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Letterman Signs Off, With A Heartfelt Guest-Filled Finale

Last night, after 33 years on TV as a late-night talk show host, David Letterman presented his final program. David Bianculli says Letterman's final show was a strong end to an illustrious career.



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Other segments from the episode on May 21, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 21, 2015: Review of Final Episode of "The Late Show with David Letterman: Interview with Rob Burnett.


May 21, 2015

Guest: Rob Burnett

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last night after 33 years on television as a late night talk show host, David Letterman presented his final program. Today, we'll salute Letterman by visiting with his longtime executive producer Rob Burnett. We'll start with a look at David Letterman's last show by our TV critic David Bianculli.

Letterman's career on national TV began in daytime television in 1980 on a program that lasted only a few months on NBC. But two years later, NBC selected Letterman to follow Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" with his own offbeat talk show "Late Night With David Letterman." That show ran from 1982 to '93 when Carson announced his retirement and NBC appointed Jay Leno, not Letterman, as Carson's successor. Letterman countered by moving to CBS where the "Late Show With David Letterman" premiered in 1993 and ran until last night. Here's David Bianculli's review of Letterman's finale.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: David Letterman gave the first words on his last show to former President Gerald Ford in a vintage news clip, followed by specially recorded messages from other U.S. presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: My fellow Americans, our long, national nightmare is over.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Our long, national nightmare is over.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Our long, national nightmare is over.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our long, national nightmare is over.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our long, national nightmare is over; Letterman is retiring.


DAVID LETTERMAN: You're just kidding, right?

BIANCULLI: No, Barack Obama wasn't kidding. Not at least about it being the end of Letterman's third-of-a-century talk show run. It was a durable, impressive, influential reign, longer even than that of the master Johnny Carson himself. And Letterman's farewell show was packed to the rafters, the rafters of the Ed Sullivan Theater. His final monologue, instead of being rushed or maudlin, was strong as it could be, starting with a killer of an opening one-liner.


LETTERMAN: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the "Late Show." I want to tell you one thing; I'll be honest with you. It's beginning to look like I'm not going to get the "Tonight Show."


BIANCULLI: For the first hour of the slightly extended finale, Letterman was all business showing top-rate clips, finding ways to showcase top-tier guests and even taking care of some important housekeeping. He took time to wish good luck to his appointed successor, Stephen Colbert, whom Letterman predicted will do, quote, "a wonderful job," unquote. He replayed old, classic taped bits from shows past; Dave harassing customers at the drive-through station at a Taco Bell or chatting charmingly with little kids, the way Art Linkletter used to do only goofier. And his final Top 10 list of Things I've Always Wanted To Say To Dave had a different celebrity come on to read each number on the list. It was populated by some of the host's all-time favorite guests - Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Peyton Manning and others including Chris Rock and Julia Louis-Dreyfus whose contributions to the Top 10 seemed to tickle Letterman immensely, especially Seinfeld's deadpan, silent reaction to his former sitcom co-star's contribution.


LETTERMAN: Number five, Chris rock.


CHRIS ROCK: I'm just glad your show is being given to another white guy.


LETTERMAN: You know, I had nothing to do with that.


LETTERMAN: Number four, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.


JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.


LETTERMAN: I had nothing to do with that either.

BIANCULLI: The lead-up to this last show has been tremendous, with guests coming by for one last visit with Dave. George Clooney handcuffed himself to Dave for an entire show in an attempt to get him to stay. Barack and Michelle Obama came by making separate appearances. After more than a month of outstanding, memorable shows, David Letterman, on his very last "Late Show" didn't disappoint. And he waited until the one-hour mark when his show went into a brief but deserved overtime to do what more than any other talk show host of his generation he does best.

When he has something to say from the heart, he's the best extemporaneous broadcaster in the business. And on this singular occasion, he made it clear that after 33 years on TV, it was all about family, his workplace family that made "Late Show" so reliably entertaining, and finally, proudly his family at home, wife Regina and son Harry who on this final night, were watching and saluted from the audience.


LETTERMAN: I want to thank my own family, my wife, Regina, and my son, Harry.


LETTERMAN: Thank you.


LETTERMAN: Look at that kid.


LETTERMAN: Just seriously - just thank you for being my family. I love you both, and really nothing else matters, does it?


LETTERMAN: And before the show, Harry wanted me to introduce his buddy, Tommy Roboto. Tommy right there, there's Tommy.


LETTERMAN: Go get them, Tommy (laughter). Oh, man.

BIANCULLI: I love that. On his very last show, after more than 6,000 of them, David Letterman still took the time and found a way to enjoy himself and be totally natural on camera. It's what made me a fan of his at the very start when I gave a positive review to his first daytime show. And 35 years later at his very last show, I'm still a fan. Well done, David Letterman.

GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Now we're going to look back on David Letterman's late-night shows with Rob Burnett, who has worked with Letterman since 1985 when Burnett was a 22-year-old intern. He became the head writer of "Late Night With David Letterman" in 1992 and continued as head writer when Letterman moved from NBC to CBS. In 1996, Burnett became the executive producer of "Late Show With David Letterman," a position he kept through last night's finale. He remains the president and CEO of Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants. We recorded our interview Tuesday when there were still two more broadcasts remaining. We started by listening back to Monday's Top 10 list, which was The Top 10 Things I'll Miss About Working At The Late Show. Each entry was read by a different member of Letterman's staff.


DAVID LETTERMAN: Here's "Late Show" staff intern Todd Seda.

TODD SEDA: Another three years and Dave was going to start paying me.

LETTERMAN: Yeah, that was the deal.


LETTERMAN: You got to read the fine print. And number four, executive producer Jude Brennan.

JUDE BRENNAN: I'll miss looking forward to no longer working at the show.

LETTERMAN: (Laughter).


LETTERMAN: You put a lot of thought into that. Look, everybody, number three, stage manager Biff Henderson.


BIFF HENDERSON: Dave is the best boss in the world - or so I'm required to say if I want my severance check.

LETTERMAN: That's right.


LETTERMAN: Number two, our announcer Alan Kalter.

ALAN KALTER: The taping time of the show provided a consistent, reliable alibi.

LETTERMAN: Good for you.


LETTERMAN: And the number one thing I will miss about working in the late show - musical director Paul Shaffer, everybody.

PAUL SHAFFER: Now who will I pretend to laugh at?



GROSS: Rob Burnett, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were not one of the people on the show who had to give their Top 10 list - the thing that they'll most miss. So what are you going to miss most?

ROB BURNETT: You know, it's a great question. And, you know, I think it's so vast - our relationship to this thing - that I think none of us truly understand what it feels like and what it means for this to be ending, honestly. It's almost impossible to process. But I think the most sensory thing that comes to mind for me is the strange notion of, you know, roaming the Ed Sullivan Theater for the last 22 years and then no longer having access to that building. It feels strange.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, I could imagine 'cause it's such a special theater and it was, like, yours, and it's not going to be.

BURNETT: Yeah, it's odd. I, you know, have a route that I take to the theater each day that kind of goes through the bowels of the basement of the theater. And I will be recording it on my iPhone, I think, tomorrow on the last trip there.

GROSS: David Letterman doesn't strike me as a very sentimental guy, at least that's not his persona. So have you - and do you feel like you and your team tried to figure out an appropriate goodbye that wasn't going to be overly sentimental but yet would express the sentiments that you felt?

BURNETT: Yeah, I mean, you know, Dave is not sentimental. Although I think he's - he's a little more so now than - I think as he's gotten a little bit older. I think that happens to people.

GROSS: And being a father.

BURNETT: And being a father. I think these are, you know, these things have all affected him. But, you know, for a long time, we pushed guests very hard not to mention the end, not to tell Dave what he meant to them and all of this. And then at some point, as you get close, it becomes inevitable. And it's been lovely. We've had really beautiful tributes from a lot of people - Howard Stern and Marty Short and Tom Hanks last night, and Norm Macdonald I thought was amazing, Ray Romano. You know, people getting very emotional and you start to feel - Dave, you know, we know what he's meant to us, but you start to realize, you know, he has meant a lot to a lot of people.

GROSS: We heard some of the Top 10 lists from earlier this week. Were you around when the Top 10 list was started 'cause you've been with the show since '83?



BURNETT: Yeah, I started in 1985 as an intern about a year out of college. And I was there when the Top 10 list was invented, although I was not yet on the writing staff so I was not - you know, I was not in the room.

GROSS: You were an intern?

BURNETT: I may have been a talent assistant at that point. In '88, I became a writer on the show, which was really the dream that I had always - I had always had. And then in '92 when I was 29, somehow became head writer of the show and then kind of went from there. But, yes, I was around when the Top 10 began. And I think, like most things, no one ever really thought it would become what it would become. It was just a silly parody idea to make fun of other top 10 lists.

GROSS: So how did it catch on? How did you know this was going to be a thing?

BURNETT: Well, people responded to it, and it actually became kind of an interesting way to write topical jokes every day. It was an interesting forum. Originally, you know, the first one was very silly - Top 10 Things That Kind Of Rhyme With Peas (laughter) - very Letterman-esque. I remember when I was a writer, just a staff writer, Gerry Mulligan and I were pushing for a long time and finally got through a list that was Top 10 Ways The World Would Be Different If Everyone Were Named Phil, which was one of my favorites. It was so dumb. It was things like, you know, Ben & Jerry's now called Phil & Phil's, you know? It couldn't have been a stupider, you know? Favorite Beatle? Phil. It was just (laughter) it was just 10 of the stupidest things possible, and some of those were, ultimately, my favorites.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rob Burnett. And he went from intern with David Letterman to head writer and then executive producer, and he's also the CEO of the Letterman production company Worldwide Pants. And Burnett started with Letterman in 1985. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Rob Burnett, who has been or had been (laughter) the executive producer of David Letterman's show. He started as an intern in 1985. So he's been with Letterman through "Late Night" and through NBC and CBS. He rose to head writer, then executive producer, and he's also the CEO of the production company Worldwide Pants which was founded by David Letterman.

OK, so what's happened when you've written or at least been the producer of monologues or top-10s that had jokes mocking somebody and then you run into that somebody either at a party, on the street or maybe six months later in the green room of your show?

BURNETT: Yeah, it - you know, it's all kind of part of the game. I mean, I think that is probably more of an issue for Dave, who is the person, you know, delivering the material, than, you know, the little mole people like us in the back writing the stuff.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: But you know, usually if someone's coming on, they have forgiven you, you know? The worst version of that, of course, are the people that you'll never see again.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: The hardest version of this for me is when you're trying to convince a celebrity to do something that is the last thing in the world they want to do. I remember, very particularly, writing a thing about George Steinbrenner, who I love, but this was back in the era when Steinbrenner sucks was a phrase that was very well known and chanted all the time.

We had written this very silly, what we call a cold opening - a thing to run before the show starts. And it was just going to be George in his dressing room by himself, looking in the mirror, chanting, I suck; I suck.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: And regardless of what you think of that particular joke, I had to then go in to...


BURNETT: ...Mr. Steinbrenner's dressing room and try to convince him that this would be a delightful idea.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: This would be the great - not only hilarious, but people will love him for it. And long story short, that never did see the light of day.

GROSS: But you did pitch it to him.

BURNETT: I did, yes.

GROSS: And he said...

BURNETT: He just looked at me. There was a beautiful two-second stage pause, and he said, no, thank you (laughter). And I laughed.

GROSS: Did he do the right thing in turning you down?

BURNETT: Well, you know, I'm sure George's life went on unaffected in either direction. But no, I think that - in general, I think when celebrities make fun of themselves, they do themselves a great service.

GROSS: One of the ways you worked your way up the Letterman staff was writing jokes for Dave. So do you remember the first jokes that he actually accepted?

BURNETT: I do. The first joke - I'll back up a touch. The first joke that I ever got on TV actually was not for Dave. One of the writers, a guy named Larry Jacobson, was extraordinarily kind to me and introduced me to a comedian named Wil Shriner. And Wil used to buy my jokes for $25 apiece if he used them. And I wrote a joke for him that he was - went on to "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. And the joke - it was a simple joke, not amazing. But he had been in a movie called "Peggy Sue Got Married." And the joke was simply, oh, now that I'm, you know, a big start, my wife is worried that it's going to go to my head, but I had my people call her and tell her not to worry. And Johnny...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: Yeah. And Wil was doing that sitting next to Johnny, and Johnny laughed out loud and said, that's funny. And this was a moment that I will never forget. I was in Brooklyn with my two roommates in some horrible apartment, and we're all high-fiving each other. Johnny Carson thinks I'm funny. It was just - you know, it was a career moment that I will never forget.

From there, Dave allowed me to start submitting jokes for his monologue, which I don't think was a particular strong suit of mine, but I did write them. And the first joke that I ever got on the show unfortunately is so topical that it barely makes sense. But I - of course, I do remember it. And in fact, I have the cue card at home.

But I do remember an early joke that I - the joke that I'm probably most proud of that I wrote for Dave's monologue and a joke that he had done many times over and over again. It was simply a joke that was Dave saying, I was coming to work today, and a guy came up to me and said, oh, my God, I've watched you every night for the last 25 years. And I say, oh, great. What's your favorite part of the show? And the guy says, oh, you've got a show?


GROSS: So how involved were you with the pranks on Letterman's show like the stupid pet tricks, the - throwing stuff off the roof?

BURNETT: Well, stupid pet tricks - not incredibly involved in that particular segment. That really comes through our talent department. We have someone dedicated to that - finding tricks. Dropping things off a building, I did my fair share of. I remember particularly one day at the Ed Sullivan Theater holding a bowling ball in my hand and dropping it into a bathtub full of pudding and thinking, I am the luckiest man alive.

GROSS: (Laughter). So what - do you need, like, permission from the city to do that, or do you have to close off the street?

BURNETT: No. We just tell people to duck. No - of course we have permission. Of course we close off the street.


BURNETT: We're dropping bowling balls from the roof of the building. What do we think? Hey, heads up, everybody.


BURNETT: Heads up. Put your briefcase over your head. Here comes a bowling ball. Here comes a giant manikin. No, yes. We - the city's been cooperative. I think they realize, you know, Dave's contribution to New York, and they've - we've - they've always worked really well with us.

GROSS: My guest is Rob Burnett who worked on David Letterman's "Late Night" shows from 1985 when he was an intern until last night when the finale ended his long run as executive producer. After a break, Burnett will talk about working on the show through some pretty serious events - Letterman's bypass surgery, the sex and blackmail scandal and 9/11. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're looking back on David Letterman's late-night shows with Rob Burnett, who was the "Late Show's" executive producer from 1996 until last night's finale. Burnett started as an intern with Letterman in 1985 and became his head writer in 1992. He remains the CEO of Letterman's production company Worldwide Pants.

The Letterman show has had some pretty serious things it's had to deal with, including Letterman's own bypass surgery which is a famous moment in the history of the show. I mean, there was his long absence while he was recovering, and then there was the episode where he came back and it was both funny and moving. And why don't we hear a short clip from that edition from February 21, 2000? This was his monologue from his first show after returning from a five-week break after heart bypass surgery.


LETTERMAN: Wait till you hear what happened to me.


LETTERMAN: You are not going to believe this.


LETTERMAN: I've been away for a while.


LETTERMAN: While I was gone, I had quintuple bypass surgery on my heart.



LETTERMAN: Plus I got a haircut.



LETTERMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, after what I have been through, I am just happy to be wearing clothing that opens in the front.


GROSS: That was David Letterman's opening monologue on the day he returned after recovering from heart bypass surgery. My guest Robert Burnett is the former head writer and executive producer of the show. I say former because the show is over.

BURNETT: You're the first person to say that. My gosh, that feels weird.

GROSS: Does it? Yeah (laughter), and he's still the CEO of Letterman's production company Worldwide Pants. So how worried were you before that opening monologue that when Letterman first had the bypass that maybe he wasn't going to make it back?

BURNETT: It was a very strange time. That, as I remember it, that all happened very quickly. I spoke to Dave that morning. He called me at home. I believe that he went in for some kind of stress test, and they found this. And they said, OK, we got to do this. And I remember him - I just remember getting the call saying this is happening, and there was some kind of conversation about logistics, and I remember just saying, Dave, just you do your thing - just take care of yourself. We will take care of everything else. You just do what you've got to do, and then he was away. You know, he was unreachable.

He - it was - it's strange because everything on that show, it all goes through Dave. It's all Dave all the time whether he's actually weighing in on it or people are just guessing what he would weigh in on, it's all about him, and suddenly he was gone and inaccessible to us for a while. There was great concern by the staff, and then when, you know, when finally I was back in communication with him and I got the sense that everything went well and that he was going to be back, there was great relief. And it was a very emotional moment I think for all of us as well as for him and the audience when he retook the stage 'cause, you know, that's where he belonged.

GROSS: I know when my father had bypass years ago - and he was older than Letterman was when Letterman had bypass - it took a while for my father's memory to come back, and I thought, oh, no, is it never going to come back? Will he always be like this? And I think that happens with a lot of - or at least it used to happen. The procedure might have been much quicker and more improved nowadays, but I thought, like, what if he's like this and his - he doesn't remember much? And I'm wondering if you went through, like, a frightening moment of that and wondering, like, what if he never returns to being David Letterman?

BURNETT: Well, I remember when he came back. I asked him if he remembered promising to double my salary. He did not.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: Me being opportunistic at every moment. No, yes, of course, we were all worried about that, but, you know, that - I never experienced any version of that with Dave. He's as smart and quick as ever, and really from that first show back, you kind of thought, OK. Although the show did change, you know, after that. I think logistically, when Dave came back from the heart surgery, he was unable to go to rehearsal or didn't - you know, he was working his way back and started to not go to rehearsal during the day, and then I think realized, yeah, I don't need to go to rehearsal, and it actually changed the production of the show thereafter quite a bit. I think it was - you know, it's been designed really for Dave to do the show. You know, I think it's very hard for people to understand or anyone - I certainly can't understand what it must be like for a person to have to perform each day with that intensity. And I think the heart surgery actually put us on a course in some ways that maybe kept the show on the air for a lot longer than it might have otherwise.

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

BURNETT: Meaning that I think we've really tailored it to making it such that Dave could continue to do the show with a reasonable schedule. I mean, he's still super involved and super - you know, he's there all the time. But I think there was a very conscious decision because at first out of necessity - you know, how can we do this in a way that he can continue doing this day after day? Whereas I think that maybe had that not happened, maybe we would have kind of continued to go in a gear that perhaps would have burned him out earlier. I don't really know.

GROSS: Oh, that makes a lot of sense. 9/11 - that was a really big event of course in the life of our nation and of New York City and in the life of the Letterman show. When Letterman came back for the first show after 9/11, you know, deciding to bring the show back and deciding what the tone would be and his really sober monologue about what it meant to be in New York - it was so moving. Let's hear a short excerpt of that opening monologue, and this was recorded September 17, 2001.


LETTERMAN: I just want to go through this, and again forgive me if this is more for me than it is for people watching. I'm sorry, but I just - I have to go through this. The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are dead - these people are missing and dead and - they weren't doing anything wrong. They were living their lives. They were going to work. They were traveling. They were doing what they normally do. As I understand it, and my understanding of this is vague at best, another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings, and we're told that they were zealots fueled by religious fervor - religious fervor. And if you live to be 1,000 years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any g****** sense?

GROSS: An excerpt of David Letterman's opening monologue when the show came back after 9/11. And Rob Burnett, my guest, is the former head writer, executive producer of the show. So what was it like after 9/11 to figure out what to do on the show?

BURNETT: It was extraordinarily difficult. It felt ridiculous to be doing a comedy show, probably at all, but particularly in New York City. Nobody knew what to do - not us, not any of the other shows. It just felt ridiculous, and this is, you know, where Dave has, you know - and as he said in that opening monologue, that, you know, he says I don't trust my own judgment in these things. Well, I sure do. You know, he always kind of knows what the right thing to do is in those kinds of situations. It was very difficult, but I thought Dave did an incredible job. And he is so trusted, and he's so honest as a performer that I think people really enjoyed - I think he made people feel better. We still get letters from people that were directly affected by 9/11 that that show meant something to them, and how wonderful is that?

GROSS: My guest is Rob Burnett, who was the longtime executive producer of the "Late Show With David Letterman" until last night's finale. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rob Burnett, who's been with David Letterman since 1985, when he joined the show as an intern. He became a writer, head writer, executive producer and also CEO of Worldwide Pants, which is David Letterman's production company. So in a span of less than two years, Letterman has bypass surgery and 9/11 happens. Both things had a really big impact on the tone of the show. And I wonder if you think that the tone of the show was changed in a long-term way by those two things happening so close together and, you know, one having a big effect on, you know, Letterman's health and his body, and the other having, you know, a huge effect on the city, our country, the world and, of course, on the show.

BURNETT: You know, I think this show has evolved. There are very distinct phases to it. I think the very early years with Merrill and all of those great writers...

GROSS: And this is Merrill Markoe, who is the former - the first head writer for Letterman, right?

BURNETT: Yes. And it was - it was pure innovation. It was turning television on its head. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Then the show evolved a little further. When we went to CBS, the show moved to 11:30 and to a big theater. You could do less material that was kind of material for comedy writers only, you know what I mean? You had to appeal a little bit more to a mass audience. As the show has evolved beyond that, now we are in a phase where Dave, you know - the things you mentioned, the bypass, you know, the 9/11 - but I think also as Dave has gotten older... You know, if you look at most of the highlights of the show, they're actually not comedy highlights as much. I mean, we have plenty. There's a lot of smart people doing a lot of great things up there. But really, Dave has become, I think - as Tom Brokaw has gone away, as Dan Rather has gone away, as Peter Jennings unfortunately passed away, Dave is a lone trusted voice in broadcasting. And this is - this is part of Dave's genius. And I can tell you that I've - I've felt the pains of this as head writer, when your instinct, in desperation as you're putting on a show each night, is that sometimes you want to go back to a certain well because things have worked and people love it. And Dave, through that honesty as a performer, says, no, I don't want to (inaudible) kind of microscopic course corrections each day lead you to another place. And thankfully, then you're not 68 and still putting on a Velcro suit and jumping up on wall, you know what I mean? So I think what you have now is Dave as this great broadcaster and great communicator. And interestingly, it's the same guy. If you go back to those early clips and you see him kind of tearing down celebrities that were putting on airs, through that same honest reaction, it's now him reacting to bigger global events. It's a very interesting evolution of a man and an artist, I think.

GROSS: There's another very sober clip that I want to play. And this is from a really personal thing that happened in Letterman's life, when he was being blackmailed for having had affairs with women who worked on the show. And I think he was being blackmailed for, like, $2 million. The guy who was blackmailing him was threatening to make a movie about Letterman's affairs. And he went to the police. He tried to figure out what to do. And he, so as not to give into a blackmailer, he went public on the show in a monologue. And it was kind of a remarkable moment. Let's hear an excerpt of that. And this is from October 1, 2009.


LETTERMAN: Now, of course, we get to what was it? What was all the creepy stuff...


LETTERMAN: That he was going to put into the screenplay and the movie. And the creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. Now, my response to that is yes, I have.


LETTERMAN: I have had sex with women who work on this show.


LETTERMAN: And would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. Perhaps it would...


LETTERMAN: Especially for the women.


LETTERMAN: But that's a decision for them to make if they want to come public and talk about the relationships, if I want to go public and talk about the relationships. But what you don't want is a guy saying, oh, I know you had sex with women, so I would like $2 million or I'm going to make trouble for you. So that's where we stand right now. I just want to thank the people at the Special Prosecution Bureau and the Manhattan district attorney's office, Robert Morgenthau, who is head of that. It's been a very bizarre experience. I feel like I need to protect these people. I need to certainly protect my family. I need to protect myself, hope to protect my job and the friends, everybody that has been very supportive through this. And I don't plan to say much more about this on this particular topic. So thank you for letting me bend your ears.


GROSS: So that's David Letterman coming - coming out about his affairs and thwarting his blackmailer. And my guest is Rob Burnett, who rose from intern to head writer and executive producer on Letterman's show. They've been together since 1985. So that is such a very unique moment in television, in part because Letterman's talking about being blackmailed. He's confessing to affairs. And the audience is laughing and applauding. Now, I think they're just, like, so on Letterman's side. They're so in love with Letterman. And also, they're so on Letterman's side in coming out against being blackmailed. Like, blackmail is wrong. Like, blackmail is, like, not a good thing. But to - you know, but it's just - but it's such an odd moment 'cause, you know, Letterman's being, like, so sober about this. And he's talking about - you know, he's a married man at this point. He's talking about having affairs. Were you surprised at the kind of response that it was getting from the audience?

BURNETT: You know, I - my sense of it in the studio was that I think the audience didn't quite understand what was being said right away, you know? I - the way I remember it was Dave said something about - I'm paraphrasing what he said - something like, I'm going to tell you a little story or do you have time for a little story is how he kind of got into it. And I think they're so kind of juiced up and, you know, responding to the show and such that I think as a group - I don't think they were really processing it all as he was doing it until the end. But I do think there is some truth in what you're saying - is that I think they sided on the idea that the blackmail was so wrong. And I think they do love Dave. So I think maybe that was - I don't really know. I think that was the nature of their response.

GROSS: Did you work on the monologue at all? Did he run it past you?

BURNETT: Oh, no. No, no. And it should be said that, you know, in all of these types of moments - the heart surgery, 9/11, things like this - whatever Dave will choose to say, to say good night tomorrow, that's all Dave. You know, that - he doesn't even really tell us what he's going to say. You know, Dave is - to be crystal clear, this is not a guy in a suit that reads a prompter. This is - you know, this is a very smart, considerate guy who knows exactly what he's doing at all times.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rob Burnett. And he went from being intern in 1985 with David Letterman to becoming a writer, head writer, executive producer, and also he is the CEO of Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rob Burnett who has been with the David Letterman show since 1985 when he started as an intern. He went on to writer, head writer, executive producer, and he's also CEO of Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants. And now one chapter of his life is ending.

You can walk down the street and probably won't - people won't recognize you even though you have been such a mainstay of David Letterman's show for so many years. But so many of the people, including David Letterman, so many of the guests you've had on the show are, like, really famous, and they could barely walk outside unprotected. What have you learned about what it's like to be famous in America, and like, what some of the downside of that is?

BURNETT: I've seen fame close up at all different levels. Dave, at 12:30 at NBC, was a certain level of fame, and then when we went to 11:30 in the '90s to CBS, amazingly, it was a whole different level of fame. I remember being at one of the baseball All-Star games back in the early '90s with Dave. We were in some luxury box, and we wanted to go down to watch the game in these field-level seats. We got about 5 yards outside of the luxury suite and were completely surrounded within 15 seconds - I say we - Dave, of course - by 500, 600 people in a ring.

It's oppressive. It's nothing anyone can complain about because the perks are amazing. But I've seen it in a lot of different forms, and I think unless you are the right kind of person, I think it can be very daunting. And also, the other thing that's hard to take about it is that once you hit a certain level of fame, it is irreversible. And to some extent, the rest of your life, you are an animal in the zoo.

GROSS: So give us a sense, a little bit, of what it's like to work with Letterman. I mean, he's kind of like the host of the party on his show, but he has a reputation for being, you know, pretty reclusive off the air. You're - you know, as the executive producer and formerly as the head writer, you were, I guess, the intermediary between him and everything on the show and maybe between him and the world. So to the extent that you're comfortable doing, give us a sense of what it's like to work with him.

BURNETT: You know, Dave is - he is definitely one-of-a-kind. He is funny almost all the time but not on. I think show-business people come in two varieties. There's the kind that want everybody to look at them and draw attention to themselves, and then there's the other kind. And Dave is the other kind. He's never been comfortable drawing attention to himself.

As a result, he's extremely self-critical. So the mood at the show is - can be - somber may be too strong of a word. I mean, there are certainly laughs that happen, but it is not a typical show business slap-on-the-back, hey, that was great. That's not the mode there. You know, at the end of the day, I think what drives all of us is that if you're going to spend this amount of time and energy doing this, you want to be doing it for the best possible person. And you know, at least from where we sit, he's the best ever at this.

GROSS: If you don't mind sharing this, how did David Letterman tell you that he was going to retire?

BURNETT: Well, he called a bunch of us into his dressing room right before the show. The interesting details here was that the Pharrell song "Happy" was on the background (laughter) - in the background of the radio, which is just a ridiculous soundtrack for Dave or certainly news of this. And the other detail that was enjoyable for us is that Dave had cut himself shaving, so he seemed to have Band-Aids on his lips.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: And so that's the kind of thing that just made it all seem strangely dreamlike. But he called, you know, a bunch of the key people in. There was maybe - I don't know - eight of us in there, and he said, earlier today, I called Les Moonves, and I've decided to - that it's time. And went out and said what he said on the air a half-hour later.

GROSS: Oh, he told you the day that he said it on the air.

BURNETT: (Laughter).

GROSS: What was your reaction when he told you that it was for real?

BURNETT: It was surreal, honestly. You know, I think we - for all of us, we've just - you know, I've worked at this show since I'm 23. It's - it really is all I've known my entire adult life. It's pretty much been high school, college and then "The Late Show." And I'm not alone. Most of the people in that room - I've been there 29 years. You look around. Barbara Gaines and Jude Brennan have been there longer than I have. Everyone's been there 20, 25, 30 years. It was very odd to hear that this was over.

But I remember my gut feeling at the time, feeling like, you know what? He deserves this. You know, whatever has brought him to this decision, you know - he's done it, you know? He's got - he has nothing left to prove. And if - for whatever reason that he's made this decision, I'm happy for him.

GROSS: Well, Rob Burnett, thank you for all the great television. And whatever this change in your life brings, I hope the next chapter is wonderful. And I'll keep track of what you're doing (laughter). And thank you so much for taking time out from this incredible week in your life to talk with us. That means so much to me. Thank you so much.

BURNETT: Thank you.

GROSS: Rob Burnett has worked with David Letterman since 1985. Burnett's long run as the executive producer of "The Late Show With David Letterman" ended last night with the finale. Burnett remains the CEO of Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants. I actually interviewed Letterman before he was a late-night star back in 1981. It was a few months after his morning show was canceled and about a year before he became the host of NBC's late-night. We have that interview for you as an extra on our podcast which you can find on iTunes or your mobile podcast app.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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