June 21, 2014

David Letterman: Game Show Host

Mark Evanier, major domo at the estimable blog, News from Me, recently posted a wonderful link to an interview with a very young David Letterman, in which Letterman alludes to hosting a game show:


As it so happens,the game show pilot that Letterman alludes to was shot just before I started working for NBC daytime in New York City, but one of my first duties when I started working in NBC Daytime Programming department was attending the focus group for The Riddlers. Here, minus the Elvira wraparound is what our group of women saw:

At the time, Family Feud was the hottest show in daytime, and the VP of NBC daytime was looking for a comedian who could create the kind of byplay with contestants that Richard Dawson accomplished on a daily basis. I believe we already had a holding deal with Letterman. Everyone knew he was a great talent and game-show hosting was unlikely to be his ultimate gig. Wheel of Fortune and Hollywood Squares were performing reasonably well for us, but Knockout and The New High Rollers were not. Since we were paying Letterman anyway, why not see if he could fulfill a need for us.

I remember how much fun it was to sit on the “police side” of the one-way glass and watch the focus group watching “The Riddlers.” There was a lot of laughter on both sides of the glass. Everyone knew the premise of the show was flimsy: The crucial element would be how much the audience liked the host, and whether Letterman’s wisecracks would be perceived as affectionate witty banter or cruel sarcasm. As much as the audience laughed at Letterman, they were clearly taken aback by Letterman’s banter, especially toward the “civilians” (celebrities were fair game). Combined with research indicating that the gameplay itself generated no interest, The Riddlers was destined for oblivion. But as copies of the pilot circulated around 30 Rock, Letterman’s stock went up rather than down, and helped cement the idea of giving Letterman his morning show.