Former ‘Letterman’ Writer Describes the Worker’s Struggle

Photo: Photo Illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images (factory), Courtesy of CBS (Letterman)

Today, writers for The Late Show With David Letterman return to work. Sam Saltz, former Late Show writer, walks us through a (typically bizarre) day in the life.

A couple of years back, when I was 25 and working as a paralegal, I wanted to be a TV writer. I submitted a sample to The Late Show With David Letterman: three Top Ten topics and a few segment ideas. A month later, Bob, the writers' assistant, called me in for an interview. Six weeks later, I got a call from Justin and Eric Stangel, the head writers (who are brothers). All I could think was how nice it was of them to both get on the phone to tell me I hadn't got the job. They offered me a contract instead — one that, like those given to all the writers, would come up for renewal (or termination) every thirteen weeks. In the seven days between that phone call and my first day, it dawned on me that I had no idea what a Letterman writer does all day. Here's the breakdown.

10 a.m.: Walk into your office and scan the newspapers for Top Ten subjects.

10:15 a.m.: Bob knocks on your door and collects the Top Ten pitches you’ve printed out. He instructs you to start writing “extras,” the short bits which usually appear in the first act.

11:15 a.m.: Bob knocks, collects the extras ideas, and gives you the subject of that night’s Top Ten.

12:15 p.m.: Bob collects the lines you’ve come up with for the Top Ten. He informs you if any of your extras ideas have been chosen. If so, you start scripting them for production. If not, you continue working on Top Ten lines.

(Note: A new writer’s extras ideas are almost never accepted, so you end up writing a lot of Top Ten lines. You write them until Bob tells you to stop. Sometimes Bob never tells you to stop. I once wrote 250 Top Ten lines on the topic “Things You Don't Want to Overhear at a Fourth of July Picnic.” One thing you don't want to overhear at a Fourth of July Picnic: “Hey! This hot dog is wearing a ring.”)

6 p.m.: Dinner break. You sit with the other writers, eat bad sushi, drink Diet Cokes, and watch the show being taped. David Letterman reads some of your jokes. Sometimes the other writers laugh at them. Sometimes even David Letterman laughs at them. (Five hours later, as you're lying in bed thinking of Top Ten topics for tomorrow, 4 or 5 million people will watch the show. They may laugh at your jokes. You figure that if a quarter of them do, that's a million people laughing at your jokes. Not bad.)

The day goes on until 9 p.m. Just you, your office, and once an hour — that is, eleven times a day — Bob. A page of material an hour, eleven pages a day, five days a week: Top Ten lines, extras, man-on-the-street bits, things to throw off the roof … all to Bob. When they do decide to fire you — as they decided to fire me, after six months — Bob will bring you into the room. Well, some new Bob will — the old Bob got promoted. He's a writer now, Bob. —Sam Saltz