When Letterman Took ‘Late Night’ to Tokyo, Sort of

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 150,000 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.)

This is that last edition of From the Archives that will be published during a time that David Letterman is on TV. That’s really weird to think about. I have a sponge on my bookcase that says “I’m in the David Letterman Fan Club” that’s older than I am. But here we are.

I’ve covered Dave more than a few times in this column. In fact, I’ve covered Dave ending TV shows more than once. If there’s a perfect moment from Dave’s long legacy of television to pull for this edition, I don’t know what it is, because he’s had too many classic moments to count. So instead of a big send-off, we’re going to take a look back at an early episode of Late Night and enjoy it for what it is: not a seminal moment in Dave’s television career, but on brick in the wall of a career in comedy. And let’s be honest – this is not the last article I’m writing about Letterman. These old episodes are just too much fun to watch.

Taking the late night talk show on the road to another city is generally a pretty safe bet for comedy. You get to perform in front of a different live audience that’s particularly hungry for what you’re dishing out, you’re in a new locale that opens you up to new sources for jokes, and you’re able to inject a little something new into your formula. Late Night with David Letterman picked up this ball pretty early on, doing shows in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Chicago throughout its run. On November 26, 1985, the show opened a little differently. NBC president Grant Tinker sat behind a desk, addressing the viewers at home. “Last May I sent Late Night to California. Some people…said it would cheapen the show. I said ‘Hard cheese! I’m Grant Tinker! I get whatever I want!’ …Those who doubted me, well… they don’t work here anymore. So tonight, I’m sending Tom and the gang to the land of the Rising Sun.” And so Tom (henceforth referred to in this article by his actual name, Dave) and the rest of Late Night did just that. They filled up a Japanese talk show set with Asian fans, brought out a translator, and entertained a crowd across the sea.

Except… the set looked an awful lot like Dave’s regular one in New York, except for the paper lanterns and umbrellas hanging up. And the view behind Dave’s desk kind of looks like they’re showing footage of a busy Tokyo street on a green screen. And for some reason Kenny Rogers was also in Tokyo and available for booking. And whenever Dave mentions the fact that they’re in Tokyo the translator laughs at the idea. But I’m sure they couldn’t say it if it weren’t true.

Dave’s monologue is filled with topical jokes comparing New York’s crime rate to Tokyo’s but the real humor comes in the constant cutaways to the Japanese audience members who either do not speak English or do not find Dave funny. Watching Letterman’s timing get so thrown off by having very little audience reaction, or by having a translator redo his joke immediately after he’s performed it is quite entertaining as Dave works so much harder to try and get the joke to “land.” He mugs to the camera, and puts on exaggerated smiles to “perform” the Japanese version of the joke. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t work, and the loudest laughs seem to come from the crew.

Following the monologue, Dave performs a segment called “New Gift Ideas,” in which Dave shows off some crazy new items available for purchase. These include the Lil’ Sports Injury Kit, allowing kids to combine all the fun of professional sports and internal medicine. To demonstrate, two kids in bandages and sports jerseys come out and announce their ailments. “I’ve got real NFL compound fractures, just like Joe Theismann,” says the young girl in pigtails and Jets jersey. My favorite is the Lifetime Toast Totaler which keeps a running tally of how many slices of toast you’ve had in your life which “will make you feel proud and secure.” The audience doesn’t really enjoy this joke, but Dave quickly learns that when a bit tanks he can bow slightly, say “Arigato,” for an instant crowd reaction.

Dave’s interview with Kenny goes well though there were a few unusual elements to it. One was the fact that after being introduced he came out without any music being played. This is not a big deal by any stretch, but it felt unusual. The second abnormality was that in the middle of the interview, on a close-up of Kenny, text appeared on screen that read “Kenny Rogers – Has 9 #1 Country Songs.” Whether this was because Rogers was not thought to be recognizable enough to viewers tuning in mid-show, or for the edification of the liberal elite who would stay up for Dave but would never switch the dial to the country station I can’t say.

Kenny talks about what it was like to perform in Japan, what it was like to have a beard while in Japan, and informs Dave about Kobe beef before performing “Morning Desire” with Paul and the band.

Next, Larry “Bud” Melman is set loose, wearing a truly terrible hairpiece, to perform a bit of cultural exchange and answer the questions that these citizens of Tokyo might have for their American hosts. As all my favorite Melman bits do, this segment goes off the rails immediately, but this time it’s not Bud’s fault. The first audience member stands up to ask a question and the translator begins to put it in English, but falters. “It is so heavy…The question is to do with the money…the, what is it called…” “Financial,” says the supposed Tokyo citizen, trying to help, but ruining the bit. Smile on his face, Dave shakes his head in mock frustration and begins to walk down the stairs, back on to the stage. The question ends up being about the weakening dollar versus the yen and Larry offers this sage advice: “In the coming currency collapse both the dollar and the yen will be worthless. Stick with the four G’s: gold, groceries, guns, and guts.”

Then baseball player and now Oklahoma state senator, Randy Bass, also appears on panel, as does Masahiro Takahashi, Japanese game show producer. However, my favorite part of the last section of the show is a pre-taped segment featuring Paul Shaffer in which he stands by a bookcase and tells the audience, “if you want to learn more about the subjects we covered in tonight’s show, you’ll find these volumes in your local library: Making it With Music by Kenny Rogers, Japan the Passing Lane: An Insider’s Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory by Satoshi Kamata, and Getting Into Pro Baseball by Mike Dyer. Remember reading makes books fun.”

On the whole, this is basically a regular episode of Late Night with what can barely be called a gimmick piled on top of it, but I truly love how much traction one can get out of a little bit of commitment to a premise, a little bit of lying, and a lot of silliness. Those elements right there are what made Dave’s show different from all the others and his absence will be felt.

Thanks for all the years of laughs, Dave. I’ll see you at the Paley Center.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just launched a second season featuring Chris Elliott!

When Letterman Took ‘Late Night’ to Tokyo, Sort of