My Unexpected Late Show Experience


The most direct descendant of Johnny Carson’s legacy would be none other than David Letterman. His style, his timing, his setup, all aspects of his show and his legacy are what remains out of Carson’s generation. Don’t mistake my words, the Fallons, the Meyers, the Kimmels of today all have their appeal, and I greatly enjoy every program. But there is a timeless quality to Late Show with David Letterman. Something it has that no other show has. A presence that no other comedian seems to have. That quirky, gap toothed demeanor whilst the familiar host waggles his pencil has not lost any of it’s charm since taking to the NBC airwaves in 1982. He doesn’t conform to anyone’s expectations of what he should be, what he should do, or what he should say. He works for himself. And even all he has been through, losing his rightfully deserved Tonight Show to a certain mammonthly mandibled competitor, transitioning to CBS, being the subject of a blackmail attempt, admitting to his own indiscretions publicly, losing his cue card holder, David Letterman is still here. And until last April, we thought he always would be.

My Seth Meyers experience involved a solid month of meticulous planning and procuring the tickets was a sophisticatedly executed maneuver. But the chaotic story of my sudden David Letterman trip is one for the books. About three months ago, I signed up for tickets online, listing my name and that of a guest. As Ron Popeil would likely say, “Set it and forget it.”

Forget it I did, until last Monday around noon I was lounging around my dorm room. My cell phone rang with a (212) area code. Recognizing the call was coming from Manhattan, but being unsure of who it was, I took a chance and answered. “You’ve got the Wolt.” I was greeted with “Mr. Woltman, this is Lisa from the Late Show with David Letterman. How are you?” I was taken completely off guard and it took me a moment to understand what was going on. “A few months ago you filed a request for tickets to the show. Well, we have an opening for you and your guest on Wednesday the 29th. Are you interest-” I interrupted with a sharp “Yes” not even knowing how I would possibly put something together in such short notice.

“How often do watch the show?” asked Lisa

“About 4 or 5 times a week.” I replied

“Ok, as a formality I need to ask you a trivia question, and you can’t look up the answer. Our announcer is Alan Kalter. What color is his hair?”

I froze for a moment as I struggled to recall Alan’s appearance. He isn’t on camera that often. Another part of me was also considering that this woman may not be from the Late Show at all, and I may be caught up in a scam. Nonetheless, I guessed an answer. “Gray?”

“No. Mr Woltman, how often do you really watch the show?” She replied

“4 to 5 times a week. But I switch back and forth between that and Fallon.” I defensively stated. She lets out a giggle to let me know she’s heard that one before. She gives me one more chance.

“Paul Shaffer is our bandleader. Name something he is known for.”

This was child’s play to me. I portray a parody of Paul Shaffer on my YouTube show “Flick Check with Andrew Woltman” (shameless self plug). “He wears large, flamboyant sunglasses.”

“Correct. You have won sir. Do you need to check with your guest to make sure he can still make it?”

I did. It’s one thing for me to volunteer myself for an immediate New York trip, I couldn’t do it for someone else. So I told her I needed a moment to correspond. She gave me a callback number, but warned me to respond within the hour. This gave me a chance to both check with my friend, and see if this was the real deal. An internet search for similar scenarios confirmed to me that this was on the level. My friend was unable to make it, but I very quickly found another to go in his stead. I returned the call to Lisa, and told her my situation. However, I was told they do not accept substitutions. Either my original friend goes with me, or I go alone.

This was a whole new boat. On one hand, I had never been to New York City by myself. On the other, this would be my only chance to see David Letterman live before his retirement. I weighed the options for 5 seconds and I accepted.

I was given instructions to go to Ed Sullivan theater the day of between the hours of 2 and 3, get in line, give them my name, and state that I was on “Lisa’s Gold List.” Already this sounded like covert ops. Nerves racked on my part, arrangements were made for me to travel to Port Authority and walk the remaining distance. Still, this would be a test of my courage. Going to the most dangerous city in the world alone was a daunting thought, but the benefits outweighed the risks. I soon discovered the guests would be Jim Carrey and David Tennant. So that made it even more worth the endeavor.

Wednesday morning rolled around, and I headed to the New Paltz Trailways station. My nerves were still in full swing, until I ran into someone from my past. Danny Paul. For those who don’t know who he is, Danny is a professional Broadway dresser. He is currently working on the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and was even given a personal shout out by Neil Patrick Harris during his Tony acceptance speech. I had known Danny from my days of acting in musicals at Kingston High School where he was the choreographer. A great man, and very talented at what he does. And it just so happened we were taking the same bus to the city together. That gave us time to catch up, and when we got to the city, he pointed me in the right direction. Had I not run into Danny, the day might have gone differently.

Anyway, I had made my way to the Ed Sullivan theater, and I snapped a couple pictures in my Paul Shaffer costume in front of the sign. Now I just had to kill time. If I discovered one thing about the city during this trip, it’s that when you need to stay in a certain area, it’s essentially the same as wandering the mall before a movie. It gets boring if you have no intention of spending money.

I took a picture in my "Discount Paul Shaffer" get up. (But I refuse to use the term selfie).
I took a picture in my “Discount Paul Shaffer” get up. (But I refuse to use the term selfie).

2:00 rolls around, and I find myself in a velvet roped line amongst others who had also received a mysteriously inviting phone call just days prior. No matter what, the next page you saw would check your ID, ask you the same question, then send you on your way to the next one. Cumulatively, I was given an ultraviolet hand-stamp, a ticket with several markings, and instructions on when and where to use the bathroom, what time to return, where to go.

Now I had until 3:50. Great. I made a judgement that I could make it to Rockefeller center and back in time, so I did just that.  A stroll through the NBC store was fruitful not only for purchasing a T-Shirt I intended to buy during my Seth Meyers trip, but also because I learned that getting event tickets is easier than I had thought. Whilst perusing, I was approached by an intern who offered me tickets to Seth Meyers’ monologue rehearsal during which I (and others) would help Seth pick out what jokes he would use during that evening’s monologue. Sorely tempted, I had to decline due to the limited time window I had. But this was useful intel for the future.

I wandered back to Ed Sullivan theater, stopping briefly to visit the Lego store, and to have a pint of Harp at an Irish pub where my Donegal sweatshirt was a conversation starter. Arriving at the theater, still a few minutes early, I decide to kill the last 15 minutes by walking around the block. I see a crowd of people with one person in front signing autographs, and I ponder who it is. I notice people holding posters of Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber, and it hits me that I’m staring at the back of Jim Carrey. Having nothing for him to sign, I resolve to snap a picture. I succeed, and I continue a walk around the block.

I manage to snap a fleeting picture of Jim Carrey as he enters the theater.
I manage to snap a fleeting picture of Jim Carrey as he enters the theater.

At 3:50, we were in our lines, and then given a safety spiel which amounted to everything you would expect to hear. But also some interesting history about Ed Sullivan and his guests such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Next we were escorted one by one, searched through metal detector and finally sorted into our seats. To my mild displeasure, I was placed in the balcony (albeit the front row), with my view partially obstructed by a stage light. If I was to ever shake hands with Dave and Paul, it was not to be today.

4:10 brings about announcer Alan Kalter who doubles as the warm up comedian. He starts with some basics of how important our enthusiasm is to the show, and makes some small jokes. His instructions were “Imagine if your mother had won the lottery, you are her only surviving relative, and she has an hour to live.” Believing this was his cue for us to cheer, I alone clap and chant. Alan makes eye contact with me in the balcony, and cracks “Someone wants his mother gone.” Laughter ensues, and Alan introduces a prepared video hosted by Alec Baldwin of all people. It repeats basic safety information, how we should react, pressuring us to laugh whether we get the joke or not.

4:20, and now Alan introduces the members of the CBS Orchestra one by one, and ending with Paul Shaffer. They play a number for the audience, the end of which welcomes David to the stage. Finally in person, I see the man who is my generation’s equivalent of Johnny Carson. Jacket-less, he shuffles up to Alan, grabs a stick microphone, leans himself on top of an old fashioned camera, and introduces himself as though he needs to. He says that he likes to take time to answer audience questions before the show starts. He gets a little more in depth than Seth Meyers did, getting intimate with members off the audience, and showcasing his quick wit as he converses with each questioner. That in no way is a slant against Seth Meyers, it’s merely an example of how long and how seasoned of a veteran that Letterman is. In vein, I extend my hand knowing that my odds of him seeing me are slim, but I figure it’s now or never. No avail. Dave thanks us for coming, retreats backstage, and it’s time.

4:30 and it’s showtime. Alan introduces the guests, and out comes Dave in full suited regalia. His monologue knocks it out of the park, but a staged Daylight Savings bit with the wardrobe coordinator falls flat. I still find myself trying to figure out the gag. But he brings it right back with his signature Top 10 List.

His hilarious top 10 list
His hilarious top 10 list

Next, David introduces Jim Carrey, but he does not come out. He tries once more, nothing. At first, I’m unsure if this is a technical difficulty or a staged bit, but it is apparently the latter when Dave walks backstage and asks the cameraman to follow him. David asks if any one has seen Jim, and walks through a door to find a prize claw machine, and inside is Jim Carrey.

Jim Carrey searching for the one thing he wants.
Jim Carrey searching for the one thing he wants.

Jim explains that he was on his way out, when he saw the one thing he’s always wanted: an Oscar. Two men unscrew the machine to let Jim out, and both him and David return to the set. Jim Carrey is as wildly eccentric as he appears in his films, and I enjoy every moment as he administers David with an Ebola exam before he grants an interview. He whips out his now signature Matthew McConaughey impression and introduces a clip from Dumb and Dumber To before laughing maniacally, and attacking Dave’s set like King Kong. A wonderful end to a wonderful interview. And we still had David Tennant to come.

As is common, the camera will pan over the audience whilst Alan Kalter announces the next night’s guests, and quips a one liner. This grants me my first full faced appearance on national television.

My first full faced appearance on national television. I can be clearly seen in the Green Lantern shirt.
My first full faced appearance on national television. I can be clearly seen in the Green Lantern shirt.

An interesting interview with David Tennant closes out the show, where they discuss Scottish independence, his experiences as Doctor Who, and his family. Not as memorable as Jim Carrey, but still rather enjoyable. David thanks us all for coming, and we are all lead out of the theater and sent on our way.

Within the span of 9 days (just enough to cover the plot of Smokey and the Bandit II), a trip I will never forget came about. I had hopes that I would be able to see David Letterman before he steps down and Stephen Colbert takes over. And thanks to a surprise phone call, and help from others on the way, it happened.

Thanks for the memories Dave. Enjoy your retirement.