For every comedy bit produced, there were roughly a hundred pitches that didn’t make it. So I asked fellow Late Night and Late Show vets to recall their most memorable rejections. Then I ran some of those by Dave, who was happy to reminisce about former writers.
“I can’t thank these men and women enough,” he said, “because I was doing their show more than they were doing mine.”
GERARD MULLIGAN (1980–2004)
One rejected joke that I really wish had made it to air: “So, the Congress is debating whether to spend billions on a so-called stealth bomber that would be invisible to Soviet radar. Why don’t we just say we built it?” But I look back on some other rejections with relief: Halloween costume: “That thing on Aaron Neville’s forehead.” Typing that, I wince now, as I should have winced then.
Some things were written to be rejected. Occasionally I would hand in an opening remark so vulgar it would have sent NBC’s Margaret Dumont–like standards-and-practices lady out of Studio 6A on a stretcher. I was safe in the knowledge that Dave would never do the joke on air. (“The American Medical Association issued this warning today: Be wary of a doctor who tries to take your temperature with his dick.”) Imagine my surprise when, during that night’s taping, Dave began, “This warning today from the American Medical Association …” but then concluded, “with his finger.”
ANDY BRECKMAN (1982–1983; creator–executive producer, Monk)
I remember trying to convince Dave and (head writer) Merrill Markoe to do an entire show where Dave and his guests are hooked up to lie detectors. I remember being very excited about this. We’d be making talk-show history! Merrill had to talk me down and explain how potentially embarrassing it could be for everybody.
To be fair, it was a long time ago and this could be what therapists call a “false memory.” I’ve had them before. For example, I also distinctly remember leading the Seal Team that killed bin Laden.
Letterman: Well, I don’t remember this idea. It sounds fantastic. And I’ll tell you, I know where he got the idea. There used to be a show called Lie Detector and there was a polygraph machine and this guy was an expert … his name was Ed Gelb. He would put the guy in the chair and grill him. And I think this would be tremendous. I would love to see somebody do this. So in this case I think Merrill was taking a bullet for me. Because if anyone had anything to hide, of course, it would’ve been me.
GEORGE MEYER (1982–1984; The Simpsons)
One idea I wish Dave had rejected was when we invited audience members to create fishing lures out of pipe cleaners, sequins, etc. The plan was to test them out on live trout and see which one got the most “action.”
Shortly before we taped the show, the trout perished. (Apparently they need cold, aerated water.) I didn’t know what to do, so the prop lady and I got some of those pointy things you stick memos on and jammed the poor fish on them in a preposterous simulation of life. Later, the contestants tried to entice these expired creatures in a macabre piece of absurdist art.
How I longed for the soothing arms of Sweet Lady H!
Letterman: I think George was responsible for maybe the single most brilliant idea on the show ever. It was a contest between a humidifier and a dehumidifier. And at the start of the show they would be switched on simultaneously, and at the end of the show we would see which of the machines had done its designed task more productively. As I recall, the problem was that the noise made by these machines just ruined the audio for the rest of the show.
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