One thing I discovered during the shutdown is that I will, someday, be very good at retirement.
It only took me about a week to establish a much healthier lifestyle. Without the daily interruption of work, I was able to write, read, go for walks, call to check on and visit with relatives, and learn a thing or two about chess. Before they called me back to work I had lost 35 pounds, was improving at yoga, and had memorized a dozen poems.
One man I have to thank for that happy season of my life is David Letterman. I had grown up watching Letterman, when dad would let me stay up late. It did not take long during the shutdown before I searched him out on YouTube. Soon, I was watching the hours of Dave’s interviews with Teri Garr while on those walks, or listening to Bev Tanner’s cooking sessions while I built a cabinet in my garage or fed the dogs in the backyard.
Something I noticed was that this treasure trove of Letterman gold was not supplied by hundreds or thousands of fans pooling whatever clips or full episodes they happened to find on old VHS cassettes from their closets for the benefit of YouTube viewers everywhere. Instead, I kept seeing one name — Don Giller.
So, I reached out to Mr. Giller and asked for an interview.
Don Giller in the Days of AOL
While I waited for a response, I discovered that I was not the first to have the idea of writing an article about Giller. He had been profiled in the Village Voice and New York Times. He even made it to number one on David Letterman’s very own Top Ten List.
As a lifelong Letterman fan myself, I felt a pang of jealousy. Dave never put me in a Top Ten List. I never even got a shot at Stupid Human Tricks.
So, who was Don Giller and how did he come by the 649-hour archive he has created on YouTube?
The nascent internet of the 1990’s had only a few elements that would seem familiar to 20-somethings today. Those with the temerity to feel annoyed when their connection only allows 1080p video while brilliant 4K is their birthright would not have fared well in that dial-up age of low-resolution photos appearing line-by-line on their monitors.
That pre-Google jungle required users to endure unearthly beeps, whines, and grunts as their computer labored to gain access to the worldwide web via their home’s telephone lines.
One of the internet’s first useful developments was the message board. Giller first joined the internet’s Letterman fan club through Compuserve, where he tells me he was involved between the years of 1987–92. Then AOL’s Letterman message board from 1990 to '94. The longest running group began was alt.fan.letterman (AFL) on Newsgroup and lives on today on Facebook.
AFL also became evidence of how the interest and admiration of Letterman fans ran deeper than those of most celebrities. In those days of very few internet users, his group averaged about 1,000 messages a week, according to an article by Aaron Barnhart. Compare this to alt.fan.jay-leno, which “barely registers a pulse” with ten or twenty messages a week.
Many would go to the Letterman group when they had questions. Don Giller was the one who answered those questions.
Giller went by Donz5 in the group. He became known as the Letterman guru who could guide the 30,000 lesser fans through the history of the show. Giller told me that a moment that caused others in the group to take notice was when a user asked who played Flunky the Clown. Giller answered with “Jeff Martin”. From that moment on, other members in the group began to realize his Letterman knowledge ran deeper than most.
Donz5 can tell you on what game show Letterman was a celebrity contestant in the 1970’s, reconstruct the look and feel of Dave’s 1980 morning show on NBC, list every date that your favorite entertainer appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, or produce detailed CV’s for most every writer and musician who has worked on the show.
“The Dave Cave” article
For a decade before the newsgroup was created, Don had been building his video collection of past Letterman shows. Once he got a VCR in mid-February 1985, Giller began recording every episode of Letterman’s shows until it went off the air thirty years later. This also allowed him to eventually make video trades to fill gaps in his collection.
Giller built online friendships with several who were involved in the production of Letterman’s show. This began with his meeting Late Night’s film coordinator Rick Scheckmen through Compuserve’s Letterman group. This group provided an opportunity for Giller to not only teach people about Late Night as he had in other groups, but to learn as well. Don describes it as a, “one-way street, me taking in others’ expertise and offering nothing in return”.
I never consciously set out to be any sort of “authority” on Dave. And I still don’t consider myself one. I maybe fell into that perception once the show ended in 2015 and there was now no one else who had easily-accessible sources.
via our e-mail interview
It was through the message boards that Don made it onto the radar of the Late Show staff, who often checked in to get a read on what fans enjoyed and wanted from the show.
In 1995, 48 Hours did a segment on the Letterman message board, interviewing Aaron Barnhart who was deemed the group’s leader. This won Barnhart the chance to do more writing and one of the pieces he chose to write was a profile on Don Giller.
Giller’s Dave Database
In the early 1980’s, Giller was a graduate student of Historical Musicology at Columbia University and worked two jobs. His day job was in the ethnomusicology department. His job there was to dub and archive samples of rare world music. In the evening, he resumed his work of inputting note after note of 15th century Antoine Busnois music into a digitized database.
Giller writes that it was while working on the Busnois project that it occurred to him to create a Late Night database to organize his collection.
By the mid-’80’s Giller was working as a music editor at a publisher of educational books. He had ideas in mind for his Letterman database, but was waiting for tech companies to create the computer he needed to pull it off, though he was a step closer by then, having become the owner of one of those new gadgets called VCRs.
Though he never got to meet Dave, Giller was called upon by the show’s staff from time to time. For instance, when Letterman was preparing to host the Academy Awards in 1995, Late Show staff reached out to Giller asking for copies of old Oscars broadcasts. Dave wanted to review them as he prepared.
On New Years Eve of the same year, Giller managed to get an early copy of The Late Shift, the HBO movie version of the book that tried telling the story of the Tonight Show’s tumultuous transition from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno along with Dave’s move to CBS. Don notified the show that he had a copy and was invited to the theater so that they could copy some clips to use on the air.
Donz YouTube Channel
Don had about two dozen episodes of Letterman’s shows that were missing or incomplete until 2017, when he completed his collections. This complete collection, along with the database he created, allows him to put together themed videos on his YouTube channel.
Some track every appearance from a certain celebrity, or compile recurring gags on the show. When a member of the old show dies, Giller can search his archives and build a tribute video. Don said that after he created a tribute for the late Pete Fatovich, Fatovich’s daughter sent him a thank you note. For guests who were longtime friends of the show, like Norm MacDonald, Giller created multiple videos tracking decades of appearances from the stand-up comedy legend.
Giller does not profit from the channel. First of all, he does not think it would be right to profit off the work of others. Secondly, he is sure this is at least part of the reason his channel has not been blocked by copyright claims.
After an unexpected financial hit, Giller has followed the advice of friends and started a Patreon account for those who would like to help.
While the Compuserve and AOL groups are long gone, AFL still lives on through a Facebook group. Giller continues to be involved with AFL, though his major gift to David Letterman’s fans around the world is undoubtedly his YouTube channel.
When I last asked Don how many hours of classic Letterman shows he had preserved on YouTube, he said the tally was at 649 hours. This number has grown. I have, since then, noticed the addition of a third installment of Jay Leno’s appearances on Dave’s show along with a collection of Crispin Glover’s appearances.
By posting these videos, Don’s work does not only result in entertainment for people stuck in traffic jams. He’s preserving history. During the decades Letterman was on NBC and CBS nearly every celebrity who shaped popular culture sat down to talk to him. American presidents, important writers and thinkers, legendary musicians, and groundbreaking filmmakers can all be found on Don’s YouTube channel.
If you’re not sure where to get started, I’d recommend diving into the Mr. Melman collection. In the meantime, Don will be working on a video collection celebrating the 40th anniversary of Late Night.