The Late Show That Almost Wasn't: The Backstory to Letterman's Hurricane Shows
Nevermind the hurricane, the show must go on — and it did Monday night at the Ed Sullivan Theater, where David Letterman hosted CBS' Late Show to an audience of zero. "It was very strange for all of us to be standing there and watching the show, with all of it looking the same, except for the fact that there was no one in those seats," says executive producer Rob Burnett.
Burnett told TV Guide Magazine that the show was taped like normal, down to the band playing to an empty house during the commercial breaks. "There really was no reason [for the band] to do it," he says, "except it created the glue of making it a show that has a certain pace and urgency to it." At the end of the taping, Letterman even turned to the empty audience and thanked them for coming. "It cracked us all up," Burnett says.
But this was hardly an ordinary show. Letterman read some of the night's monologue from his desk — and without the customary laughter, he played off the silent response. Stage manager Biff Henderson, stationed outside in the rain, reminisced about past hurricanes in his native North Carolina. Cue cards were used in place of graphics for the show's Top Ten list. And guest Denzel Washington walked in wet and wearing a raincoat.
Burnett says Letterman was "very taken and impressed" by Washington's commitment to show up as a guest. "We weren't sure if he was going to get here, and certainly he would have had every reason to cancel," Burnett says. "But he came in [to New York] on Sunday and honored the booking."
Late Show began planning for the ad hoc episode over the weekend, as it became apparent that Hurricane Sandy was poised to hit New York. The show arranged for hotel rooms in midtown Manhattan, near the Late Show stage, for essential employees — including the show's director, the band, camera operators, key producers, the show's head writer and the technical staffers who make sure the show gets on the air. Letterman also remained in the city.
"A lot of it came down to where staff members lived," Burnett says. "We wanted everyone here to be safe first, so anyone who has had any trouble getting here, we have told to stay home. I live in Connecticut, so I came in Sunday night at about midnight, because I thought Monday morning would be difficult."
Burnett said the decision on whether to do a show on Monday — something that NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon also did, while Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report opted not to — was debated through the weekend.
"Ultimately we made the decision that in times of crisis, television tends to continue," Burnett says. "We thought, well, there will be news channels on, there will be reporters running around, we should be able to do a show. And in light of everything else that's going on, maybe it will be a nice alternative for people who have had their fill of watching reporters in slickers in the rain."
Bringing in an audience to the show was a non-starter, however. "We were certainly very sensitive and respectful of what was coming out of the Mayor's office, so we certainly did not want to have 500 people come to the theater," says Burnett, who notes that the Late Show taping ended at right around the time the storm was picking up.
The Late Show episode was also reminiscent of some of the special episodes that Letterman occasionally did in his earlier days. "When you do a show like this night in and night out the same way, any time there's a wrench thrown into it, it's actually energizing and creatively interesting to figure out — 'Well, here's what we can do, and here's what we can't do.' It all plays to Dave's strengths. You have an hour to fill, and Dave has that ability as a broadcaster to sit down at the desk and talk, and be compelling, interesting and funny," Burnett says.
For Tuesday night, Late Show once again taped without a studio audience, "just to make sure everybody and the city has the most time it needs to do their stuff," says Burnett, who expects to bring the audience back on Wednesday. "We just don't want to get in the way."
Original guest Kate Hudson couldn't make it to the show because of the storm, but the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore agreed to step in at the last minute and serve as a guest. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was also set for Tuesday's show, along with performers Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt. Burnett is also hinting at a surprise at the end of Tuesday's show.
As for Burnett, he's booked for a hotel again tonight, but he's itching to see his family. "I heard the major highways are open from here to Connecticut, so I'm going to give it a shot."
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