Bill Scheft: Keeping Letterman (and us) laughing 

click to enlarge Bill Scheft on the Late Show.
  • Bill Scheft on the Late Show.
You may know Bill Scheft as the author of three novels, a contributor to Sports Illustrated with his "The Show" column or the guy who used to clean out his notebook with Bill Maher on Politically Incorrect.

But probably not.

"No matter how many books I write," he says, "I'm always going to be known as (David) Letterman's monologue writer."

He's not complaining. Writing for the Late Night and Late Show host for the past 18 years has opened up these other avenues. And that's what brings him to Wabash on Saturday for a show where he'll do topical jokes, tell some stories, read short passages from the books (Everything Hurts, Time Won't Let Me and The Ringer) and engage in a question-and-answer session where he'll have audience members write and deliver jokes.

In a telephone interview, Scheft talked about his work -- from the nightly monologue to the jokes Letterman delivered at the Academy Awards in 1995 -- his longstanding relationship with The Bob and Tom Show and comedy in general.

Here's some of the conversation:

NUVO: You started with Letterman in 1991. What was the interview process like?

Scheft: I submitted five previous times between 1984 and 1990. I turned in writing submissions. This is how you get jobs on shows like this. I didn't even come close. They get so many submissions. If they're interested, they'll let you know. That's the thing about show business -- when they're interested in you, they call you back. I was a standup then. I was a standup from 1980-93. Meanwhile, during that time, I was trying to get on the show as a comic. And I got a little closer. But I became friends with Bob Morton, the producer, because he would come in to Catch a Rising Star all the time to see acts. I was one of the house emcees there.

I had a line in my act that a lot of comics liked so much that they took. But it was my line: "The dyslexic theater company's in town. They're doing a production of Annie, Get Your Nug."

That line is 27 years old. Isn't that a beauty?

Morton comes up to me and says, "If you have six more minutes of Annie, Get Your Nug, I'll put you on the show next week." Sadly, I didn't.

So I submit five times and nothing happens. In October 1991, I had written on a couple of small cable shows and I started getting a couple of jobs. I saw Bob Morton at the Friars. And I hadn't submitted to the show in like a year and a half. I felt the show had made his decision on me. But Morton said, "Dave is always looking for jokes. So write some jokes and get them to us." In my submissions, I had never written monologue jokes; I had written the conceptual stuff because his monologue was three jokes long. What was the point?

So I started writing jokes. Sent him jokes every day for a week, and I come back to my apartment on a Thursday and it's a call from Morton. He said, "Dave did one of your jokes tonight." And here's the joke: "Well, Elizabeth Taylor and her new husband, Larry Fortensky, had their first fight. It was about whether or not he should unpack." Then he did another one the next night. It was in the middle of the Clarence Thomas hearings. The joke was: "We're learning more and more about Clarence Thomas. In high school, his nickname was Dice." Of course, Andrew Dice Clay was big then. That got a nice laugh.

Morton calls me and says, "It turns out, we are looking for a monologue guy. Sit tight."

I go to Las Vegas -- I had a gig -- and it's all I can do not to think about this because this is a job that'll change your life. He calls me and says, "Can you come in and meet with Dave on Monday?" I take the redeye back, I come in. Dave and I talked for 10 minutes about cigars and he said to me, "I hope we can work something out."

I got hired the next day. It was tremendous good fortune, and I'm grateful for the gig every day.

NUVO: I've seen interviews with you where you've said writing monologue jokes is a "volume business."So what's your batting average?

Scheft: This isn't going to be pretty, what I'm going to tell you. When I was writing 50-60 jokes a day for him -- on a good day I'd write 50 -- he'd check 10, which meant he wanted 10 to be put on cue cards. And he'd wind up doing five. That was when he was doing an eight-joke monologue. That was a good day for me, and not every day was a good day. You've gotta make mounds and mounds of coleslaw to make one good helping.

And it's not just me. If you look at a Top 10 list, it's 10 items, but all the writers have turned in their own list. So you might look at 200 items to get those 10. And I'm not clairvoyant, but I know what you're thinking: You mean those are the best 10 items? But that's what joke writing is.

NUVO: Did you write Uma-Oprah?

Scheft: No, I didn't. Thank God.

I had put together the monologue (for the Oscars). A lot of people contributed to it. And Dave and I were pleased with it. Then I ran it by Standards (the censors) and they said, "This is great." And we were all set. Then somebody, about a half-hour before the show, came up with the Uma-Oprah idea. And Dave loved it. He said, "This is great. We've gotta do this. We've gotta open with this. They're not expecting it."

I said, "What if we did that in the middle of the show?" "No, no, we've gotta open." And that was it.

Look, I'm not going to doubt his judgment.

So I called my wife right before the show -- I swear to you -- from a pay phone just off the stage and I said, "We're going to do something at the beginning of the show. I really, really hope it works." That was the last.

NUVO: Tell me what it was like backstage after the Joaquin Phoenix appearance.

Scheft: First of all, that was all an act.

NUVO: Even Dave's part of it?

Scheft:: Yeah. Think Andy Kaufman without shaving. That's what he was doing. And Dave knew about it and Dave loved it because he could play along. He could do whatever he wanted with it. And he did, and it was great television. But I will take credit for the line, "I think I owe Farrah Fawcett an apology." That line was mine. I gave that to him during the break.

Dave loves that. He had a ball. He likes anything that's good television, and he knew that's good television.

I've told people that (everyone was in on the joke), and not only don't people believe me, they tell me that I'm wrong and that (Phoenix) is a schizophrenic and he needs help and he's going to end up like his brother. I said no. I saw the segment notes. It's an act. I saw Ben Affleck's brother taping the whole thing from offstage.

NUVO: I was in New York a couple of months ago and saw the show live. I noticed that at every commercial, you, Eddie Brill (the warm-up comic) and Dave gathered and talked. What are those conversations about?

Scheft: Mainly, my job is just to entertain the man during his own show. That's mainly what goes on. It's the favorite part of my day because we have a lot of laughs. I keep him loose. And yeah, I'll give him a line or two, if the situation warrants it. But mostly I'm trying to make that part of his day and give him some laughs. I'm like a corner man.

NUVO: You've said Everything Hurts is based on your experiences. Did you really need hip replacement?

Scheft: Yeah. For three and a half years, I was dragging a fucking foot. Now I feel great. I wouldn't expect you to have read everything I've written, but I just came today from the softball field, and if you read my first book, The Ringer, you'll know that (playing ball) was a very important part of my life. For me to be able to go to Central Park and run around unencumbered for the first time in years, I really can't describe it. I got my hip replaced 13 months ago, and I'm a cliche. I'm one of those guys that says it's the best thing I ever did and I don't know why I didn't do it sooner.

But I went down this path of psychosomatic pain, which I really believe in. People say, "Aren't you furious that you dragged that foot for 3 and a half years?" Well, I wouldn't have gotten a book out of it otherwise, so I'm grateful. Suffer for your art.

NUVO: You're a regular contributor to Bob and Tom, right?

Scheft: I'm on every month, and I'm going to be on the day before this gig for all four hours. And you don't have to listen, because I'll be doing all of this. But they've been great to me. You do a lot of radio when you write books. And it's all terrible. It's all people asking you things about Dave that's 20 years ago. It's just nonsense. And they don't read the book. There's a million and one reasons not to do it. But I do Bob and Tom and they're great. They love comics. They don't get in the way. They know that every laugh you get helps them. I can't say enough about those guys. And it's the only show I do on a regular basis. I love doing it, and they've been great to me.

NUVO: How did that relationship get started?

Scheft: I knew about them because my brother lives in North Carolina and he said, "They're the greatest. You've got to hear them." I said, "I don't get them in New York." Then my publisher booked me on the show when The Ringer came out. They liked me and they kept calling me.

NUVO: George Carlin often said, "Everything is funny in the right context." Do you agree?

Scheft: Well, look where it got him. He's dead.

When I was a standup in the early '80s, there were only two things you did not make jokes about: abortion and the Holocaust. Not Nazis, but the Holocaust. That's gone. That went away quickly. As Woody Allen would say, "If you can do it, there's nothing to it."

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