“Hot take: Viewer Mail was the greatest recurring late night talk show segment in history. Its comedic range was just so great, as it went in so many different directions. It was also its own little sketch show inside a talk show.”
— Jason Zinoman, author of the best-selling critical profile, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, collected tweets, January 6, 2022.
[Co-creator and Head Writer Merrill Markoe] came up with probably the most artistically fertile segment in the history of the show: Viewer Mail, which she imagined as a parody of 60 Minutes. “Their mail was always intelligent and well considered,” she said. “When we got on the air, and I started reading our mail, I quickly realized it was mainly insane people. So I thought it would be funny to just present our viewers; irrational, insane, illiterate.”
— Zinoman, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, p. 56.
“Viewer Mail was key to the scrappy, underground nature of Late Night. Homegrown stuff from freaks across the nation being read on national late-night television and treated and responded to with Dave’s (and his writers’) brand of humor, whether ironic, surreal, wise-guy, sappy, or absurd. It was a high form of public-access type of audience interaction.”
— An anonymous friend
Viewer Mail was born on July 11, 1980, at the end of the third week of Dave’s 18-week-long morning show on NBC. (It was owned by his production company Space Age Meat.) Its name hadn’t been established when Dave introduced this new Friday segment:
“This television show has been on the air for around three weeks, and we feel that today we would not only like to respond to the accumulated mail but also share it with you, the home viewers. So let’s do that now, shall we? The following is a sampling of the mail that we here at the David Letterman show have received in the past three weeks.”
Dave read eight letters but gave replies to none of them.
The end of the following week, July 18, Dave began the segment with “Friday is Mail Day.” He read six letters. This time, he gave one-line “snappy” replies to each letter.
[Within a week,] Viewer Mail evolved. It was no longer simply the host reading dopey letters and assuming the audience got the jokes. Now he added insulting quips that became known on the show as Snappys. … Viewer Mail had turned from being about the stupidity of the letters to the nastiness of the host. As a result, the bit became more satirical, because who else on television was treating an audience this way?
— Zinoman, ibid., p. 64.
The July 25 show is missing. The following week, on August 1, Dave again introduced the segment with “Friday is Mail Day,” and each of the five letters read were once again accompanied with short Snappys. These retorts were the only replies until August 22 (Week 9) when a prop art card was utilized. While the Snappy replies remained the norm, more elaborate comedic answers would occasionally find their way to replacing the one-liners.
It wasn’t until September 5, the end of Week 11, when Dave deviated from his “Friday is Mail Day” introduction with this: “Today is Viewer Day. Mail Day. Viewer Mail Day is what it is.”
And the name stuck for the next thirteen years.
On its final show on October 24, some of the Viewer Mail letters were submitted by staffers, including Barbara Gaines and Dave himself.
After his morning show ended, Letterman was without an outlet for Viewer Mail for the next fifteen months until NBC brought him back to host another talk show, this time owned and co-produced by the network and Johnny Carson”s production company, and airing after Johnny’s Tonight Show at 12:30 am.
Late Night with David Letterman debuted on February 1, 1982, airing four new shows a week, Mondays to Thursdays. (The schedule would change in mid-1987 to Tuesdays to Fridays, with repeats airing on Mondays.)
The first Viewer Mail segment occurred at the end of its second week on Thursday, February 11. All five letters were answered with Snappys. The following week, February 18, four of the five letters read were again Snappys; they would eventually be phased out in favor of phone calls to the letter writers, props, live sketches, and comic scenarios prepared on tape. The Snappys would usually be assigned to Letter #1 for the rest of its Late Night history.
“Dave didn’t want to be doing any kind of performance stuff. Like, you would write things where someone would pull a gun on him and he’d have to act scared. And he’d say to us, ‘Nah, I won’t do this.’ Unlike the morning show, the late-night show didn’t want to have fake characters. One way we figured out how to get around this was with Viewer Mail.”
— Late Night writer Tom Gammill (1982-83), quoted in Brian Abrams’ ebook And Now…An Oral History of “Late NIght with David Letterman,” 1982-1993
“Yeah, those Viewer Mails were probably the closest things that we had to sketches. It was more budget-related. They really didn’t have the money to do costumes and weird effects on every episode.”
— Late Night writer Max Pross (1982-83), quoted in Abrams, ibid.
I found that by late 1985, Dave’s mood had become somewhat darker when presenting the letters. But the comedy became more surreal. There were recurring bits, such as appearances by Flunky the Clown (writer Jeff Martin); firing, first, Old Henry (Paul Andor), then writer Gerard Mulligan; the band trashing the set; the Actor-Singer (Jeff again); Biff Henderson’s Realm of Mystery; Peggy the Foul-Mouthed Chambermaid; and a host of other off-beat characters and sketches. One of my favorite bizarre live skits came in the last letter on November 27, 1987, seen here:
Late Night with David Letterman’s final show aired in late June 1993, as Dave was soon to leave NBC to host an 11:30 PM show on CBS. His Late Show with David Letterman debuted on August 30, 1993, with new shows scheduled on all five days of the week. Due to intellectual copyrights claimed by NBC, the name Viewer Mail was changed to CBS Mailbag.
Three weeks passed before the first Mailbag segment aired, and that was on a Thursday. The next occurred the following Friday. The third Mailbag segment aired two weeks later, and the one following that three weeks later on a Tuesday. It took a few years before the Mailbag fell into its more reliable weekly routine, but on Thursdays before finally finding its more traditional place on Fridays.
By the beginning of 2005, the Mailbag itself was replaced with “Week in Review,” and the 25-year-long tradition answering viewers’ mail had ended.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Late Night’s debut, I’ve cataloged the names of every Viewer Mail letter-writer that Dave (and others) read on the air from both the 1980 morning show and the 1982–93 Late Night. I’ll eventually add the CBS Mailbag names.
The first spreadsheet shown here is a chronological listing of the letter writers to all of the Viewer Mails; weeks that didn’t include them are due to repeats, preemptions (various sports highlights coverage), and Late Night specials. All detailed in the “Notes” field.
A glossary on the fields:
DLS – The David Letterman show that aired live in the mornings for 18 weeks in 1980.
LSwDL – Late Night with David Letterman, which aired after The Tonight Show, February 1982 until late June 1993.
The corresponding numbers refer to my Viewer Mail system, not to the show episode numbers. For example, “LNwDL 2” signifies the second Late Night show to air a Viewer Mail segment. Of the 1,810 Late Nights, 450 include Viewer Mail segments.
The episode number attached to the broadcast. Thus, “LNwDL 2” is Late Night episode #12.
The date the show was broadcast. While aired after midnight, the date reflects the day before. That is, Late Night episode #12 aired on February 19, 1982, at 12:30 am, but every official Late Night database and log IDs it as February 18, and that’s to what I’m adhering.
The order in which the letters were read on each show. The total for each broadcast varied from three to five (and sometimes six and eight) letters from 1982 to early 1989, but by late February 1989 it had settled into a consistent four letters per show.
The running total of viewer mail letters read. In 1987, the show wanted to commemorate its 1,000th letter but had no documentation as to when that would occur. So the producers reached out to Mark Hamill, an avid Late Night fan, for help. He provided them with a prospective date: December 18, 1987, and the milestone was thusly arranged for that show.
However, while cataloging every letter, I found that the 1,000th letter actually occurred eight months earlier, on April 16, 1987.
Name, City, and State fields:
Self-apparent. Of all of the letters read, there were 61 with no last names, 15 where no names at all were given, and a smattering of nicknames, anonymous, and incomplete name IDs. Likewise, a number of letters provided no home locations. But when they were mentioned, they’re included here.
Items of interest or explanation. For example, I’ve identified letters that encored on anniversary shows (with their respective Cumulative # retained to when they originally aired). Also, I’ve included some “Firsts”: the first time an actual photo of a letter was shown rather than a generic card provided by the show’s graphic department; the first time the pencil smashed through the window; the first time Director Hal Gurnee was asked to announce the letter numbers; the first time the “fanfare” was added after a Snappy — Hollywood-like roving spotlights, the confetti cannon, the ping-pong balls, a siren, all accompanied by the band playing frantic renditions of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and other Broadway and patriotic tunes; and the first parade. Also documented are instances when a viewer had a second or third or fourth letter read on the air — Dave Nelson had the most at nine, with Brian James Bancroft and Ralph Mira a distant second at five each — as well as multiple authors to individual letters (Dave: “It took two people to write this”). And more.
The second spreadsheet lists the letter-writer names in alphabetical order, with all of the anomalies (no last names, etc) added at the end. Each name and location corresponds with the show date, episode number, which Viewer Mail within each particular show, its cumulative number, etc. In other words, the fields and the information within those fields are identical to the first chronological spreadsheet, just reordered and sorted by name.
The total number of letters read on Late Night is 1,980. Which corresponds nicely with the year the tradition begins.
I receive many requests from folks who had their letter read on the air, and so this will facilitate finding them.
As a video companion, I’ll be uploading every Viewer Mail in the following year (or years). Here’s the Viewer Mail collection for 1982, presented in two parts:
As Jason Zinoman tweeted, Viewer Mail was indeed the greatest recurring late night talk show segment in history. It’s long-past its due recognition.
And now the obligatory ask: I have a Patreon account that helps me pay the bills. It’d be wonderful if anyone is so inclined to donate.