The Night The David Letterman Experience Came To Toronto – A Truish Story.

I thought for years that I could rise in the business to a level where I could guest on Letterman and then “hijack” the show with this story. That, of course, never happened but very few of us have a good personal Dave yarn. Let me share mine. In the late spring of 1979, I was dividing my time at the Toronto Sun between the news desk as a ne’er do well Jimmy Olsen and the entertainment sandbox where I saw myself as the local punk rock answer to the legendary gonzo critic Lester Bangs. I also covered the comedy “waterfront”. There was a tidal wave of young talented comedians building their acts at the old Yuk Yuk’s club on Bay Street – Howie Mandel was still in town and I believe I was the first journalist to notice one Jim Carrey. One day in May of that year I took a call  from a local promoter who will remain nameless for reasons I will explain later. He wanted me to break the story that he was bringing David Letterman to Toronto! That was big news. First, to me and my coterie of standup crazed idiot friends Letterman, at that point, was the comedy Messiah. In little over a year he had parlayed the paradox of his gap-toothed golly-gee Indiana boy veneer with a nasty talent for cynical observation (“Breakfast is coming to McDonald’s? Now there’s something to look forward to!”) into a unique position in a fraternity dominated by neurotic east coast Hebrews. He had caught the eye of Johnny Carson and quickly moved from the odd slot to guest hosting The Tonight Show in weeklong swatches and ‘killing it’ as they say today. Even back then there was talk of Letterman being “groomed” as the heir apparent. This would be a big comedy event. Second, I was going to be the beneficiary of an exclusive interview in advance of the gig. This couldn’t come at a better time because I needed ammunition to get me into the entertainment department full time. You can only cover so many Miss Nude Ontario pageants. Further, my girlfriend of the time was making some disturbing noises –“I hear there’s a mixer down at the Faculty of Dentistry” – and I needed to show her that I could mobilize my readership to create a watershed moment in the city’s comedy history. “Guess what? David Letterman is coming to town and I have the only interview!” “Who?” “David Letterman. You know…?’ ‘The Lettermen? “No, David Letterman, the gap-toothed, sharp witted comedian now guest hosting The Tonight Show in weeklong swatches.” ‘Never heard of him.” Such was the exchange between me and the editor as I broke the good news. After much wrangling, however, I got them to hold some space in the paper. For the interview, a long list of questions were culled from the kind of pseudo-intellectual B.S. that my 25 year-old self was dealing in at that point, crafted specifically so that I could enjoy the sound of my own voice. Things like, “David, as America crossed the socio-political Rubicon from the shell-shocked Vietnam era to the new narcissism of the Me Generation….blah blah blah…Is the comedian’s roll to bridge the strata in society….blah blah blah….or the classic Nietzchian battle for the comic’s soul between what’s smart and what’s funny…..blah blah.” Letterman, to his credit, answered most questions with one cryptic question of his own, “Hey Jon, how about those Maple Leafs?”  Whatever, I managed to cobble together some kind of profile/post-doctoral thesis, illustrating the essay with Letterman’s publicity photo of the time in which he carried a pained expression reminiscent of Oswald’s as he was shot in the Dallas police station. I envisioned the piece would case a seismic shift in the local culture. Not so much as it turned out. The aforementioned promoter had booked Dave into the somewhat downscale Night Moves tavern located in a desolate strip in the industrial west side affectionately known back then as the “Film At Eleven District”. When I strode into the club with my girl I was greeted by none other than the aforementioned idiot friends to whom I had announced the show at our shinny hockey game the Sunday prior with promises of “hanging with my new friend Dave” after his ‘set’. Maybe fifteen of us plus the regulars at the bar – gals in mail order pants from “Short & Squat” and some rounders sporting chenille crested jackets from the local Junior B team with the rank of “Booster” sewn onto the sleeve which means they probably stole equipment for the club. All were smoking and drinking the same thing – Exports. The girlfriend hit the white wine spritzers pretty hard at this point, realizing she had made a poor romantic choice. Poorer still was the choice of opening act, the great Canadian crooner Vic Franklyn brought to the stage with his crushed velour tux and his tape recorder by local comic and emcee Steve Pulver. Franklyn possessed the unique talent of maintaining his equilibrium while performing in revolving restaurants which kept him employed and a moving target. Not tonight. The light show consisted of one spotlight aimed from the bar at the stage that hit Franklyn like a fire hose. To this day none of us understand why our friend Brad stood up in the line of fire to “dance” thus completely blacking out Franklyn. The bouncer, who looked like he was between arrests, politely planted him back in his seat with a clear warning of telethon-level injuries if he did that again. Why he did it again we’ll never know but he did which reduced the floor to mayhem as Brad was pretty much hurled across the room. Due to our ethnic heritage my minyan couldn’t do much more for Brad than promise a donation in his name to the UJA. Franklyn bolted. Enter Letterman to save the day. Stuck for a moment by the girl at the door who wouldn’t let him in until put his face, complete with the Oswald expression at impact, next to the 8 by 10 tacked to the wall, Dave then bravely commandeering the microphone and calmed things down with these words, “Folks, it’s okay, Vic Franklyn has left the building! By the way how many of you think Vic’s jacket was made out of the inside of a trombone case?” Classic Letterman ensued for a solid twenty minutes until the sound system went bad and the noise from the snack machines drowned him out. When it was over David wisely ran out of the bar with me and all my friends in pursuit. We caught up with him at the VIP parking meter as he was getting into his rented Chrysler Cordoba. I had mentioned to the guys that Dave played tennis and my pal Peter, still in university, offered to set up a game for the next day and shoved a scrap of paper with his number on it at Letterman as he sped away. Today my friend Peter can look back at one great career as a titan in the Canadian film and television industry. Great kids, tons of dough etc. But in his personal Top Ten List – David Letterman left a message with his mom. A few years later I had another crack at a Letterman interview when the Buffalo NBC affiliate {finally) picked up the first classic iteration of brilliantly dystopian Late Night where Dave quite correctly predicted that everyone had a role to play on TV – even one Calvert DeForest aka Larry “Bud” Melman. From what I remember Dave was open, generous and relaxed inside what he called, “basically a Mom & Pop operation”. Back then he had nothing to lose and all the freedom to risk it. When I mentioned the Toronto gig he gave me a sheepish shrug and said with a smile, “Worst thing was I never got paid.” Thus we keep the promoter anonymous because I don’t think there is a statute of limitations on stiffing comedians. You can imagine what a great day it was at 30 Rock, entrée partly courtesy of my sister Marjorie, then a young comic who had found favor with Dave and then talent coordinator Robert “Morty” Morton who gave her a few shots in the cleanup slot.  Dave is gone from TV after thirty five or so years on air. He won’t be back. My sister has been gone in a more mortal way almost twenty years but I have those recorded appearances in my library to visit when I feel the need to laugh or at least to relive the warm memories of the laughter that can only be had when you were young and foolish enough to believe that the fun would last forever. But we had fun that night on Weston Road. Thank you, Dave.

1 comment
  1. I think your daughter is right – you do appear to be an interesting person – here’s to making Top 10 List entries throughout the 60s! It’s a challenge fusillyjohnny…….

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