Local fans and ex-employees look back on David Letterman's legacy

Local fans and ex-employees look back on David Letterman's legacy

May 19th, 2015 by Lynda Edwards in Life Entertainment

David Letterman is seen during a taping of the "Late Show with David Letterman" on Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in New York.

Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP

Anyone who worked for TV icon David Letterman probably thought it was natural for him to express affection for Chattanooga schoolteacher Bridget Huckabay by strapping her into a harness then flying her across a high wire strung along the ceiling as she shrieked in terror and the audience cheered.

It was his way of helping Huckabay, a former "Late Night with David Letterman" production coordinator, raise money for her wedding in 1988 because she would be paid union scale wages in addition to her regular salary by appearing on camera.

Bridget Huckabay, shown in this 2012 file photo, worked for Letterman 1985 to 1988.

Bridget Huckabay, shown in this 2012 file photo,...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Through the years with David Letterman

1980
The daytime talk show "The David Letterman Show" debuts in June and is canceled in October. It wins two Emmys.

Feb. 1, 1982
"Late Night with David Letterman" debuts on NBC, airing after "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson."

May 1991
Johnny Carson announces that he'll retire as host of "The Tonight Show" in May 1992.

June 1991
NBC announces that Jay Leno will replace Carson; Letterman continues to host "Late Night with David Letterman" but is angry that he didn't get "The Tonight Show" job.

June 25, 1993
Final episode of "Late Night with David Letterman" airs.

Aug. 30, 1993
Leaving NBC and moving to CBS, Letterman debuts "Late Show with David Letterman," which airs at 11:30 p.m., the same time as "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

2000
Letterman, age 52, gets quintuple heart bypass and becomes a father for the first time when his son is born.

May 20, 2015
Dave Letterman, now 68, retires.

With memorabilia spread across his work station, Brad Steiner, radio personality for Hits 96, wears his Late Show jacket in the studio at WDOD on South Broad Street.

With memorabilia spread across his work station, Brad...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gina Brown

Gina Brown

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Letterman legacy

* David Letterman has been on late-night for 33 years.
* His shows -- "Late Night with David Letterman" and "Late Show with David Letterman" -- have received 16 Emmy Awards and 112 Emmy nominations.
* There have been more than 19,900 guests on Letterman's late-night shows.
* The first Stupid Pet Tricks segment debuted on Letterman's morning show, "The David Letterman Show," on June 26, 1980; on his late-night shows, there have been 126 Stupid Pet Tricks segments.
* The first Stupid Human Tricks segment debuted on "Late Night with David Letterman" on Oct. 3, 1983; since then there have been 89 Stupid Human Tricks segments on his late-night shows.
* The first Top Ten List, "Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas," was presented on "Late Night" on Sept. 18, 1985; in total, Letterman has presented 5,614 Top Ten lists.
* Sportscaster Marv Albert has the most appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" at 73; Regis Philbin has the most on "Late Show with David Letterman" with 136.
* The Suit of Velcro debuted on Feb. 28, 1984; other "suits" include Alka-Seltzer, Magnets, Marshmallows, Potato Chips, Rice Krispies, Suet and Sponges.
Source: CBS

On Aug. 30, 1991, after Jay Leno had been announced as the replacement for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show," Carson had David Letterman as a guest. Carson asked: "How pissed are you?" and Letterman replied: "Let me give you a little piece of advice. You keep using language like that, you're going to find yourself out of a job."

On Aug. 30, 1991, after Jay Leno had...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

"Under union rules, you got paid a certain amount for saying up to five sentences, more money if you performed a trick or feat of some kind and a bonus if there was danger involved," recalls Huckabay. "I was friends with some of the writers so they came up with things for me to do onstage and" -- she groans at the memory -- "I was terrible! Really and truly even if I just read the Top 10 list, I was so bad. But Dave liked that."

Indeed he did. Even fans of Letterman, who retires Wednesday night after 33 years on late-night TV, agree he was a host who would rather throw an anchor instead of a lifeline to guests drowning in flop sweat.

"Your mind could go on autopilot with (Jay) Leno because his monologues were formatted and you saw the punchline coming," says Brad Steiner, WDOD Hits 96 assistant program director and show host and self-proclaimed No. 1 Letterman fan in Chattanooga. "You had to be alert watching Dave. Part of his appeal was that his audience could congratulate themselves on grasping irony and the absurdity of life and being smart enough to get Dave."

Huckabay, who worked for Letterman from 1985 through 1988 while "Late Night with David Letterman" aired on NBC after "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," believes Letterman's show was revolutionary in large part due to his thorny persona toward Hollywood celebrities and the way he relished the messiness and rawness of real life busting into the tight, tidy talk show format.

It made his stage uniquely unpredictable. Stars might melt down or seize up onstage (Joaquin Phoenix, Farrah Fawcett, Madonna) or fistfights -- even if faked -- could erupt. In 1982, Andy Kaufman threw supposedly hot coffee on pro wrestler Jerry Lawler who then slapped the pudgy comedian; later, however, Lawler revealed that the entire feud, including the Letterman smackdown, was all staged.

"I don't agree with critics who say Dave was mean; he was so kind to children and ordinary people when they were on the show," Huckabay says, referring to regular segments that featured elementary school science fair winners and folks who taught pets to do exceedingly silly tricks. "If he looked bored during an interview with a celebrity or movie star or pricked their ego, well, those people are savvy about the media and part of their job is to be entertaining on talk shows without the host helping them along."

Starting with NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman" in 1982 then changing to "Late Show with David Letterman" in 1993 when he moved to CBS in a huff after Jay Leno was picked as host of "The Tonight Show" after Carson retired, Letterman was wielding satire to puncture egos of the rich and famous long before Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. And with segments such as Stupid Pet Tricks and the insane suits Letterman would don -- Velcro, Alka Seltzer, marshmallows, Rice Krispies, sponges -- he managed to satirize the bizarre world of reality TV before it even existed.

Steiner was 12 years old when he started watching Letterman and even built a duplicate of the "Late Night" set in his bedroom. As a high school graduation present, his mother gave him a trip to New York City and tickets to see Letterman's show. Steiner, who has seen every single one of Letterman's shows, says his own approach to interviews was deeply influenced by Letterman.

"Hey, I took notes during the show, that's how serious I was!" Steiner says, laughing. "What Dave did that no one else was doing is, back then, he would take the camera out of the studio and meet and interview the guys at the Hello Deli or Meg, the girl who worked in a building across the street. A lot of times he seemed more interested in them than in the movie star or politician who was the night's guest.

"Those segments were a really shrewd satire of reality TV before it existed. They made me think about why Americans believe fame equals being a celebrity and why we consider some lives worth spotlighting and not others. And Dave made it all funny."

Huckabay remembers one celebrity who was not happy with Letterman's witty jibes -- Oprah Winfrey. Huckabay actually took a job on "Oprah" after leaving Letterman and soon learned that the 16-year-long feud between Letterman and Oprah was quite real, at least on Oprah's part.

"The feud started in May 1989 when Dave was broadcasting some shows from Chicago and Oprah was a guest," Huckabay remembers. "When she walked onstage, it sounded like the audience was booing her. She was upset."

The crowd's reaction was blamed on a show Oprah broadcast the day before in which she interviewed a woman who said her name was Rachel and claimed to be a devil worshipper who sacrificed babies to Satan. Not surprisingly, the show was mercilessly mocked.

Letterman later told Jon Stewart that Oprah was annoyed because Letterman did not scold the audience for booing her, "but I didn't feel like doing that," Letterman explained. And in coming years he continued to prick Oprah's ego, once with a list of "Top 10 Articles in O Magazine" including; "My Love Affair with Oprah, by Oprah" and "While You're Reading This, I Made $50 Million."

Huckabay's duties included research, escorting guests to the stage, buying buckets of fudge to be used as a prop.

"I was lucky to be there when the show was still a small operation; we were all on the same floor, got to know everyone in the different departments, socialized after work," she says. " I got to be friends with the writers even though I never wanted to write myself."

Gina Brown began her career with Letterman as an intern. She was a University of Tennessee student in Chattanooga when she applied.

"This was back in 1999 before email so it was very dramatic when I got my letter telling me I had been chosen," Brown says by phone from Nashville, where she is economic development director for the city's Chamber of Commerce.

Brown interned as a full time talent researcher at the Late Show and was hired as a receptionist. In the pre-Google era, that meant doing a Nexis-Lexis search for magazine and newspaper article citations then going to the CBS library to pull the complete article. She had less interaction with Letterman than Huckabay because, by this time, the staff was much bigger and sprawled across several floors of a skyscraper. Brown worked in his office, but Letterman's schedule was so jampacked there was no time for chitchat.

"He was always polite when we rode an elevator together," she recalls. "I bought him a couch for his office but, no, he didn't tell me what color or fabric to get. One of his staff would have told me that. There was a hierarchy, but I was OK with that because I was so in awe of these people. They were geniuses who were changing the way television was being done forever and I got to be part of that."

Brown went on to work for Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" from 2005 to 2008, getting to go on the road with such rising stars as Stephen Colbert. Some TV critics have argued that Colbert and Stewart are careful only to lampoon the powerful while Letterman would mock grocery cashiers and other equally powerless ordinary people. Brown disagrees.

"When I look at their approaches, I would say that Dave's humor has fair play," Brown says. "He treats ordinary people respectfully and, if he jokes about a deli clerk, the clerk is in on the joke.

"You can see Dave's soft side when he has children from the science fair on the show or was talking about the firefighters and policeman after 9-11. In comparison, I think Jimmy Kimmel is very funny, but his humor can be mean especially toward people who aren't celebrities."

Letterman had sweaters designed annually for his staff, a different design each year; Brown still has hers.

"I plan to celebrate Dave's farewell by wearing the sweater while watching the show and getting drunk," she says, giggling.

President Barack Obama was a guest on "Late Show with David Letterman" on May 4.

President Barack Obama was a guest on "Late...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Brown can't get to the New York reunion party for former Letterman staffers, but Huckabay plans to attend.

Interestingly, both former Letterman employees have fond memories of their stints at the show but can't really imagine tackling a gig that intense again. Huckabay followed her husband to Chattanooga when he got a job offer here years ago. The couple opened the North Chattanooga restaurant called Mud Pie which they sold when Bridget became pregnant with her daughter who is now 11. She keeps in touch with the Letterman writers, and one of them went onto write for "Seinfeld."

"He loved my husband's name -- Hunter Huckabay -- and kept trying to create a 'Seinfeld' character with that name, but it never happened," she says.

Now a high school science teacher at Normal Park Museum Magnet, Huckabay says there are days she misses the chance to see her work translated on screen, the excitement and camaraderie, but she adds that "I don't think I have the right personality for that world in the long run. The emotional intensity consumes your energy so you have to work hard to have a life outside of the show. And I really like my life now."

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391.

Classic Dave moments

* Feb. 1982: Bill Murray is the first "Late Night with David Letterman" guest. He confides, "I once had the chance to strangle Richard Nixon and I didn't and now I regret it," then jazzercises to Olivia Newton-John's "(Let's Get) Physical" until he hurts himself.

* April 1986: Dave tries to deliver a fruit basket to General Electric, the new owners of his network, and it takes a team of security guards to handle the emergency.

* March 31, 1994: Madonna makes her first appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman" and proceeds to say the F-word 14 times, make several sexual jokes and generally misbehave. The show was the most-censored talk show in American history, but had some of Letterman's best-ever ratings.

* Sept. 17, 2001: Letterman is one of the first shows to be back on the air after 9-11 attacks. He pays a moving tribute to the policemen, firefighters and the city of New York.

* October 2002: One of Dave's favorite musicians, Warren Zevon, talks about dealing with terminal cancer and still loving life. Less than 12 months later, Zevon dies.

* February 2009: Larry Bud Melman (Calvert DeForest) hands out hot towels to weary passengers arriving at New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal.* June 2009: Letterman jokes that Yankee hitter Alex Rodriguez may have "knocked up" Sarah Palin's daughter, Willow. Letterman apologizes the next day, saying "I told a joke that was beyond flawed." In classic fashion, though, he adds that he confused 14-year-old Willow with her sister, 18-year-old Bristol, who already had an unmarried pregnancy. Sarah Palin was not placated and held a New York rally asking CBS to fire Letterman.

* October 2009: Letterman responds to man trying to blackmail him for $2 million by admitting affairs with female staffers.

* May 2011: Lady Gaga is so annoyed by Dave's questions she rips up his notes and eats them.

On Feb. 1, 1982, Bill Murray was the first guest on the new "Late Night with David Letterman."

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

This story was updated at 1:46 p.m. to clarify Gina Brown's memories.