David Letterman -- The Way He Was
He's the fastest wit in the land. Watching his face contort, his eyes bulge and his neck crane is enough to draw a laugh even when the joke bombs.It's no wonder David Letterman has legions of die-hard fans who watch him religiously and trade critiques, favorites lines and rumors in the more than 100 Web sites designed in his honor. Late Show With David Letterman is a late-night TV fixture, and the man's a comic genius. And a modern-day sphinx.Where else but the Internet can Letterman junkies get their fix of Dave dirt? Not the media.Sure, several years ago he made the headlines of Variety, Entertainment Weekly and every other industry publication, not to mention tons of dailies as well, with his high-profile battle against Jay Leno to replace Johnny Carson. No gossip columnist could pass up making jokes at the expense of his awful Oscars hosting performance. Heck, he even manages to pull a Rolling Stone article every now and then.But let's face it -- in the world of big stars and bigger scandals, David Letterman is a hermit.Letterman has made an effort to keep Dave the late-night talk show host and Dave the day-to-day guy separate entities. And he's done a good job. Even the rumors that do surface come off sounding more like a well-orchestrated gag.You don't hear about the latest starlet he's brandishing on his arm -- you hear about the unbalanced women camping in his yard. Letterman has built a fortress around himself that's seemingly impenetrable.Well, wouldn't you know it, but there are people out there who "knew Dave when ... " And one Indiana college buddy, Jeff Lewis, is ready to talk about the "good old days" by publishing a tell-all (well, tell-some) book, The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, Dave Letterman: The College Years.Not surprisingly, Letterman isn't looking foward to it.Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., 1966. Way over yonder, thousands of young men were fighting a war even their government didn't quite understand. The streets of Los Angeles were still smoldering from race riots. Janis Joplin had a broken heart.But young men in Muncie had none of those weighty concerns on their minds. They had the more immediate weight of fraternity rush to contend with.David Letterman was part of the spring rush ritual, pledging Sigma Phi Epsilon. Due to a "physically demanding" pledge program, Letterman de-pledged within weeks and began making overtures to his alternative choice, Sigma Chi.Sigma Chi Consul Jeff Lewis had met Letterman a year earlier in the school's debate program. His first impressions of Letterman were of "a long, weird scarf that appeared to be 'out of sync' with the rest of his clothing, a gap-toothed grin and facial characteristics that we later joked resembled a Mallard duck."Physical oddities aside, the two became fast friends.To this day, their friendship is still a centerpiece of Lewis' everyday conversation and cocktail party chatter. Forget that he was president of Ball State's student body. Forget about being CEO of his own public opinion research business. People want to hear about life with Letterman: What was he like as a crazy college kid? Was he funny then? Did he date? Who did he date? What kind of beer did he drink?"As soon as someone finds out I went to college with Dave, was in the same fraternity with him, they always have a million questions for me," says Lewis. "You don't hear much about Dave the person. It's all Dave the entertainer. People are starved to hear about the man."Lewis is fixing to satiate that hunger with a collection of vignettes that read as a kind of "greatest hits 1967-1975" and cover everything from Letterman's off-the-cuff practical jokes to his first foray into the world of media to his little-known marriage to Michelle Cook. Chock full of illustrations by Paul McCall ("There aren't many pictures from those days," Lewis laments) collection of highlights maps the developing wit that launched a suburban Indianapolis grocery bagger into TV mega-stardom.Jeff Lewis is holding court. Kicked back as comfortably as possible in a straight-backed dining room chair, he's in his element rehashing Letterman's college pranks. Another former frat brother, whose dining room has been commandeered for the interview, has retired quietly to the living room to read a book. He was a little before the Letterman era.Besides, he's heard all the stories before.Taking a sip of his diet soda, Lewis contends his motives for writing the book are as much for Letterman's sake as anyone else's. These are stories Lewis fears Letterman hasn't heard enough."I want it to create some laughs and have some fun, because I don't think he's had a lot of fun," Lewis says of Letterman. "I hope he has some fun with this book. Finally he can look back at himself and say, 'Gee, that was fun. I've forgotten how much fun it was.'"As far as Letterman's actual response to The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, Lewis can only speculate. The two haven't had personal contact since 1985. Lewis wrote Letterman to explain his plans for the book, and in response Letterman wrote a terse note: "As always, I appreciate your respect for my privacy."(Letterman's CBS office did not return several CityBeat messages for comment on the book.)But through letters and messages passed via Letterman's personal assistant, the two have stayed somewhat in touch. And Lewis is cool with that."I can only relate to him as I know him, and that's on a very personal level," Lewis says. "But I also realize that's the Dave that was. That's what the book's about. But I understand the full scope, the nature of Dave as an enterprise, because that's what he is. He's a multi-million dollar enterprise. It's been at the expense of his personal life.""We were really a bunch of funny guys," says Lewis, warming up with stories about his Sigma Chi days. "Dave just flurished in the environment. He was nurtured. It was like he had his own lab right there, 24 hours a day, just to try his silliness, and we encouraged him. He was able to hone his presentation skills and learn the boundries of his humor."Having Letterman as a member was a boon for Sigma Chi. He hosted Ball State's 1968 homecoming festivities, and between the musical performances, Lewis says, Letterman's comedy bits stole the show. The highlight, a parody of The Dating Game, was "The Dating Shame," in which he stacked the bachelor panel with fraternity brothers and convinced friend Joyce DeWitt (who later starred in Three's Company) to play the "sleazy, low-life, over-sexed young wench" Emma Groot. The racy, suggestive skit left the audience in hysterics, Lewis says.Letterman's first foray into late-night television came in 1972. An opening to host a Saturday night movie show on Indianapolis' WLWI-TV vaulted him from part-time weekend weatherman to late-night host. Letterman pulled from the Sigma Chi pool to stock his show, Freeze Dried Movies, with outrageous characters. Lewis himself played more than 10 characters. One of his favorites, and the audience's, was "Bob the Battler," a punch-drunk boxer who claimed to have won more than 350 of his 653 professional bouts.[As Dave questioned Bob's claims, he challenged the fighter's recollection of his boxing career by asserting that, "Isn't it true Bob, you only won 12 bouts? Six by no-shows, three because your opponents got sick during the fight, two because your opponents injured themselves entering the ring and one for an unknown reason?" Bob vehemently denied these charges and countered with, "Dave, I went six good rounds with Joe Stadola, 8th ranked heavyweight contender."Letterman pursued the interview with, "Well, what happened?" Bob dead-panned, "I don't remember." [Excerpt from book]Letterman milked the popular skit like a veteran, arranging a "comeback fight," holding a telethon to raise money for the fight, interviewing loyal Bob fans from across the country and even bringing Bob's manager, Stucky Mobutts, into the limelight."Bob was a hit," says Lewis, "and a riot. Some kid from Marion, Indiana, actually sent in a check for $15. Dave returned it, explaining 'Bob the Battler' was a joke."Another Ball State cohort, Fatty No Neck, could very well be the precursor to Larry "Bud" Melman, a character from Letterman's NBC show that the network laid claim to when he departed for CBS in 1993. Mike Little, a 6-foot, 235-pound frat brother, was "not to be trifled with usually," Lewis says. "Fatty was Letterman's sort of guy."Fatty's most celebrated incarnation was as "Iron Mike, the World's Most Dangerous Human." Letterman assumed the role of the pro wrestler's manager. It all began one day when Letterman, his wife Michelle and Fatty were sitting around drinking a few beers, discussing future plans.[É Dave then chimed in, "All you need is a shaved head and you're set!"Michelle wailed, "Oh yeah, Fatty, a shaved head. It'd be perfect.""Hell, let's shave it right now and see how it'd look," exhorted Dave.Michelle enthusiastically agreed. Fatty, however, was slow warming up to the idea."Aw, come on Fatty," Dave pleaded. "Hell, if you shave your head, I'll buy you a six-pack of beer and I'll loan you this cap to wear." Dave showed Fatty a dark gray felt cap that Dave frequently wore."Yea, Fatty, let's do it," Michelle shouted."Come on Fatty, why not? If you don't like it, your hair will grow back!" Dave exhorted."Aw, what the hell," said a grinning Fatty.] [Excerpt from book]The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi is heavy on the good times, but it also dips into Letterman's personal life, back when he had one. In one of the book's most revealing chapters, Lewis recounts Letterman's nine-year marriage to Michelle Cook, which Letterman rarely discusses in interviews.Lewis walks readers through the weird, unbelievable wedding ceremony -- Letterman waffled between marrying Cook and her roommate/witness Sue Berninger -- but it's the aftermath that's pure Letterman. After saying "I do" on July 2, 1968 on Cook's 22nd birthday, Letterman, then 21, left for Indianapolis to tell his parents the good news and begin to make arrangements for their senior year living arrangements. Not everything went as planned.[Fully one month transpired, and Michelle had not heard a word from Dave. He had not returned numerous phone calls from her.On Friday afternoon, Michelle took matters into her hands once again. She traveled 55 miles to Indianapolis, to Dave's house, whereupon she had a meeting with Dave's parents, Joe and Dorothy. They had no prior knowledge of why Michelle wanted to see them and were understandably dumbfounded to learn their son had married Michelle some four weeks prior. According to Michelle, Dorothy's first reaction was that Michelle must be pregnant. Why else would her son do such a thing, get married without so much as hinting at such a prospect?Michelle vigorously maintained she was not pregnant, showed all the official paperwork and said she intended to stay married. She did allow that there were some things she obviously still needed to work out with Dave and had every expectation of doing just that. She later said that Dorothy was quite upset and seemed to feel that her son has somehow been hoodwinked by this vixen.Michelle recounted, "I told Joe and Dorothy, 'We are all adults and can handle this situation like adults. Plus, I've had some courses in psychology.'""Don't tell me about your courses in psychology, honey," said Dorothy.(Letterman came home from work hours later, the scent of alcohol strong on his breath.)É As he turned on the light switch, Dorothy's voice pierced the night air with the words, "David, Michelle was here. I think we need an explanation."Dave went into the living room to face the music. "Yes," he said, "It's true. We got married. No, she's not pregnant. No, she didn't talk me into it. Well, I just didn't know how to tell you. I haven't thought about everything, but somehow we'll manage."] [Excerpt from book]Recalling funny stories about David Letterman doesn't sound like too tough of a challenge. Taking those stories and selling them to the public, however, is where the challenge lies.With a strong background in TV marketing and media consulting, Lewis has decided to take on the task himself."I've run political camps," says Lewis, who lives in Indianapolis. "I know how to get in, plan, launch and win."Forming a second business, Double L Enterprises, with his friend Mike Lamm, Lewis is set to market The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi himself. And where else to do it but via the Internet?"His core audience is on the Web," says Lewis. "There's a woman who updates his Top 10 list who's had 85,000 hits. That revelation said to me that's where the future of this book lies. I know there's a ton of Letterman fans who want to know about him. This is stuff that's absolutely not available elsewhere."The site (www.lettermancollege.com) was designed by the award-winning Philips Design Group in Indianapolis and features excerpts from the book, ordering options and a special section featuring audio of Letterman's "reports" from the 1973 Indiana State Fair. Reporting under the pseudonym of Mulferd Bardoo, Letterman recounted the important happenings at the fair, including winners of the Senior Citizens Talent Contest - Doris Maynard of Shelbyville, for singing all four verses of "Finlandia" with a canned ham in her mouth, and Herbie Schweem of Bargersville, for his unusual ability to use his tongue for a shower cap. Lewis plans to rotate the six reports on the site every five days.If all goes as planned, Lewis expects the book to be in stores by October.Pulling every string he has, Lewis already has his promotions game in full swing. He's scheduled an interview on the "Bob and Tom" morning radio show and is working to get his book from the Internet to the book shelves. He has just one more wish."The thing I would like to have happen out of this is to have Fatty No Neck on the show (Late Show) and have Dave shave his head," Lewis says. "If this book gets that done, then it's a dream come true. It'd be a riot. An absolute riot."