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Daily Dave: The 'Late Show with David Letterman' writers' room

Lady Gaga (right) invites "Late Show" surprise guest

Lady Gaga (right) invites "Late Show" surprise guest Bill Murray (left), David Letterman (center) and the entire"Late Show" audience over to the Roseland Ballroom for a special performance, which will be broadcast on the "Late Show with David Letterman" tonight, Wednesday April 2, 2014 on the CBS Television Network. This photo is provided by CBS from the Late Show with David Letterman photo archive. Photo: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS,2014 Credit: CBS / Jeffrey R. Staab

Late-night TV shows don't host themselves. They don't produce themselves. They don't turn on the cameras themselves.

Ipso facto: Late-night TV shows don't write themselves either.

They are written by a curious breed of human known as a "writer," or more specifically a "comedy writer," or even more specifically: A late-night specialist comedy writer.

And so, for one of the last "Daily Daves,"  before this singular run at "Late Show with David Letterman" comes to a close in just a few hours,  we look at the writer -- another of those crucial-behind-the-scenes types who have made "Late Show" and its  "Late Night" predecessor such remarkable successes over the years.

The writers at these shows have usually been guys (and they mostly are guys -- although Merrill Markoe was head writer in the early years at "Late Night") who have turned out about 1,234,897 jokes over the last 33 years. (That is a guess -- a wild one -- and I have asked CBS to do an exact count for me; the network publicist told me she'll get back to me on this in about 33 years...)

Of these million-plus jokes, many have been funny, a few hilarious, some just amusing, and only a few -- a remakable batting average  -- total duds. That's what drummer Anton Fig is occassionally for -- to hit the cymbals when a rim shot is delivered.

Letterman's writers in fact are superb: A doughty, crusty bunch who have so perfectly captured the spirit of the man using their vast store of material that it is sometimes hard to say where Letterman's voice ends, and their voice begins...

Here's the group that is currently employed -- alas, they will be out of jobs here in a few hours -- and they have done a magnificent job over the last few months: ...

Steve Young, the head writer, Bill Scheft, Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, Lee Ellenberg, Jeremy Weiner, Joe Grossman, Jill Goodwin, Chris Belair, Paul Masella, Matt Kirsch and David Letterman

There have been 71 "Late Show" writers over the decades; some go back to "Late Night." Mulholland is the grand old man of the bunch -- I believe he has a writer's credit on every episode. But Barrie, Scheft and Young -- also that guy Letterman -- have a few thousand credits too. There have been some famous "Late Show" writers over the years. Some have gone to other careers -- Louis CK, for one, and Carter Bays, for another. Carter of course co-created "How I Met Your Mother." Johnny Carson -- you will be perhaps surprised to learn -- earned a writer's credit on  "Late Show." In fact, he did once submit some jokes after retirement.

What does it take to be a writer on one of these late-night shows? For one thing, many of them seem to have gone to Harvard... (All together now: So THAT'S what an Ivy League education if for.)

They are smart. They are fast. They have think like their boss. They have to anticipate their boss' needs. I spoke yesterday with Spike Feresten -- one of those acclaimed writers who went on to his own career. He spent five years at "Late Night" and "Later Show," later joining "Seinfeld" where he created something called a "Soup Nazi." He did his own late-night talk show for Fox -- it was a good one -- and currently hosts "Car Matchmaker," about to begin a second season on the Esquire Network. This is a good show too.

Long ago, Feresten was in music school in Boston "when I got it in my head that not only is Letterman's 'Late Night' the greatest show ever but it was the only place where I should be working, which is an amazingly small bulls-eye to hit." One day, while bartending at Legal Seafoods, he noticed a young woman who was wearing a "Late Night" jacket.

He jumped over the bar, and asked her -- with great urgency -- that he must have the jacket and would she perhaps part with it?

 She said no. He then said he was desperate to work on the show at which point she -- apparently taking pity on Jacket Boy -- said she had just broken up with someone who worked at "Saturday Night Live." Because this poor schlub was still in love with her, she would ask about internships there.

 She did. Feresten ended up at "SNL," then moved a couple of floors up to "Late Night."

(Moral of the story: If you see someone with a jacket bearing the logo of a company you would like to work for, ask them to give you the jacket).

The "Late Night" job, he said, was a "dream..." Letterman -- despite that famed prickliness -- was enormously supportive, almost immediately. Feresten recalled a time after beginning at the show when he bought a lemon from some NYC car dealership. He and Letterman were walking down the street and passed by the dealership.

Letterman said, "let's go in..." They did, and promptly found the car salesman, whom Letterman  proceeded to berate -- loudly -- for selling his friend and colleague a piece of junk.

"What kind of boss does that?"

Letterman, he said, "is very generous, smart and strict -- but I like that. He knows what he wants. He controls all aspects of the show, and looking back over my 25 years in this business, that's always been the recipe for success..." "

He was also the best writer in the room -- he was the best writer out of all of us and he could write circles around us and elevate us. "

Letterman -- like any host -- didn't write all his material. Impossible. "I've hosted a late-night show and you can never do all that. You need a writing team, a talent coordinator, and on and on. You are juggling all these things and need to manage your energy [but] he would jump in and polish things as well as write his own material.

Writers worked full days. The rough schedule: Get in, look over the newspapers, or websites, punch up some jokes -- a lot of them -- then see what the head-writer thinks... He then takes some of those in to Letterman, who then punches them up further, or discards them. The "Top Ten" process was similar -- a vast number of jokes written, a vast number discarded.

Writers had to know Letterman's tastes and needs almost instinctually -- there was no use writing something that wasn't shaped to his sensibility.

So why leave this gig of kings?

Per Feresten -- who still calls this the best job of his life -- "There was a joke in the writers' room, that if all comedy is a football field, then writing for Dave is one square inch of that field, and we are all mining straight down to China.

"You are hearing so much material in his voice that it just feels that way. It is a hungry format. You're hearing the subjects night after night until their fierceness can burn out, so it can also burn YOU out and you want to try your hand at something new.

"But for me, it wasn't even about that. It was just about moving to Los Angeles -- I had spent years in living in apartments -- and I just wanted to be out in the open air, where it was sunny, have a car, a dog, a house."

But Ferensten adds, almost wistfully,  "I'm a huge fan of his. He inspired me. I would have gone back in a heartbeat if things had crashed and burned, or if I was lucky enough for them to want me back."

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