In 1975, David Letterman left Indiana to try and make it in show biz.
“If it doesn’t work out,” Letterman told a friend. “I’ll get a job at a gas station.”
Jason Zinoman’s book, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, opens seven years earlier, in the summer of 1968. Letterman’s college girlfriend gave him the ultimatum to either marry her or break up. He was stuck between the “horrifying” prospect of losing her and the fury of his parents, who did not like her.
The compromise he found was to get married — but not tell his parents.
Soon in front of a justice of the peace, Letterman was asked if he’d ever been married. “Six times, and every one a gypsy.”
The man did not appreciate Letterman’s sense of humor as much as America would in the decades to come.
On July 2, 1968, David Letterman and Michelle Cook were secretly married.
Harry Letterman might have been the primary source of his son’s sense of humor and ambitions. Harry, David’s father, suffered from poor health — heart problems, tumors, and bad teeth. The family struggled after Harry had another heart attack and as he recovered their income sank as medical bills piled up.
Letterman recalled many happy memories of sitting with his father as they listened to comedy radio shows.
It was duty to his family that kept Harry from his artistic pursuits. He loved music, finding opportunities to stop by the church so that he could play their organ. He once sent away for a writing test offered by Parade Magazine which was designed to determine if you had the makings to be a great writer. After reviewing Harry’s exam, they offered him a spot in their writer’s program, but he could not afford to sign up.
“My dad’s life didn’t work out the way he wanted it to,” Letterman said.
The fear of facing the same fate was pushing the young Letterman to find opportunities.
By 7 years old, Letterman was directing spoof productions of Winnie-the-Pooh in the parking lot of his elementary school — and then he laughed at everyone who agreed to be in the play he created. In middle school, he recorded parodies of Leave it to Beaver with a friend. Copying Steve Allen, the adolescent Letterman created his own talk show in a friend’s basement.
In college, Letterman got his first shot at broadcast when Dr. Tomlinson gave him a job at the campus radio station. They butted heads from then on. Letterman even led a protest against classical music on the station, hoping to get the head of the department fired.
When a music teacher realized that Letterman was inventing stories about musicians to make the introduction to their music more interesting, she made a phone call and he was fired from the radio station.
He was soon re-hired, but after sneaking onto the air for an after-midnight rock and roll show, Letterman offered prizes to callers who were to pick them up at the station the following morning. When they arrived, there were no prizes and Letterman was not there. He was soon re-fired.
Betty White and Allen Ludden
As Letterman’s career was getting its sputtering start, Betty White was already a show business veteran with decades of experience. White began her television career long before she was America’s favorite Golden Girl.
White started out in the 1930’s as an assistant at a local television station and by the 1950’s she was starring in the show Life with Elizabeth. She played the libidinous Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show before starting her best known work on the Golden Girls.
White was also a regular on game shows, and that’s where she met the love of her life.
Allen Ludden was best known as a game show creator and host, hosting shows like The Match Game, Password, and Password Plus.
In the documentary Betty White: America’s First Lady of Television, currently available on Netflix, White talks about making celebrity appearances on talk shows, even hosting her own.
After several appearances on Ludden’s Password, viewers at home began noticing the two flirting with one another. Soon, instead of saying hello when he would meet White, he asked, “will you marry me?”. After an untold number of rejections, Ludden put the wedding ring he bought for her on a chain and wore it around her neck so that it would be ready the moment she said yes.
The only regret Betty White has about her relationship with Ludden is that she wasted a year before agreeing to marry him.
The celebrity couple would often appear together on talk shows and at events. When they travelled through Indiana, they were invited onto the local call-in show David Letterman was hosting.
Letterman was a mismatch for that show, which was too serious for him. He was often scorned for making jokes at inappropriate times and for not knowing enough about local politics. But one very important person thought he was pretty funny — Allen Ludden.
After the show, Ludden told Letterman to call him if he ever went out to Hollywood as he could help him find some work.
“That was huge,” Letterman recalled.
He was ready to leave Indiana, though doing so petrified him. He said later that without the support of his new wife he isn’t sure he would have followed through.
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Letterman called Ludden, who was true to his word.
Along with learning the ropes as a standup at the Comedy Store, Letterman started making appearances on game shows with Ludden’s help. He appeared on the Gong Show, alongside Betty White on The Liar’s Club, and The $10,000 Pyramid.
These appearances sustained Letterman while he failed to sell his screenplays or get a show of his own on the air. The Tonight Show scouts even passed on him after seeing his act.
At one point, it seemed that Letterman’s future in television might be as a game show host. In 1977, he hosted a pilot of a game show called The Riddlers, in which regular people competed against celebrities. Some suspected that the fear of having a career as a game show host caused Letterman to sabotage the show by insulting the guests. The show was not picked up, but his performance raised his status among executives who saw it.
In 1978, Letterman made his first of 22 appearances on The Tonight Show, where he became the preferred guest host when Johnny Carson took a night off.
If Letterman had never met Betty White and Allen Ludden, he may never have made the move to Hollywood. Even if the former weekend weather man had made the trip, it is likely to have been a short one.
As a lifelong Letterman fan, I’m glad Betty and Allen stopped off in Indiana.
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