late Show again. I probably applied five or six times and even interviewed for a job once. The stars never aligned, but the internship did open the door to a successful run for me in television production, including stops at NBC, ABC, and the company of Letterman’s then-talent executive, Joanna Jordan. More recently I’ve been at NYU’s Film and Television department, where I oversee its internship program and help students snare their own white whales. Every job I’ve had I can trace in some way back to Letterman, and it seems many of the great people I know I can trace back to there, too. With his show ending in a week, there’s an outpouring of nostalgia among Late Show veterans on social media. Even though I was there for the blink of an eye, it goes deeper than that for me. I discovered David Letterman when I was around 12 or 13, and to me he was the consummate broadcaster, host, and comedian. His Midwestern sarcasm resonated with me, and he possessed a cerebral quality and way of connecting with people – not only celebrities, but anybody – that was and remains rare in any industry. He is the reason I worked in television, the reason I moved to New York, and he absolutely is the reason I stay up past my bedtime eating Doritos and watching TV when I should be sleeping like a normal person. His style and humor have significantly influenced my writing here and elsewhere. So, Mr. Letterman, thanks for the laugh lines on my face, the bags under my eyes, the late night calorie ingestion and the borderline alcoholism. But more importantly, thanks for the 33 years of entertainment, the semester of hard work, and for changing my life. Enjoy retirement.