Letterman’s Bill Scheft Finds Humour in “Hurts”

A busy week spent typing for dollars has prevented me from getting to this until now, and it is so not news, but Bill Scheft is one funny dude. The head monologue writer for Late Show with David Letterman was in Toronto Wednesday to promote his latest book, Everything Hurts (Simon and Schuster). He conducted a reading of his book Wednesday night at The Spoke Club on King Street, and he killed.
David Kines, the former MuchMusic honcho now busy pulling together the Canada Day festivities for several broadcasters, invited me in on the reading. Thanks to Dave, I got to quiz Scheft a bit about Letterman and Late Show and his take on all the changes in late night happening this week and next with the hand off of Tonight to Conan O`Brien.
Scheft noted that one of the golden rules in network television is that “the one who changes the least usually benefits the most”–which, of course, would be Letterman, sitting tight at 11:35 on CBS.
Late Show fans will have noticed that the monologue has expanded in recent months. Where once Dave told eight jokes tops, he`s up to 13-16 a night now.
Leno`s departure provided the incentive; the joke machine and his 35-40 gag opener will be off the scene until September when he returns at 10 P.M. The suggestion to beef up the Late Show monologue was made several months back and, once he got a set under his belt, Letterman embraced it, finding it gave him and the show a jolt of that good old stand up vibe.
Scheft has been with Letterman for 17 years, dating back to the NBC days. He has sharp memories of the 25th show they ever did at CBS because that was the one that was supposed to feature Bill Hicks. A bit of a stand up rebel, Hicks was pulled when Letterman and others felt his set might have crossed the line in terms of content, a decision that haunted everybody when Hicks revealed a short while later that he had cancer. He died six months later.
Letterman recently made amends by inviting Hicks’ mother on the show, apologizing to her and showing Hicks’ set in its entirety. It made for a fascinating show.
The kicker is that Scheft, a former stand up comedian, had stood in for Hicks at rehearsal and performed his own stand up, never thinking it would ever air. When he turned on the show that night, however, his rehearsal shtick was edited into Hicks’ slot. He had made his debut on Late Show and never knew it until it aired.
Scheft is a master at the kind of smart, self deprecating humour one used to get from Woody Allen. Typical example: he majored in Latin at Harvard, he explained, “because he thought the church was going to come back.” He described his mother as a “stay at home narcissist.” When he asked for her unconditional love, she said, “I’ll give you unconditional love when you’ve earned it!”
That one made me laugh out loud. The passage he read from his book was just as funny. This is the former sports writer’s third novel; he says he tends to write about broken people raging against the dying of the light. The guy in Everything Hurts, Phil Camp, spends much of the book trying to get rid of a psychosomatic limp. He winds up writing a self help book as a joke (“Where Can I Stow My Baggage?”) that becomes a bestseller. It couldn’t be as funny as Everything Hurts; order your copy here.

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