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The Good Ol’ Daves: Harve Mann Remembers The Beginning of David Letterman

January 12, 2015 | Posted by Adam Nedeff

The first time I met Harve Mann seven years ago, he was gracious enough to invite me into his home, sight unseen. He just likes people that much. My first impression as I looked around was that Harve Mann has the home of a man who does what he loves. A piano fills the corner near the front door, with a set of drums nearby. Books and books of sheet music line the shelves, even in the kitchen, and an array of LPs and CDs can be found nearby in another room. Harve’s a musician, a singer-songwriter who’s penned tunes about his hometown of Philadelphia, the stray cat he adopted, and the time that aliens arrived on planet earth and left with a Harve Mann CD. One story he hasn’t put to music, just yet, was his early stint as a recurring player on David Letterman’s earliest programs.

As we look ahead to May 20, 2015, the scheduled exit date for the gap-toothed, grumpy elder statesman of late night television, I took an opportunity to ask Harve Mann to look back 35 years, a time before “Will It Float?,” a time before “Know Your Cuts of Meat,” a time before Mujibur & Sirajul; a time even before the Top 10, the NBC Bookmobile, or the Suit of Alka-Seltzer.

On June 23, 1980, The David Letterman Show premiered on NBC in a time slot that seems as peculiar now as it seemed back then: Weekdays at 10:00 a.m. NBC at that point was overseen by Fred Silverman, a man who was trying every possible experiment to breathe new life into the ailing last-place network. Some of his experiments worked, like the pioneering reality show Real People, the epic miniseries Shogun, and the gritty cop drama Hill Street Blues. But the majority—like Supertrain (The Love Boat, except it was on a train)—were flops. Going into the summer of 1980, Silverman assessed the demographics of the daytime line-up of soap operas and game shows and determined that the game shows had to go, feeling that the audience was too old.

“There are only so many hemorrhoid advertisers,” Silverman later told Rolling Stone.

Silverman canceled three game shows, High Rollers, Chain Reaction, and, after over fourteen years on the network, The Hollywood Squares. The following Monday, NBC introduced The David Letterman Show, which Silverman had envisioned as something of an extension of Today, complete with cooking demonstrations, interviews with self-help authors, and even a daily straightforward news segment featuring reporter Edwin Newman.

Silverman’s vision collapsed almost immediately. Producer Bob Stewart quit a week before the premiere broadcast, Letterman fired the show’s original director after only a few episodes, the studio audiences would actually get up and leave in mid-broadcast, and virtually no television viewers were tuning in. The audience that watched game shows wasn’t an audience that knew what to make of a show that occasionally released a herd of sheep in the studio, or revealed Willard Scott’s home address and gave directions for getting there, or a homemaking segment in which actress Edie McClurg, as Mrs. Marv Mendenhall, dispensed awful homemaking tips ( “How to Make Three-Bean Soup with One Can of Beans and Two Magic Markers”).Letterman himself would devote his time after each show to getting on the phone and personally contacting NBC affiliate managers who had dropped his show in favor of syndicated game shows that were pulling in far stronger ratings.

With the show falling apart so quickly, the intended format went out the window altogether. Forget the interviews with controversial guests, forget the cooking demonstrations; David Letterman turned the show into almost wall-to-wall comedy, like Small Town News, in which Letterman read actual inane letters to the editors in small towns (“I love grape juice,” read one), and segments in which audience members were asked to operate some of the complex technical equipment in the studio or even direct the show. Once the show had made a firm left turn toward pure comedy, that’s when Harve Mann entered, and all because he owned a tuxedo. In this exclusive account for 411Mania, Harve remembers how he got in on the ground floor to see a television legend emerge.

In 1980, I was working two jobs. I was on the road with Tiny Tim as his musical director. I played the piano during his shows, I was his opening act. He usually only did one concert a week so that gave me a chance to take an extra job. I was performing at a club in east New York City called The Gaslight. I had to buy a tuxedo for that job. I would normally never wear one because I fancied myself a singer-songwriter. I thought of myself as a Billy Joel or James Taylor type of guy, and those guys never wore tuxedos, but the Gaslight gig required one so I went out and bought one.

I’d ride the subway throughout New York and I just repeatedly ran into a guy named Stephen Schwartz, who was David Letterman’s talent coordinator. We weren’t friends, we didn’t see each other socially, but we just always wound up on the same subway car, or we’d see each other on the sidewalk outside of the subway station, and I was always wearing a tuxedo every time he saw me.

So the writers at The David Letterman Show came up with this bit. They had written these ridiculous lyrics to the show’s theme, which was an instrumental that had been composed by Michael McDonald. And they wanted a bad lounge singer type to sing it. They wanted a really goofy guy whose tuxedo didn’t fit right and he looked like he would play bar mitzvahs, and when they told Stephen what they wanted, I think Stephen just thought “hmm…tuxedo…singer…I got it!” and that was it. I think I got the job because the right guy kept seeing me in the subway wearing a tuxedo.

I initially wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it, but my mother talked me into it.

Harve made his first appearance on The David Letterman Show on September 12, 1980.

Originally, they wanted me to play it over-the-top goofy. The whole joke was that the melody had pieces that were three or four notes long, and the lyrics were almost complete sentences that had to be squeezed into those four notes. I remember the song just totally annoyed Dave’s musical director, Frank Owens. Frank couldn’t find a way for the lyrics and the notes to fit together and he seemed almost angry about it when we started the rehearsal, but if I can pat myself on the back, my big accomplishment was that I found a way for all of the lyrics to fit.

But what the writers appreciated about the bit was the way I played it. They had wanted a bad lounge singer act—and believe it or not, I had never seen Saturday Night Live even once before I appeared on the show, so I had never seen Bill Murray’s character, Nick the Lounge Singer. I only learned about that character much later. But they wanted me to be a little silly with it. If you watch that bit, I pretty much played it straight. I mean, I made a few faces and did a totally inappropriate high note, but the vast majority of the laughs in that bit aren’t for me. The lyrics that the writers came up with were hilarious, so I actually toned it down a little bit because I wanted to make sure everybody was paying attention to what I was saying. And I think the writers really appreciated that.

They actually had me come in for another show a few weeks later and cut me. The day that they cut me was a big deal because it was after Tiny Tim had a concert, so I had a gig the night before. The show paid for a plane ticket to get me back to New York as fast as possible, but then they cut me from the show. But it really meant a lot to me that they wanted me enough that they were willing to pay for that flight.

On October 24, 1980, The David Letterman Show aired its 90th and final episode on NBC, dropped after only eighteen weeks on the air.

The night before the final episode, I had another Tiny Tim gig in French Lick, Indiana. It’s Larry Bird’s home town and the town was built over some sulphur springs and they were able to take advantage of it and expand the city into a spa town. They even built casinos there. But they absolutely wanted me on the final episode, so I had to drive fifty miles from the town to the nearest airport and it was the same deal, the show paid for my flight back to New York. I came into the studio and saw a photo of me hanging on the wall backstage with a lipstick mark on it. And I did a bit for the final episode where I sang the theme from The David Letterman Show again, but now the lyrics were about Las Vegas Gambit, which was the game show that NBC was replacing it with.

The final episode was such an exciting show. There was a party afterward and you’d ever know this show was canceled. Everybody was laughing, everybody was smiling. There was a lot of joy in that room. I think deep down, everybody knew that this wasn’t the end. I think it was an upbeat mood because they all realized this show was going to come back someday.

In a move that he was widely criticized for, Fred Silverman signed David Letterman to a “holding contract,” in essence paying him $1 million per year NOT to do a TV show, which kept him from being snapped up by another network, a cable channel, or a syndicate. In November 1981, with ratings lagging for NBC’s 12:30 a.m. talk show Tomorrow: Coast to Coast hosted by Tom Snyder, NBC went in search of a replacement. The network originally considered giving the time slot to original Tonight host Steve Allen until Johnny Carson balked, reasoning that there was no sense in putting such a similar show immediately after his own. NBC instead gave the slot to the off-beat David Letterman. Late Night with David Letterman launched on February 1, 1982.

I read that Letterman was getting a new show at 12:30. I was hoping they’d call me but to be honest, I didn’t expect it, so when they did call, I was thrilled.

Over the next few months, I came back to the studio quite a few times, but very often, I was only there as sort of a back-up plan. I showed up and got canceled a few times. There was a night when they invited me to the studio to do a bit with Bill Murray. Bill had done Nick the Lounge Singer, which, again, I had never seen, on Saturday Night Live during his time on that show, and now I was doing the lounge singer act for Letterman, so they wanted to do “dueling lounge singers” with both of us singing really bad versions of “Feelings.” Bill Murray didn’t want to do the bit.

They were also nice enough to give me an open invite to come backstage when I wasn’t asked any time I wanted, but my personal policy was that I would only do that once per every invitation that I did receive. Otherwise, if I showed up more often, it would look like I was abusing the privilege.

They had a staff party one night and they were gracious enough to invite me to come to that one. Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit were there. Those two were just a study in polar opposites. Frank just had this dark and brooding look on his face and stood to the side the whole time. Moon was very outgoing and sweet. I told her that I liked “Valley Girl.” I said I had gone to Taco Bell earlier and that the song was playing in there and everybody was singing along with it, and Moon beamed when she heard that. I met her after her father died and she actually remembered me and that conversation.

I wish I could have hung out with Andy Kaufman more. We had a conversation one night after he had been on the show discussing a biography of Elvis Presley written by a guy named Albert Goldman, and it was just a savage portrayal of Elvis. And Andy had gone on the show and issued a challenge to Albert Goldman. He wanted to appear on the show with Goldman and have a face-to-face debate about Elvis’ merits as a person and a performer. Andy was such an admirer of Elvis Presley and he was so offended when he heard anything negative about the man. My big regret was that I wasn’t in the studio for the night of his brawl with Jerry Lawler. I was in the building a few nights later, and I can tell you for sure, everybody on Dave’s staff was convinced they had witnessed a real fight. There were people there who were still completely shocked by it.

The other night I remember was being in the green room area with John Waters and Brother Theodore. We were all there to do some bit that didn’t get on. As I recall, the bit involved some sort of party being held for the show, and Brother Theodore, John Waters, and I were all guests at the party. I remember at one point we were all backstage and I pointed over at Brother Theodore and said “Hey, John, this is a guy you should have in your movies. You should write a part for him.”

And John looked at Theodore and was just horrified by the sight of him. He just looked so sickened by the thought of working with that man.

Brother Theodore was one of those people that I thought for sure was putting on an act. I walked up to that guy and started a conversation with him, expecting a totally normal guy. And after talking to him, you realize, this guy isn’t in on his own joke. There was no character there. That was Brother Theodore. I walked out of Rockefeller Plaza with him after the show and I remember he just gave a polite smile to a woman passing by and she winced. He went off on her for wincing. “All I did was smile at you and that’s how you react?!” And a few minutes later, he was still talking about it. “Women look at me like it is such a crime.”

Harve Mann’s last appearance was on June 4, 1982, for a special 90-minute episode titled “DAVE,” an episode full of schmaltzy, overblown touches, like a troupe of dancing girls, formal wear, and glittering set pieces. Throughout the show, Harve would open every segment by singing a brief song, to the tune of the Late Night theme, about who or what the viewers were going to see.

Harve’s departure from the program was a mix of bad decisions, bad luck, and bad timing, but, as Harve remembers, not bad feelings.

Early in the run of Late Night, there were a lot of NBC affiliates that didn’t carry the show. A few months into the run of the program, the Pittsburgh NBC station agreed to start airing it, and they wanted to do a bit where I sang a song to the tune of “New York, New York,” and the song was called “Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.” NBC said we had to get permission from the writer of “New York, New York” to do the parody, and the guy was just a real asshole about it. He didn’t have any sense of humor. So I sat down and I wrote a complete, original song called “Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh” that was different enough that we could do it without permission, but similar enough that the audience would get what we were spoofing. I did the song for the writers and it wasn’t well-received at all. It shocked me because in my mind, I was saving the day.

It took me a long time to realize what the offense was that I had committed. This is show business. The most competitive field in the world. It’s so hard to break in and it’s so hard to stay in, and everybody who has a job had to really fight and stick it out to get it. And here I was, this guy who had been on the show a few times, and I had a clearly established job, I was to sing whatever was prepared for me. And the offense I committed with “Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh” was I had encroached on their territory. I was doing the writers’ job and saying “I can do this instead.” At least, that’s how it came off. You learn a lot of lessons in show business through your mistakes, and if you’re lucky, you can survive and those mistakes won’t destroy you. Writing that song myself was a mistake. It was somebody else’s job and I had effectively tried to steal the job. It was bad manners and in the name of giving myself a break, I made myself come off badly. It’s like walking up to George Burns and handing him a demo tape, which, for the record, I also did once.

A few weeks later, I did the 90-minute special. And in the opening song, there was a line in there about “a lounge singer so dumb, he doesn’t know we’re making fun of him.” And I always thought that line was a direct shot at me for writing that song. But I sang it because I was playing a character on the show and the line didn’t really bother me even though I suspected the intended tone of it.

I do want to say something about that though, because of how Merrill Markoe handled it. Merrill was Dave’s girlfriend and his head writer at the time. She’s also one of the smartest women I’ve ever met, and the most down to earth. The first time I ever met her, she had come straight from a gym or something. She was sweaty, her hair was tied back and she was dressed way down with no make-up on. And she wasn’t bothered by that. She didn’t apologize for the way she looked or give an excuse or act self-conscious about it. It was just that at the moment I met her, the way she looked wasn’t on her mind. And I just instantly liked that about her. But when it was time for me to get the lyrics, she told me as she was handing them to me that there was a line that made fun of me, told me point-blank what the line was, and said she was ready to change it if I didn’t like it. I did the line but I absolutely thought the world of Merrill for doing that. It was so considerate.

And to be honest, I did rather like the respect I was shown there, and not just her. Paul Shaffer and I had a conversation after the “Dueling Lounge Singers” bit got called off and I wondered if Bill Murray was worried about me doing the same act he did. And Paul says, “Well, you really don’t. The difference between you and Bill is that you’re a real singer.” Even though I was playing a bad singer, everybody got that it was just a character and everybody perceived that I had actual talent and gave me that respect. I loved that.
And the funny thing about Paul giving me that respect is that very often now, when I tell people that I was on that show, I find myself having to explain “character and real person” about Paul Shaffer. A lot of people absolutely do not get that Paul is doing a character on Dave’s show. That’s not who he is. Paul’s a genius. I heard once that he can’t actually read music, and after my time there, I actually believe that because the sheet music he gave me when I worked with him was so interesting. He didn’t have notes marked on it, just chords. And I think it actually makes him a better musician. He doesn’t need notes on a page so he can put more focus on the emotion and the attitude in whatever he plays. He’s amazing at what he does.

Anyway, during the night at the 90-minute special, I had also mentioned that I had a booking that would keep me from watching the show, so Merrill let me come into Dave’s office after the show and watch the tape. I watched it with them and I wound up being more interested in watching Dave & Merrill than I was in watching the tape because they were such students of their own work. They were making verbal notes through the whole thing. “Okay, that didn’t work…we should try that again on another show…he hammed it up a little bit too much for that part…that worked well…” And they just took it so seriously. They really cared about what they were doing. They were dedicated to it, and I could tell that this show was going to have staying power because they worked so hard on it.

The following day, I had major car troubles and I had to get a repair done immediately. At the time, I didn’t have a credit card, and you also need to understand that 1982 was right before ATMs became a thing. So I was good for the money, but I needed to get twenty dollars quick. So I took my luggage out of the trunk and went to the Late Night offices at 30 Rock. I walk in there and explain the problem and so everybody in earshot begins pulling out a dollar here, a dollar there so I can round up twenty dollars. And Dave walks into the office and very conspicuously walks in the opposite direction when I see him.

I was already a little concerned after the whole “Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh” thing and for the rest of that day, I was worried about how Dave perceived it when he saw me in the office. I imagined him thinking, “Aww, geez, this guy? Come on, you got your airtime last night. We just had you on the show, what do you want now? And he’s asking people for money? Seriously? We’re paying you!” And I replayed it over and over in my mind and I kept trying to get a read on his face and I found myself thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m not sure if he even saw me.” I probably worried about it too much. Looking back, they probably already had their minds made up about my future before I even walked in that day.

A few months later, in September, I was booked to do another 90-minute episode. They were calling this one the “Nothing Special Special.” The running theme throughout the show was that there was nothing remarkable about anything they were doing and they were drawing attention to how none of it was special. They were going to have me sing a song about how nothing about the show was special.

And then I got the phone call. “We’re going to have Paul do it. It doesn’t make much sense to have you do a song, because if you’re doing it, then it comes off like we’re doing a special.”

That was flattering and I said I understood, but in the back of my head, I thought to myself, “I’m never going to be on the show again.”

I was right. The phone never rang again. But I was never bitter about that. It was a great experience. I did like the people I worked with. It was great exposure.

It also helped that I saw some signs over the years that I was appreciated. Dave was a guest on The Jon Stewart Show in 1995 and he brought along a clip from his daytime show, and out of everything he could have used, it was a clip of me singing. Merrill Markoe wrote a book a few years back and told a story about me that portrayed me in a flattering light. It was about a show where I was singing with a trio of back-up singers and a fire started in the studio while I was doing a Barry Manilow number, and I kept singing through the fire. The truth is, that never happened. She’s remembering it wrong. But the story made me look good. This total professional who persevered and saved the show. But it was little things like that that made me believe that they really did appreciate me and respect me. So I have nothing but positive memories.

And the years went by and Dave emerged as this cult favorite. Late Night was the hippest show on television. He jumps to CBS and becomes DAVE, this iconic star for them. He became CBS’ Johnny Carson. And it’s neat to look back and say I was part of that. How many people can say they were there for the very beginning of something that turned out to be so extraordinary?

article topics :

David Letterman, Adam Nedeff