Celebrating Merrill Markoe, The Woman Who Helped Letterman Shape Late Night

Photo: George Rose/Getty Images.
Tonight, David Letterman will read his last Top Ten list and sign off as network TV’s longest-running host of a late-night talk show, with 33 years of monologues and stupid pet tricks under his belt. Letterman will leave his post surrounded by troubadour-style comedians named Jimmy, whose own late-night shows seem to rely more on viral stunts that get the Internet talking than Dave’s now old-school yuks. 

Late-night TV was and still remains a boys’ club. Even Letterman himself told The New York Times in his informal exit interview that he wished CBS had considered a female replacement for him. The network didn’t listen, choosing instead to poach Stephen Colbert from Comedy Central. While Letterman’s shows have always been outwardly facing very skewed towards males, a woman actually did play a large role behind the scenes when it came to shaping David Letterman’s brand of late-night humor. Those seminal Letterman bits would become the bridge between old-school hosts like Johnny Carson and those aforementioned viral moments so heavily trafficked by Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. 

Merrill Markoe first met David Letterman in the late seventies when the two were stand-up comedians in Los Angeles. They worked on a short-lived CBS variety show starring Mary Tyler Moore, and then the failed pilot for Leave It to Dave, a Letterman talk show that never aired. In 1980, Markoe wrote for The David Letterman Show, an NBC morning show that lasted only through the summer and fall of that year. NBC finally found a more successful spot for Letterman on its schedule when Late Night With David Letterman premiered in 1982. The show aired at 12:30 a.m. after The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

As Late Night’s head writer, Merrill Markoe worked closely with Letterman to capture his voice and translate his comedic vision into what would become a late-night institution of its own (NBC’s post-Tonight Show program, which groomed Jimmy Fallon to take over as host of The Tonight Show). She told Refinery29 that “the show was always meant to be a talk show,” but “we consciously made the decision to pursue a much crazier format” than more traditional late-night shows. 

This also had to do with the host of its lead-in, Johnny Carson. “[He] was considered the biggest talk-show host out there then and had a say in what show followed his,” Markoe said. “When he said yes to Dave, it was with the stipulations that there wouldn’t be an opening monologue, and the announcer wouldn’t be a sidekick who sat down and talked to Dave. Those were what Carson felt were his signature show elements, I guess. I felt like this were limitations we could live with. I remember thinking, ‘Well gee, that leaves everything else in the world.’”

The original Late Night on NBC was quite different from what you're used to seeing Letterman do on CBS. “It used to have a lot more written material. It had a very low budget, but we were very ambitious, almost like a comedy variety show with a few talk elements,” Markoe pointed out. “The other big difference was in guest bookings. We started out not wanting to book standard show business guests whose only motive in appearing was to promote another piece of show business.”

She wishes talk shows were still more experimental with their guest selection, like that early version of Late Night. “We had a lot of authors and filmmakers and artists and people from the news department and eccentrics from unusual fields, in addition to new comics and weird icons from various disciplines who never get booked on TV anymore. I thought it was a very odd and appealing mix. I don’t think anyone books that way right now. Someone should start.” 

Markoe also recalled the more subversive elements she enjoyed conceptualizing for Letterman. “
I constructed [a piece] to show how censorship worked. The idea was that we would do stuff in front of the live audience that we knew would be censored, then you would see evidence of the censorship by the gaps or garbled audio or tiling of video in what finally aired. Turned out the censors wouldn't allow the piece to run because they didn't want us to point out their handiwork.”

One of Markoe’s favorite bits was called “Dog Poetry,” and it actually almost went the way of the censorship bit, but this time because of Letterman, not the network. “It was my dog Stan reading a poem,” Markoe explained. “I also directed it. The poem itself was in subtitles. The voice track was all noises Stan made. I worked a long time on this thing, and Dave wasn’t too crazy about it.” 

Markoe knew the audience would love it; she just had to get it around the host. She created a segment called “Things that will never appear on the show,” and “Dog Poetry” appeared among “a small collection of other things Dave also wasn’t too crazy about.” As predicted, it absolutely killed. “People still quote this piece to me all the time,” Markoe said. “They seem to like the line ‘My empty dish mocks me.’” She noted that this took place 15 years before “an Internet drowning in pet videos.” 

Markoe was an animal-appreciation pioneer and visionary. She also created the popular Letterman segment “Stupid Pet Tricks,” which he took with him to CBS. As for other enduring Letterman bits, Merrill Markoe actually remains in the dark. She and Dave were involved in a relationship off-screen as well, and it ended before he made the jump to CBS after NBC chose Jay Leno as Johnny Carson’s heir in 1992. Markoe chose to disengage from the show and its trajectory after her personal relationship with Letterman was over. 

When asked if audiences today would even recognize the Late Night she worked on in today’s Late Show, Markoe said, “No idea. I haven’t watched the show in a long time… The people who are around now have never even seen the show I worked on because it is locked up in NBC vaults and never airs.” 

She continues to be surprised at Letterman’s “successful 33-year run” because “Dave is an extraordinarily harsh critic of his own work. During the years I worked for him, [he] was very, very displeased with a good deal that we did. He was frequently upset about how badly he felt things were going. Only after I left the show did I start running into people who were rabid fans. So, the biggest shock of all is that apparently we were a success, and I missed it. I had no idea.” 

Fans today are quick to pinpoint Merrill Markoe as a defining voice in late-night history. She unfortunately remains one of the only female head writers in a legacy of programming that stretches back to the early days of television, which is why we wanted to celebrate her contributions to the medium on the occasion of David Letterman’s final bow. 

Markoe won three Emmys for her work on Late Night With David Letterman, and she has since authored several books and short films. Although she hasn’t tuned into Letterman for decades, she's looking forward to the Stephen Colbert era of late night. “I can’t imagine he won’t add something brilliant to the landscape,” she told R29. Fingers crossed that includes more female voices. 
   
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