Praise for David Letterman ahead of humour prize

WASHINGTON • Here are a few observations about David Letterman as the late-night host receives the 20th Kennedy Centre Mark Twain Prize for Humour on Sunday night.

In 1975, he drove his red pickup from his native Indiana to Los Angeles to take a shot at comedy.

He met comedian Jay Leno, three years younger, but considerably more comfortable on stage. It wasn't just that Leno scored a coveted Tonight Show appearance in 1977, a year ahead of Letterman.

"I was a better performer than I was a writer and Dave was a better wordsmith than he was performer.

"When I first saw Dave at the Comedy Store, he had really funny material. When we met, he said, 'How can you get up and be so confident?' I think... for me, stand-up was always a natural place to be. He didn't really enjoy doing stand-up," Leno says.

Comedienne Elayne Boosler, also part of the Comedy Store scene, appreciated that when Letterman launched Late Night in 1982, he chose the best comics to appear - regardless of gender.

That was not the case on The Tonight Show, she says, which, with the exception of Joan Rivers, rarely featured female comedians.

"I will forever be grateful to him in knowing that women are funny and I think it was because he came up in the clubs with us.

"Whereas people like Carson didn't," Boosler says.

Before he was a United States senator, Al Franken spent decades as a key writer at Saturday Night Live. He always admired Letterman and noted how much he appreciated his on-camera speech after the Sept 11 attacks. But ask Franken about his favourite moment during Letterman's tenure and he will immediately skip to the Monkey-Cam.

"Because you're cutting from the chimp on the tricycle to what the camera on the chimp's head is showing. It looks stupid and ridiculous and it's endlessly entertaining. It's basically, this is colour television," he says.

Actor Chris Elliott began appearing on Late Night in the mid-1980s as quirky characters who often mock-menaced Letterman.

Elliott once found himself house-sitting with his future wife, Paula, for Letterman and Merrill Markoe, the host's partner and one of the Late Show creators. He wandered into Letterman's office.

"I looked around and one thing I saw was that a dictionary was open and it had a worksheet next to it. My assumption was that Dave was learning words he didn't know and that he was testing himself.

"You know, looking at the words and writing his definition and studying the dictionary," Elliott says.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Praise for David Letterman ahead of humour prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe