Genius Either Way It’s Flipped

LATE AT NIGHT

It’s fate that some should touch the heights that make a mem’ry fast recall,

The words and deeds that make hearts light, and let the tensions built, desolve,

A comic’s not a name tag worn, nor ever was talent bought,

a showman true, is only born, then hones the talent he has got,

Let the hours slip ’til night, who fears the dark in merriment,

rather laugh in lowered light, then watch some other, lesser gent

Let talent come from where it will, in singers, actors, all renowned

spectators nightly hours fill, with David, Paul and Kalter’s sounds,

those talents many lives enrich, by daring to speak humors script

As Letterman describes “the switch” it’s genius either way it’s flipped.

(A Poem by Daniel L. Buckner)

I was about 9 years old and staying up very late on a Friday.  Everyone else was sound asleep and that was the first time I ended up on “Late Night with David Letterman.”  I distinctly remember the bandleader eating a bowl of Rice Krispies drizzled with Pepto-Bismol.  Clearly I had stepped into another era of my life.

The beautiful thing is that I am not unique.  Letterman has long appealed to those with a taste for humor that is off the beaten path.  No David Letterman would mean no Jimmy Kimmel and no Conan O’Brien.  There has been plenty written about the man’s contributions to comedy, but to me it has always been Dave’s curiosity about people that I found so interesting.  Moreso than some of his celebrity interviews, I recall him talking to a young kid who found gold.  Or his exchanges with his mother known to the public as “Dave’s mom.”

I’ve learned about interviewing from some of the best and have been able to interview truly great interviewers like the late Joe Franklin, Bob Edwards, Larry King, Bill Boggs and Elliot Mintz.  I don’t pretend to be in any way culturally relevant.  I’m still learning, but there is no doubt in my mind that the reason I interview people is because of David Letterman.

David Letterman is frequently over-looked as an interviewer.  I recall my conversation with his announcer Alan Kalter, when he talked about his first impression with Dave.  “He was a listener. And he still is to this day. Uh, he’s a great listener when he interviews the guests on the show, as you can tell. He’s also a good listener if you meet him in the hall or if he sits down with you and says ‘What’s new?’ He listens to everything you say and then asks the appropriate questions.”

I write this little tribute to the Worldwide Pants crew as the very last episode of the show is being taped.  Hard to fathom the impact Dave, Paul & Co.  made to millions of people, but also the people who helped create the magic and the music of every episode.

The people who created The Late Show are a lot more open than most people in what they call “show business.”

I’ve been a fan of Paul Shaffer and his 2 albums, in particular “Coast to Coast” for years.  His CBS Orchestra is arguably one of the best bands in the business and  this is not really a secret.  I set out years ago to help tell the story of the band, going back to when it was called “The World’s Most Dangerous Band.”  I was able to interview Steve Jordan, the original drummer back in the early days of 1982 when Letterman was first starting in late night.  I recall my interview also with Anton Fig, known to many as a great drummer who is also a composer who created one of my favorite albums, “Figments.” And of course Will Lee who along with Shaffer has been there since day one and never left.  I spoke with almost all of the horn section, some who have gone onto other things.  There was the enthusiastic Alan Chez who encouraged me to stuff myself on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  There was saxophonist Bruce Kapler who will forever be associated with Christmastime to so many.  Aaron Heick, saxophonist and composer of songs like “Drifting Upstream” and “Desert Lullaby,” and of course their leader, the multi-instrumentalist  incredible Tom “Bones” Malone, a man who personifies what it is to be a gentleman.

But there are other people I got to meet, the former warm-up comedian and booker, Eddie Brill who I had the fortune to interview after interviewing the one-of-a-kind announcer Alan Kalter.  The people behind the scenes who gave so kindly of their limited time, like Executive Producer and CEO of Worldwide Pants,  Rob Burnett, who somehow finds time to also write scripts and make movies…or CBS Vice President of Late Night Programming Vinnie Favale who has an unlimited amount of passion for so many things, including his musical “Hereafter.”

I didn’t get to interview the entire band, but I did try my best so there are no regrets really.  There is only one regret I have.  It was back in 2008 and I was in New York City having interviewed arguably the biggest New York legend—Woody Allen.  I was stopped on the street and asked to answer 3 trivia questions (the most memorable being about Kalter’s hair color) for tickets to see a taping of “The Late Show.”  I answered all the questions correctly, but sadly my flight would not allow me to attend the taping.  The tickets were given to my friends who would stay behind as I returned home.  I truly regret not staying.  Meeting Woody Allen and then seeing a taping of Letterman?  New York dreams.

When I interviewed his good friend comedian Tom Dreesen he said to get a good look because we won’t see Dave again.  Perhaps David Letterman’s most attributed and repeated quote is “There is no off position on the genius switch.”  Maybe I’m being mawkish, but I can’t imagine so much wit, creativity and humor just suddenly turning off. 

Late at night, 11:35 PM to be precise, on television sets across the country, the recognizable sound of Alan Kalter  and the CBS Orchestra has been heard night after night…a sure sign that you’re about to be entertained.    Although the show is ending there are stories and as I have learned many incredible characters that are here to stay.

***

Special thanks to: Eddie Brill, Rob Burnett, Tom Dreesen, Vinnie Favale, Anton Fig, Aaron Heick, Steve Jordan, Alan Kalter, Bruce Kapler, Frankie Keane, Will Lee, Tom “Bones” Malone, Susan Shreyar-Miller and…of course Henry Jordan and David Yoder.

Alan Kalter: Announcer for The Late Show with David Letterman

Alan Kalter is the announcer for The Late Show with David Letterman, a role he has held for almost 20 years now.  He joined Paul for this fun talk where we meet the man behind the voice!

Ladies and gentlemen it is with great honor we present our special guest Mr. Alan Kalter, the announcer for The Late Show with David Letterman. With no further ado, I present to you Big Red, TV’s Uncle Jerry, the one and only Alan Kalter.
Hi Paul. A pleasure to be with you today.

Thank you so much. My first question: Who is Alan Kalter?
Well, um, he’s a guy who’s having a lot of fun with Dave and the people on the show for the last 15 years – going back to childhood, doing things my mother didn’t permit me to do when I was 9 or 10 years old that, uh, Dave permits me to do now – some things that I wouldn’t have even done if my mother had said OK back when I was 9 or 10.

So tell us, where are you from originally?
I’m a Brooklyn boy, um, raised in the New York City area, Connecticut, tri-state area, Long Island. And, um, my folks are from the same place. I grew up there, live in Connecticut right now, divide my time between New York and Connecticut. Two great, different worlds.

So how did you first get into the world of show business?
I was 17 years old, Paul, and a freshman at Hobart College, when I was pledging a fraternity and my fraternity brothers said ‘Now that we’ve had a few beers, how about going up to the real station’ – not at the school but in the city nearby – and auditioning?’ And I was the only one who, once we got up those steps, said ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that.’ And they said ‘Come back tomorrow.’ And I came back tomorrow and I put myself down on tape – or they put me on tape – and little did I know, they didn’t record anything on the tape because they weren’t interested in having any college students on the station. But the General Manager – this is a weird story – the General Manager happened to be going into his office that day, it was a Saturday, to pick up his wallet that he had left there the night before a fishing trip was about to start. And he heard me over the loudspeaker. And although they didn’t have anything on tape, my name and number were in security. So two days later, one of the disc jockeys – or as it turns out, the newsman – quit without giving them any notice. He called me on that number and said “Would you like to come down and work for Strauss Broadcasting?’ I was 17 years old and I did, 40 hours a week for the remainder of my three and a half years at Hobart.

I’ve been telling a couple of people over the past day, when you called you didn’t even have to say your name. I just – you have one of the most distinct voices I think I’ve ever heard. So, when did you first realize you had a vocal talent?
My dad had a phenomenal singing voice. Just great. He used to sing at all the parties. He used to sing in the car and, as kids who try to shut your ears when your folks possibly sing in the front seat loud, we loved it. It was just great. And I think I have his voice. Um, I like to sing, I like to talk. I didn’t think I’d be going into this profession but it’s done a lot of good things for me and I’m very appreciative.

Now you just mentioned, you said ‘I didn’t think I would go into this profession.’ Could you imagine doing anything other than this?
Well, I was a teacher for a short time. When I left college I went to law school for two years, a year and a half, and then went into teaching and, uh, did not go back to law school, although I expected to because I envisioned myself, um, fighting for the rights of the unfortunate in criminal court. Uh, I never went back. I absolutely loved teaching. I taught high school, 12th grade out in Long Island in New York area and, um, at the same time I was, I had been through college, through those three and a half years of college and through the law school and into teaching, I was still doing radio. I was doing, um, a show on WTFM in the afternoons, which was just outside New York City, and I was doing morning news for WHN radio. But after three and a half years of teaching – thinking I would be a teacher for the rest of my life – when that HN job opened up, and that was a big 50,000 watt station, I took the job, left teaching and I, uh, have never regretted it. Loved radio too.

Our special guest is Alan Kalter, the announcer for The Late Show with David Letterman. I have to ask you, how did you become associated with David Letterman?
David was, is, he’s a very smart guy and he used to do the game show circuit. His producer, Robert Morton – this was in ’94, ’95 – um, actually wanted me to come up and see if I could do the show, see if David liked me, and see if it wouldn’t be a good gel. This was almost a year after he moved over to CBS from NBC. And um, Morty liked what he heard and David liked what he heard. And, uh, I had known David – I had met him when he was a guest on Pyramid. I was doing the last year and a half of Pyramid when it was on the air from New York City, and that was the beginning. That was ’95. At the time I was doing a lot of commercials and, uh, and going around the country doing commercials, doing ‘real people’ commercials for television. And when I came home and I said I was offered the job as the announcer on The Late Show, I told my wife I wasn’t sure if I really I wanted it because it would really rock the boat on those commercials I was doing around the country. I wouldn’t be able to go away for three or four days at a time whenever I wanted to, to do that work. And my kids, who were in high school at the time, sort of immediately in chorus said ‘Dad this is the first cool thing you’ve ever done in your life. Take it!’ (Laughs) So I took it. And it’s been a pleasure, really. It’s been a ball. It’s been just great!

When you first met David Letterman, what was your first impression of him?
My first impression? Um, I thought he was very smart because the first time I met him he was on Pyramid and he was very, very quick. Uh, he was also someone who was a thinker ‘cause you could tell any time he was talking to you that he was thinking. And he was a listener. And he still is to this day. Uh, he’s a great listener when he interviews the guests on the show, as you can tell. He’s also a good listener if you meet him in the hall or if he sits down with you and says ‘What’s new?’ He listens to everything you say and then asks the appropriate questions.

Wow, very insightful. He definitely is. He seems like, uh, when you know, when people list famous interviewers I feel like he’s left out a lot in the list of the greats. Now, you’ve been with The Late Show with David Letterman for quite some time. Do you have a favorite memory from the show?
All of them are favorite memories. And I don’t say that because I want to avoid any answers or because it would take a long time to think of good people. But I’m often asked ‘What’s your favorite memory?’ or ‘Who’s your favorite guest?’ or ‘Who have you laughed at the most?’ and ‘Who is the nicest?’ and ‘Who have you been surprised about?’. The people that come to the show that are the biggest stars – and we get the biggest stars – are so down to earth and so nice. It’s almost, it’s almost, um, that’s the big surprise. You expect the ego to be that big – and there has to be a lot of ego there because there has to be a lot of confidence. They know what they do, they’ve been paid for it, they’ve been lauded for it. But those egos are, to me, the smallest ones. They’re the nicest people. They’re willing to talk to anybody that comes up to them and says ‘We like what you do and we admire it.’

What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
Uh, in high school I had a friend who was a jazz aficionado so I like jazz. And, of course, I like rock and I loved the Beatles and, um, Van Morrison, and Crosby Stills and Nash and Young, U2, Police, a lot of those groups. Developed a good taste for country when I was working for WHN radio because we turned country in the ‘70s, in the mid- late ‘70s. Uh, and we were a 50,000 watt station and I was doing all the interviews at the time. So they sent me down to Nashville to talk to the people that were, um, the top people in country. A 50,000 watt New York station – finally, New York coming on the line for country music. And I didn’t know music at all. I was saying ‘Loretta who? Who? Who am I going to talk to next?’ (Laughs) And it was kind of silly. But when I left Nashville after four or five days, and was really engrossed in what Nashville was all about – the music and I went to all of the shows, I listened to as much music as I could that week – I developed a love for it and, um, for the groups as well as the single entertainers. And today I listen to Alabama. I still listen to Tim McGraw, Delbert McClinton if you consider him country. And, um, we had a guy on the show a number of months ago that I thought was magnificent, just terrific – Jamey Johnson. And I listened to, um, his CD and became a Jamey Johnson fan. That’s country. And I listen to rock. I love alternative music. Um, some, we had on – I don’t know if you know her, Paul, but Melody Gardot?
Don’t know that one, no.
She’s fantastic! As a writer, as a producer, and as a singer. Patty Larkin has been a big favorite of mine through the years. Um, Susan Werner, one of my all-time favorites doing alternate music – Julliard trained and a great voice and a great writer of music. And in the popular vein, you know, the Lyle Lovetts and Damien Rice and Diana Krall, Phoebe Snow, Jimmy Buffett. Still listen to jazz – Coldplay, Nickleback. Like rock. Not as much into rap as some people I know but when it’s good and the entertainer is really good, it’s fine with me. Like, I love the lyrics of – I know you talk to a lot of composers – and I am a, uh, a big fan of Paul Williams who has been writing music now for what, for 35, 40 years? And still writes. And every beautiful, beautiful love song you can think of could be a Paul Williams song or is a Paul Williams song. And he’s still writing today. I still look for his music and his lyrics.

Our special guest is Alan Kalter, the announcer for The Late Show with David Letterman. You certainly are an eclectic gentleman with that long list of musicians. And, like you said, there have been some very iconic musicians who have appeared on the show. I want to ask you about a recent concert that was done on top of the, uh, marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater with Paul McCartney. Did you see that concert?
(Laughs) Yes. Are you talking about Paul McCartney?

Yeah, definitely.
Oh, wow. That’s all I can say – wow. We had two concerts up there. I believe, I believe Phish was the other group that sang from the marquee and McCartney was next. It was a happening in New York. You couldn’t move through those streets of Broadway and every place I went for the next three or four hours after the show – downtown New York, uptown on the west side – there were people there at different tables that were talking about Paul McCartney and did you hear about this event in New York City. It was great and he was great.

Absolutely amazing. Now, you mentioned rap a second ago and you said you’re not the biggest fan of rap, and I’m not really that keen on rap either, but one of the funniest skits I’ve seen is when you do the songs. Like when you did, uh, Don’t You Think Your Girlfriend Is Hot Like Me? with Alan Chez on trumpet.
(Laughs) Maybe that’s the reason I’m not that crazy about rap because that’s what they have me do. Uh, yeah, I love doing those songs. And if you go back a little ways to the popular music when I was singing it on the show, my brother and I were the twins that used to sing songs. We haven’t done that for three or four years but there were about a dozen times when ‘Rick and Alan’ would get together and sing the songs of yesteryear, and usually with Paul’s band. That was a lot of fun, too.

Well, if you could answer, what skit that you’ve been in have you found the funniest?
My favorite thing to do is talk to the ladies. And that’s when I turn from Dave and I say ‘Dave, can I take this minute to talk to …?’ and it’s usually to the lady that just, uh, the woman who just got divorced or who just left her husband or was just, just left –boyfriend just left her. And I would turn to her, I’d talk to the main camera and I’d say something about why I want to help you out of this difficult condition. And then I would turn to a side camera and the lights would go low, and Paul would play very romantic jazzy music, and I tell her what I would do – what Big Red would do – for her in a bedroom that her former could not. Those are, to me, very funny. Those are the ones that almost have me laughing. Not quite, but I almost break up when I’m doing them. And that’s usually due to the great writing on the show, ‘cause they’ve got some writers there who are just out of their gourd.

I’m glad that you mentioned that because that happens to be my favorite skit. I lost it when you were doing the, what you would do for Dina Lohan, Lindsay Lohan’s – when you said ‘What’s crackin’ Mommy?’ I just lost it the moment I heard you say that (laughs). But, uh, just to kind of, just to know – I mean, what do you see yourself doing when and if The Late Show ever came to an end?
Honestly, Paul? I think I’m going to be playing a lot of golf. A lot of golf, which is, for me, my therapy. And anyone who doesn’t go to a therapist has a therapist in one way or another. That sport is my therapy. I just love being on the golf course. I would continue doing voice-overs and commercials, shows if somebody wants me but, uh, this has been just wonderful. It’s lasted much longer than I thought it would last and, uh, I can see retirement on that golf course. I don’t think I’m going to get any better (laughs) as a golfer but I’m going to try.

Well, is there someone on the show that you feel closer to? In the band or …?
Well, speaking of golf Al Chez, the trumpeter, and I have had a running match for the last probably five, six or seven years against Bruce Kapler, who is the saxophonist, and Anton Fig, the drummer. And, uh, it’s pretty, it’s pretty intense. Right now Al and I hold the trophy. We move the trophies back and forth on a whim and we play three or four times a year during the summer and, um, those guys are good. A lot of fun to play with. And the band itself, uh, very close to all the members of the band. Uh, Fig’s – he’s just top-notch. And Bruce and Al are great. These guys that – Will Lee has been around probably playing records, background records, or featured in records or main soloist in records for longer than, or more than, most of the other people in the band and still a great guy. Tom “Bones” Malone – can’t find a nicer person. Same with Sid. Felicia Collins is adorable. She’s lovely, she’s talented, she’s great to be around. And Paul Shaffer holds it all together and Paul’s a very down-to-earth person. I like him very much. As well as a wizard at what he does and a genius in what he does.

Absolutely. If you could put it into words, what is it you like about show business?
My favorite thing in show business is, on The Late Show, is the fact that we do a different show every night and it’s always surprising. Because it’s not totally scripted, there’s very little script in it outside of a Top 10 or a monologue, we don’t know which way Dave’s going, we don’t know which way we’re going. We write things, the writers write things – sometimes as we’re performing. Two minutes before, uh, a set, two minutes before the commercial goes on or goes off, I’m told ‘You’re going to this, this is the camera you’re going to face, the cards will be in front of you.’ And Tony Mendez puts those cards in front of us. And I know I speak for not only myself but for Biff Henderson and for, uh, Pat Farmer and all of the cast and crew of The Late Show when I say that. It’s just a joy. It’s a great, it’s a great hour that keeps us laughing at the end of the day, no matter how the day has gone, Paul.

Very well said. I have two final questions before we go. New York City has some of the best restaurants in the world. So, where do you like to eat in New York City and what do you get when you go there?
My favorite restaurant to go to is Caffe Ciello. It’s right near the theater, about a block away between 52nd and 53rd on 8th Avenue. It’s Italian. It has the best, in my opinion, the best puttanesca sauce that I’ve ever eaten anywhere. And that tops everything. And when I go there I get a warm welcome, the band is there many times, Paul comes in and says hello. It’s friendly to everybody and it’s in the heart of the action where all the shows are.

Well, my final question for our special guest, Alan Kalter, the announcer for The Late Show with David Letterman. This broadcast goes out all over the world so my final question to you: What would you like to say to all the people that are listening in?
Well, first of all, thank you for continuing to laugh and for tuning in. Without the fans we wouldn’t be where we are today and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. The fans have been absolutely great. The ones who come to the show couldn’t be finer, couldn’t be nicer people, couldn’t be nicer to me. And the people who watch on TV, when they talk to me and I see them around the country and around the world, they always have great compliments. They compliment the members of the cast and myself, and especially Dave. I don’t think I ever walk away from any encounter with anybody who’s ever watched The Late Show where they haven’t said ‘Please say hello to Dave for me.’ Not ‘Please say hello to Mr. Letterman.’ or ‘David Letterman.’ ‘Please say hello to Dave for me and thank him for the great job that he does and for the entertainment for so many years on late at night.’ I’m just so pleased to be a part of it.

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA