David Letterman Looks for Fun in the Special HBO Forgot

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

In 1980, The David Letterman Show, the NBC morning show, wrapped up it’s five month run, which would later pave the way for Letterman’s Late Night, which would begin airing in 1982. And if you go by IMDB, with the exception of the role of “Man in Suit” on something called Open All Night, that was all Dave was up to in those three years. Well, the Paley Center Collection knows better.

On June 12, 1981, HBO aired a new special called David Letterman: Looking for Fun, in which the future talk show host drives around the Los Angeles area doing just that. “But not too much fun,” Letterman constantly reminds his audience. It’s a travelogue, with the man-on-the-street style interviews that Letterman would hone and perfect later on Late Night as well as the first few years of the Late Show.

There’s not a lot of information on the special to be found on the Internet, despite its recent (and brief) appearance on YouTube last year. However, according to the book Dave’s World, an unofficial Letterman book from ’95, the special was filmed in 1979, which either means that HBO sat on it until Letterman’s morning show gained popularity, or this unauthorized cash-in book somehow managed to get one of its facts wrong. One of the other rare references to this special, found in the FAQ for the prehistoric alt.fan.letterman newsgroup, mentions that Dave’s production company Worldwide Pants (or as it was called in 1981, according to the credits, “Recreational Poultry”) owns the rights to the special. Given Dave’s dissatisfaction with his earlier work (I’m basing this particular comment only on John Michael Higgins’ portrayal of Dave in the Late Shift movie), it could be that his perfectionism is what is preventing this special from being shown on HBO Comedy Dana Carvey-style (by which I mean twenty times a week).

Looking for Fun features a couple of other familiar faces for fans of Letterman. A frequent guest on Late Night as well as a long time friend of Dave’s, the late George Miller gives the audience a tour of his filthy apartment (a caption on the screen declares “He actually lives here!”). Also, Dave’s then-girlfriend/writing partner Merrill Markoe appears as the put-upon date who is taken to a Mexican restaurant and then later is invited to sit in a lawn chair and watch the new luggage show up at the airport terminal.

Just as he would later do on his late night shows, Dave interviews the regular folks at the various stops on his quest for fun, and what makes these moments funny is knowing that these are real people. The man behind the register at the run-down video arcade who is asked if they have an ambulance on hand in case someone has too much fun acts no differently than a Rupert G. might when a camera is thrust in his face on the Late Show. The folks who get the most screen time, however, are an older tourist couple who Dave makes sit in the Uni-Café, which boasts itself as a place where one can “mingle with the stars.” The couple sits at a table for the better part of an evening, keeping a list of the stars that have come in that day. When Dave checks back with them, the best they can offer is a woman who “looks like one of those rock and rollers.” Dave refuses to count that and orders them more coffee and promises to check back in a few hours.

But is it still funny? For the most part, I’d say yes. It’s like a slower paced version of those bits when Dave would go out on the streets and talk to people. The sequences in the wax museum and rotating restaurants are still great, complete with some great Letterman zingers. For someone who hasn’t seen early Late Night, their time may be better spent checking out one of the ten anniversary specials he made, but for the comedy fan looking for something the television equivalent of a strong B-side, then this might be the ticket.

I’m not going to end with “Looking for Fun? Try Looking for Fun!” I just won’t.

And me saying that doesn’t count as me ending that way, so you can just go ahead and delete that comment.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

David Letterman Looks for Fun in the Special HBO Forgot