The First Line of Defense Against America's Nuts:

My Five Month Internship With "Late Night"

Interning for "Late Night with David Letterman" is kind of like going to Harvard--you are never quite sure how to mention it in casual conversation. When people ask me what I did on my semester off last spring, I invariably tell them something like, I worked in New York, or for television or at NBC. It is very similar to saying that I go to school "up North."

The mention of "Late Night," however, evokes a much stronger explosion of spontaneous curiosity. Brushes with famous people are exciting; part of their appeal is that we want to know what they are like in real life--a kind of People Magazine syndrome. A nightly talk show like Letterman offers innumerable opportunities for future name-dropping, and that's not even counting the people you can meet just walking around the hallways at NBC.

I snuck off to intern for "Late Night with David Letterman" last winter. I was there for about five months working in the talent department and generally doing whatever they needed me to do. Now that I'm back in school, I have been getting a lot of questions about my experience. So I thought it would be a lot easier to answer them in bulk....

Did You Meet Dave?

The first thing everyone wants to know about "Late Night" is if I met Dave, and what he is like in person. Well, it's pretty hard to work for somebody for five months and never meet. It is Dave's office, and Dave's show. He's there all the time, and actually, it's quite impossible to work for Dave for more than a week and not physically bump into him--or be hit by something he has thrown through the hallway.

Dave also has a little mind game he likes to play with the interns that I wasn't able to avoid: Whenever he gets into an elevator and an intern is the only other passenger, Dave hangs out in the door talking to people. Only he doesn't just hang; he hovers there, just in and out enough so that the intern doesn't know whether to press the Door Open button or to just wait. It's nerve-racking enough to have to contemplate what you are going to say to David Letterman during a 14 floor ride; on top of this, the man makes a joke out of the whole thing by building up the anticipation even higher.

Eventually, the door invariably closes on Dave and hits him in the arm, at which point he jumps in the elevator.

And as soon as the door closes, he starts yelling.

He is, of course, being sarcastic. And in the back of my mind, (at this point though, in the way back) I knew that. But the entire point of well-executed sarcasm is that you can't really tell--and Dave is the master.

I was so flustered during that elevator ride that I can't remember exactly what he said. He just kept grasping his arm and saying that he was the host of the "goddamn show", and "why the hell" didn't I keep the door open.

When we finally got to the lobby, he told me to have a nice night and to get home safely. When my ego recovered enough to tell this story to another intern, I found out that the same thing happened to him.

What About Paul?

Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band don't have time to torture interns in the elevator. I did, however, end up seeing Paul a lot because his office was on my side of the floor (translation: I got to answer his phone).

Paul, as many people notice when he's on air, is a very laid back kind of guy. He spends most of his time in the studio, and when he is upstairs, he is usually on the phone or screening CD's. When he is waiting for calls, he tends to roam around. One day he helped me sort mail.

Another time, we convinced him to test out a pair of "Moon shoes" which had been sent to the office. "Moon Shoes" are mini-trampolines that you strap to your feet individually and they let you jump or bounce while you run. Paul was a blur of flowered-print silk for the rest of the afternoon.

I Saw You on TV...

I'm sorry to say that I never actually made it on the air during my internship. They put all the interns in a Viewer Mail skit one Friday, but, as luck would have it, I wasn't there that day.

It ended up, though, that that didn't matter, because somebody who looks like me from behind was on the show all the time. Barbara Gaines, Dave's production assistant for the last nine years, is the staff person in charge of running things on stage during the show. She runs on with pencils, drops them and runs off. For my friends watching "Late Night" at 1 a.m. everyday, I figured that was just as good as my actually being on the show. So in the name of--humor?--I let them go on believing she was me.

Did You Write Anything?

I did a little bit of everything during my stay with "the big show". Everything, taht is, but write jokes. I photocopied jokes, photocopied Top 10 lists and photocopied scripts. And that's as close as I got.

So What Did You Do?

As an intern, I was specifically assigned to a talent coordinator--one of the people who books guests on the show. Madeleine, my boss, was responsible for the "civilian guests," a euphemism for the non-famous guests (a.k.a. weird guests--the snake charmers, bug collectors, inventors and assorted others). About two weeks into my internship, she also took over the musical guests.

My job was to do whatever I could to keep her life in order. That meant sorting her mail, screening tapes, writing rejection letters, answering her phones, picking up CD's, getting lunch, organizing her office, unburying her desk and reading her 15+ daily newspapers to look for interesting guests. Madeleine, by far, got the most mail and the most phone calls of anyone on the show (there are, it seems, many more crazy people in America than there are famous ones).

As the people in charge of answering Madeleine's phones and mails, my co-intern and I liked to think of ourselves as the first line of defense against America's nuts. Calls ranged from people who wanted to say "hi" to Dave to people with ideas for the show. The hardest part was convincing people to give up and put down the phone.

I talked to one man for 20 minutes about his idea to do an interview with an ex-addict, exgovernor from somewhere who was now running for re-election. I finally got him to understand that this wouldn't be a good idea for "Late Night with David Letterman." He was silent for a second, and then he said, "You mean, this isn't Nightly News?"

A few days later, I got a call from an irate man demanding to speak to the manager. I tried explaining to him that we were a TV show; we had producers and directors, but no manager. He screamed, "What kind of McDonald's doesn't have a manager?" and he slammed down the phone.

The strangest letter we received was from some kid who sent us--believe it--his wart. At the end of a long, complicated letter which rambled on for two pages, I discovered under a large mound of scotch tape, what was unmistakably a human wart. The mailer's effort, however misguided and anal retentive, was semi-successful. His idea did, that is, make it out of the dead letter box--and right into a medical waste disposal basket.

How Crazy Did Things Get?

With the volume of Madeleine's mail, mix-ups were bound to happen.

One day, a package arrived through a Federal Express delivery from a rib company in some mid-Western state. The package didn't appear to have a name on it, and when strange, unexplainable objects appear in the office, everyone assumes that they are pitches (prospective guest ideas) for Madeleine.

Well, the hungry staffers put the ribs in the store room and opened season on the package. Madeleine walked in about five minutes into the feast and started screaming. The ribs, it turned out, were supposed to be a surprise birthday present for her boyfriend.

A week later, another box of ribs arrived--this time a real pitch. Nobody touched them.

What Famous People Did You Meet?

Between answering phones, delivering t-shirts and papers to the studio and sitting in the make-up room during the show, I met or talked to most of the guests who came on the show. We didn't hold extended conversations, but the interns could hover as long as we weren't noticed.

No matter how unglamorous it may seem, there is still something exciting about saying, "Frank will be with you in just a second" to Corben Bernson or Lou Diamond Phillips. My biggest coup was talking to Teller of "Penn and Teller," the magical comedy team. Teller is the one who never gets to say anything on stage.

After the war, I rode down an elevator with Arthur Kent, neatly clothed in the latest Gap-wear, and a horde of NBC executives in suits. Kent was relating the scuba diving story he had been telling on every interview show in New York and the execs were lapping it up. did anyone see "Broadcast News"?

Did You Go to Any Big Industry Events?

The second week of my internship was the ninth anniversary of the show. Usually, there is a prime time special on location, but they were saving their energy for the big 10th anniversary show this February in Radio City Music Hall, so we got a party.

Meg, the woman from the building across the street was there. Also, the Library Lady, Tony Randall, Gene Shalit, some Saturday Night Live staff and many people I didn't recognize. The party was during the war and NBC security mandated that everyone--from Tom Brokaw to the interns--wear I.D. cards at all times. Dave showed up with his I.D. still hanging around his neck.

I'm Your #1 Fan

For me, David Letterman is the last person on TV who would need to wear a nametag. He is one of the most recognizable figures currently on the air. He has his own cult of fans, and by now, I am one of the biggest.

The "Late Night" internship is certainly not one of the most traditional opportunities listed in the books at the Office of Career Services, but being anti-tradition is a big theme of the show. I figured coming from one of the most traditional schools in the country would only make the semester that much more of a break.

Now that I am back and about to hit the books again, I keep an inspirational quote on the wall above my computer. It's a little statement by a comedy writer that a former intern, who is now a researcher on staff, cut out of a newspaper during his internship.

The man said, "My daughter's off to Harvard this fall and I told her, 'You're not going to four years of college to work on 'The Letterman Show.'" Not surprisingly, my father had said the exact same thing.

Beth L. Pinsker '93 is the assistant editorial chair of The Harvard Crimson. She spent spring of '91 as an interm for "Late Night With David Letterman," researching her thesis, "'Larry Bad' Melman: American Hero."