Letterman goes for 'goofy' gang of writers

August 31, 1993|By Eric Mink | Eric Mink,New York Daily News

In theory, anyone can be a writer for David Letterman.

True, about half of the people who have churned through his show over the years have worked at the Harvard Lampoon and most are in their 20s and 30s.

But whatever a person's background, long-time Letterman writer Gerard Mulligan says the essence of the job -- aside from being funny, of course -- is "the ability to write in Dave's voice. You have to write stuff that Dave will say."

And Dave won't say just anything. "There are certain parameters," Mr. Mulligan says, because any television character has to be consistent. "You can't have the 'Full House' people become crack addicts."

Understanding and expressing the Letterman approach obviously is critical for staff members. Mr. Mulligan calls it "much ado about nothing," or, the art of "making a big deal out of nothing at great exhaustive length."

Steve O'Donnell -- the show's head writer from October 1983 until June 1992 -- says that previous TV experience actually could hurt a person's chances of getting on staff.

"It's good to get them before they've figured out what works in television," Mr. O'Donnell says, "before they've learned the official style of comedy of television, before they've had sitcom values burned into their cerebrums."

Letterman writers tend to have a unique perspective on their medium as well.

"They really like TV and really hate TV simultaneously," says Mr. O'Donnell, 39, now a staff writer. They call each other at all hours of the day and night, he says, to point out something particularly outrageous or ridiculous they've come across on the tube.

"They're the kind of people who would watch some heart-rending story on 'Jenny Jones' and laugh like hyenas, just because everyone involved is so stupid and awful," Mr. O'Donnell says.

Mr. Letterman's writers are "goofy, smart and un-show-businessy," he says,"and all of those would apply to Dave also."

So would "male." All but one of the current writers are men, and Mr. Mulligan says that in 12 years only about five women have written for the show. That includes Merrill Markoe, its first head writer and a one-time Letterman love interest, who of ten is cited as the show's creator.

Writer Jill A. Davis says she's at a loss to explain why so few female writers have worked for Mr. Letterman. "I really don't know, except that the show reflects Dave's sensibility and the writers have to be able to write for Dave."

There definitely is a "Letterman sensibility," and the writers all seem to share it to one degree or another, says Rob Burnett, head writer for the last 14 months.

"They probably watched too much TV in their youth. They have a sense of irony and a certain cynicism about the way things run," he says.

"They're less likely to be class clowns and more likely the people sitting in the back of class making wisecracks to their buddies."

Yet, even the Letterman writers -- 11 people, plus Mr. Burnett and Mr. Letterman himself -- have to accept that they're not going to get a hit every time at the plate.

'When you have 11 talented people, they take turns hitting stuff that is really inspired," says Mr. Burnett, 31. "What you don't want is average. That's what kills you. I'd rather have 11 really terrific, erratic people who write great stuff and lousy stuff than 11 average people. It's like a big sled of dogs pulling this show. You pull for awhile and then you move to the back and let someone else pull."

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