WASHINGTON — "These people are a little peculiar," David Letterman whispered to Bo Derek just prior to a commercial break recently on NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman." He was talking about the studio audience. It was the beginning of Letterman's week in Los Angeles, and the crowd was going mad with wild abandon.
Except that this particular outbreak of wild abandon sounded synthetic and rehearsed. That's not because Letterman rehearsed or synthesized it. It's because there is a subculture in Los Angeles that we might call the professional audience. People who have nothing better to do go to television shows all the time and feign intense pleasure at what they see. It's because they learned their ideas of how an audience behaves from watching television, where most audiences are produced in the electronic equivalent of test tubes: They're fakes, and their hysterical laughter is an illusion created by engineers manning gadgets.
The lesson Letterman should have learned is not to take his show to Los Angeles, at least not permanently, which is what he has been begging NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff to do almost since "Late Night" first began. The reason for that is probably that Letterman wants to be able to go outside at any time of the year and play basketball. He's just a big baby.
None of this is to disparage Los Angeles. My personal view of the city is that it is heaven on earth. If I ever lived there I would be so happy I would never be able to do any work; happiness would overcome me and render me motionless. But whatever one might say of the city, the fact is that too many television shows come from there.
Many people who go to Los Angeles and find they can't get into show business also find that they can get into a television show and join the professional audience. These folk take a proprietary interest in whatever show they are attending. They want it to succeed wildly and so they wildly respond to anything resembling a joke or a song.
Thus when shows taped in Hollywood brag that they were performed in front of a "live audience," that has to be taken with a grain of saccharine. They should really say, "performed in front of a professional audience."
Watching the great Jackie Gleason with Art Carney and Audrey Meadows recently on NBC's "Honeymooners Reunion," one of the things that struck me was the hard New York edge to the show. This was the dominant dynamic in television of the '50s and that is one reason many of us remember it so fondly. There was a riveting big-city urgency to those live plays and even to live comedy programs like Gleason's and Berle's and, of course, Sid Caesar's. The audiences were tough. They didn't go to pieces laughing at the exit signs. You could sense the electricity wherever you were and you felt a part of New York excitement.
Even today, there is some sense of that on programs like Letterman's (which left New York for the first time to do the Los Angeles week) and "The Cosby Show." It's also evident on the CBS comedy "Kate & Allie." It isn't that the shows are set in New York, but that they are made there.
Maybe it's that laughter means a little more from people whose day-to-day existence is a living hell. You've got to work to make miserable people laugh. In Los Angeles, it's too easy.
As a result, even the biggest fan of David Letterman, such as I, had to be disappointed by his week in Los Angeles. Indeed, it was something of a flop. We might even go so far as to say it was more than a mere flop; it was a horrendous fiasco of monumental ineptitude--a hideous and putrifying abomination, a monstrous and egregious obscenity, an offense against heaven and a blight on the good name of humanity. It was bad.
The moral is for David Letterman to stay in New York or, if he must take his show on the road, to hit towns like Wyandotte, Keokuk, Sandusky and Bemidji--real places with real people in them and no professional audiences chomping at his bits.