Writing the 10 most-laughed-at lines in late night — more than 6,000 times — was no easy task.
Courtesy of Lee Ellenberg
The Top Ten was one of the few comedy bits that David Letterman retained over his long run in late night: on NBC from 1982 to 1993, and on CBS from 1993 until 2015.
In the Late Night years, only Letterman read the list. When he moved to CBS and launched the Late Show, politicians, surprise guests and even animated characters occasionally delivered the Top Ten.
It was a simple concept: pick a topic and have the eight or so writers come up with 10 jokes. But the execution wasn't that simple.
Coming up with those one-liners took all day, with all hands on deck. Sometimes someone outside the writing staff landed a joke on the list — one of the perks of working at Letterman's Worldwide Pants was that anyone on staff could submit jokes for the Top Ten. When Jill Goodwin started as an assistant to the executive producers, she pulled off the feat; a few years later, she graduated to full-time writer on the show.
Author and self-described devoted fan Scott Ryan interviewed many of Letterman's colleagues for his book, The Last Days of Letterman, about the final 28 broadcasts of the Late Show: from the host's 6,000th show (April 3, 2015) to the 6,028th (May 20, 2015). Following are some of their reminiscences about that signature list.
[Excerpted and edited with permission from The Last Days of Letterman by Scott Ryan ©2018 Scott Ryan Productions; published by Fayetteville Mafia Press. Order at LastDaysOfLetterman.com]
Jill Goodwin (writer): Around May 2006, while I was working as assistant to Barbara [Gaines] and Jude [Brennan], I got a joke on a Top Ten. It was: "Gas is so expensive, Britney Spears's baby is driving a Prius." It was really exciting when you could go home and watch the show and tell people, "That was my joke."
Jeremy Weiner (writer): We would always get together in the morning and come up with a topic in the room. We tried to keep it as topical as possible. My favorites were the ones that were silly or random, like the top ten words that kind of sound like peas. I remember pitching that the final Top Ten should be a sequel to that — top ten other words that sound like peas.
Joe Grossman (writer): I wrote thousands and thousands of Top Ten jokes through the years. We would pitch topics in the morning. The head writers would pick a topic that they hoped Dave would go for. Then, depending on how busy you were with other things, you would sit there and try to write Top Ten jokes.
Weiner: Once we got the topic, it was just grinding it out and getting as many jokes as possible. You would work on as many versions as possible. There were days when maybe I wrote as many as 50 jokes for a topic. Then you waited with bated breath to see if you got on the list at the end of the day.
Grossman: I might write anywhere from 20 to 40 jokes on a typical day. I think I once had to write 90 jokes because I was the only writer who wasn't busy with other stuff that day.
Lee Ellenberg (writer): There were days, because you were just writing Top Tens, you could write a hundred jokes by yourself. I got progressively lazy with each pass. I think, by the end, I would be typing random words together.
Goodwin : I loved writing the Top Ten because I like short jokes. I like punchy and punny. It was something that was, after a while, easy to crank out. I never felt that my 10th pass was going to be better than my first. You knew what Dave's favorite references were. If it made Dave chuckle, that was the best part. All day you were chasing that.
Ellenberg: That was what I loved about working on a show that you do every day. When the time hits 4:30, the camera starts rolling. I loved having that deadline. Comedy writers can debate about what is funny till the end of time, but having that hard deadline every day was the universe's way of saying, everyone has to shut up now.
Grossman: On a bad day, you would have to do pass after pass after pass. It was rare that, after your third page of jokes, you were going to come up with your best stuff. Then sometimes, at five minutes till showtime, you would hear that Dave just killed number four, so everyone would scramble. While Dave was doing the monologue, we were still writing jokes.
Weiner: The craziest moments were when, during the show, you got a call and they said, "Dave doesn't like the list." We would be sitting in the conference room, pitching ideas to the head writers over the phone as they were typing them up to get them out in the next two minutes.
Ellenberg: It was a process that continued throughout the day. We just kept writing pass after pass. There would be changes and writing until showtime. There were many times when Dave would look at the completed product and say, "No." We would have to write a new one in five minutes. I loved those the best. We did it in no time at all. It was amusing to me that we would spend six hours on the first one and 15 minutes on the new one.
Weiner: The ones we cranked out turned out to be fun and exciting — flying by the seat of your pants. When you spend all day working on it, sometimes it makes it better and sometimes not.
Goodwin: While the show was taping, the writers would sit in the conference room and eat dinner together. It was a tough room to get a laugh out of. Mostly it was groans.
Eddie Valk (stage manager): I did hidden-camera Top Ten lists that we recorded on the street. I would be dressed in some sort of costume — Elvis, Santa, a horse. We would film them on a Friday when the show wasn't in production. We would set up a hidden camera in advance. I would have lines sent to me from a writer and an assistant director, 20 lines I would have to say to different people. It was crazy to see how many people in New York couldn't care less.
Grossman: The celebrity Top Ten lists were difficult because they had to be approved not just by the head writer, the producers and Dave, but by the celebrity and usually a publicist who saw the jokes before the celebrity. You knew that so much good stuff was going to be killed by one of those people. That is just part of the job. For the most part, we felt that the celebrity lists were not the best ones. It makes for a good viral video, but the jokes don't hold up as well.
Ellenberg: The funniest entry was always at number two. The second-funniest was at number six, because you wanted the laugh to cover the page turn. That is when we wiped the [list from the] screen. For number one, we usually picked the shortest joke. You wanted something punchy so the band could kick in and take us out of the segment.
Bill Scheft (writer): The third-funniest joke is at number 10. Number one is a throwaway, but Dave and I disagreed about that. The second-funniest one had to be at number six, because that is when you turned the Chyron on the old show. So you had to have something that would carry over when they cleared the screen. Even though that technology was not used at CBS, we were still thinking that way. We started to put the audience callback joke at the number-six slot.
Ellenberg: In later years, we did that number-six audience joke almost every night. Bill Scheft or the head writer wrote number six because they were out there before the show for Dave's Q&A session [with the audience]. I understood it logically, because it got the audience going. As a viewer when I was younger, [I thought] it was kind of cool that you weren't in on the inside joke. It made it seem like it was just as much fun to be in the audience as it seemed to be.
Jay Johnson (creative director, digital media): Dave did a short audience Q&A before every show, which would typically last three to five minutes. We recognized that he was taking ordinary questions and creating really fascinating answers to them. He is a great storyteller. We always admired what he was doing with the Q&A.
Jerry Foley (director): It was a reminder for us that the show starts well before the cameras are recording. It became a very important part of our day. When he went out and did that warm-up, you were aware that those callbacks could be part of his monologue or at any time throughout the evening.
Scheft: For years, Dave's warm-up was 90 seconds every night. But for some reason, when [Late Show announcer] Alan Kalter started doing the warm-up, Dave felt like he could talk with the audience much longer. He would stay out there maybe 10 minutes, just yakking with them.
Johnson: In the final year of the show, we ended up shooting the Q&A with our studio crew, since our camera operators were already in place to do the show. We recorded all those camera angles, and [creative director, digital media] Walter Kim and I would edit them into a Q&A piece for digital content.
As we got closer to the end of the show, Dave started going longer and longer with the Q&As. I think he was really enjoying it. He was probably realizing he was going to miss it. Knowing that the end was coming, he was soaking it in. People loved it, because they were seeing Dave in a way that they hadn't seen before.
Foley: No script, no TelePrompter, no briefing from Dave that he was likely to do this or say that. It's one of the things that I have come to appreciate as Dave is deconstructed. He was out there without a net. It made it difficult, but exhilarating, because we all had this tremendous creative autonomy. We weren't locked into a script. We could pivot and change direction with him.
Scheft: I was always out there for the Q&A. We started adding that [audience] joke to the Top Ten in the last year or so. We would go down to the stage with 10 entries, but [head writer] Matt Roberts and I would always try to put something in from the Q&A. It would be something that the audience would get.
We stumbled on it by accident, and I said to Dave that we should do it every night. He would do the Top Ten in act two. Matt or I would point to number six on the card, which was the new entry that Dave had not seen. He would either okay it, change it or add something new.
Foley: In the warm-up, we would create a little narrative. On occasion, you could motivate him to go back [later in the show] to someone he'd spoken to in the audience. It didn't always work, but David was dedicated to having a conversation with the camera and the audience. You can't do that if you are a slave to a script. Yes, he had introductions on cue cards, but he really made it as difficult as he could for himself in pursuit of the conversation, and he certainly succeeded more than he failed.
Scheft: We could add a joke because we had so much more to work with, rather than a minute and a half of someone asking him for a canned ham. That is why we could put them in every night. He loved it.
Ellenberg: The only thing was, when it started to be every day, I wondered, "Are we doing it just to do it?" They would find a way to shoehorn [the audience joke] into the Top Ten. Then you had to retype Dave's card and get it to graphics for them to put in the new entry. Nothing is easy on a talk show. Even the slightest change sends a half-dozen people scurrying.
Weiner: I always tell people that I wrote number seven. Whenever they ask — number seven was mine.
TEN AT THE END
The topic of the last Top Ten list — delivered during the final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman on May 20, 2015 — was "Things I've Always Wanted to Say to Dave" and was presented by longtime friends of the show. Letterman called them to the stage, one by one:
#10 Alec Baldwin: Of all the talk shows, yours is most geographically convenient to my home.
#9 Barbara Walters: Dave, did you know that you wear the same cologne as Muammar Qaddafi?
#8 Steve Martin: Your extensive plastic surgery was a necessity and a mistake.
#7 Jerry Seinfeld: Dave, I have no idea what I'll do when you go off the air. You know, I just thought of something…. I'll be fine.
#6 Jim Carrey: Honestly, Dave, I've always found you to be a bit of an overactor [messes his hair, makes a crazy face and flaps like a bird].
#5 Chris Rock: I'm just glad your show is being given to another white guy.
#4 Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale [camera cuts to Seinfeld, looking shocked].
#3 Peyton Manning: Dave, you are to comedy what I am to comedy.
#2 Tina Fey: Thanks for finally proving men can be funny.
#1 Bill Murray: Dave, I'll never have the money I owe you.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018