'Late Show' Writers on David Letterman's Retirement, Cue Card Writer Assault

And more behind-the-scenes stories
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David Letterman

The writers for CBS' Late Show With David Letterman just have a few more months of crafting jokes for the veteran late-night host before he retires in 2015, but they're not dwelling on it.

"We're trying not to think about it, which of course is the best way to think about it and it seems like a long way off and it seems like tomorrow," Bill Scheft said during a Paley Center panel with the Late Show writers moderated by Keith Olbermann on Friday night.

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Scheft added at the New York Comedy Festival event that he doesn't think that it'll really hit him that Letterman's tenure is coming to an end until after Darlene Love performs her final late-night rendition of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" next month.

"I've got another month or so," he said.

Fellow writer Steve Young added that annual events remind him that the end is near.

"When you think about, 'Oh my gosh, this is the last time we're going to do Halloween costumes' or whatever, it starts to get your attention," he said.

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The show occasionally features references to Letterman's retirement, but those have cropped up organically, the writers said.

For instance, the other night when a joke fell flat and there was dead silence in the audience, head writer Matt Roberts said Letterman quipped, "You know these are the moments I'm going to miss most."

While Letterman has yet to announce the date of his final show, Roberts said most of the jokes about the host moving on won't occur until shortly before Letterman says goodbye.

"I know when Dave made the announcement [that he would retire in 2015], it was news to us, it was a surprise to us as well, and I think to us it seemed like a huge story that would be the only story in our heads for the next year," he said. "But we don't start doing Christmas jokes until it's about two weeks before Christmas, so we're not going to jokes about it being the end of the show for a year ahead of time. It would get to be a little tiresome."

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The panel also gave Scheft an opportunity to open up about his recent altercation with cue card writer Tony Mendez, who was fired from the show after physically confronting Scheft.

"I've known Tony Mendez for about 22 years. We started at the old show together," Scheft said. "And I'm just grateful that the show acted so decisively and so humanely, I feel. And I really, really hope for Tony, I hope he gets the help he needs because it was an unfortunate incident."

Ironically, Letterman's longtime writer said that he didn't press charges or have Mendez arrested because that wasn't how he was raised and he didn't want the incident to become public.

"I said, 'I don't want to end up on page 10 of The Post.' Well, I didn't have him arrested, and I ended up on page 1," Scheft said, referencing the tabloid's cover story about the incident.

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In terms of how the experience has felt, Scheft invoked the work of another well-known TV writer.

"Aaron Sorkin has a great line, he says, 'Seeing your name in the newspaper is a lot like being seasick, you know your whole world around you is collapsing and everyone else thinks it's funny,' and that's sort of the way it's been," Scheft said.

Beyond the incident with Mendez, the writers said most of the challenges they face involve trying to come up with topical jokes on a daily basis, particularly when most of the stories in the news are about serious subjects like ISIS and Ebola.

"You just pray to God that somebody had sex with an ATM machine or something," writer Jeremy Weiner said. 

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The difficulty of coming up with fresh funny material has been exacerbated in recent years by the Internet.

"I know a lot of times [one of our staffers will] come in the meeting and go, 'I found this great piece of found footage,' but by the time we air it, it's possible 10 million people have already seen it," writer Lee Ellenberg said. "And we also kind of have an unwritten rule that we don't make a joke if some guy made it on Twitter 12 hours ago. So it is a problem."

Scheft added that they used to have to wait a day for a story to be in the public consciousness.

Sometimes they've been stymied by outside forces, like CBS security, which prevented the show from airing a "behind the scenes" clip of a security guard who fell out of his chair and onto one of the writers as he was walking into the studio.

After the writer requested the footage, the response was, very seriously: "No you can't show it on the show and…it's the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life."

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And other times they just don't think viewers will get it, something that turned out not to be the case for the audience of fans at the Paley Center when Ellenberg referenced a Top Ten list that never made it to air about words coined by whoever  came up with the word "guesstimate."

The audience laughed at entries like like "chickenfotainment" and "igloom," "a state of depression that overcomes Eskimos," Ellenberg recalled.

The writers turned serious in the post-panel Q&A, offering some heartfelt, sincere advice to a 13-year-old girl in the audience who asked what advice they had for someone who wanted to be a comedy writer (start writing now, get into improv, use the Internet and whatever outlets you can) and reflecting on the challenges of creating a diverse writers' room: the writers onstage were all white men with the exception of one, white woman.

"This is a problem that we've dealt with and all of late night…deals with. It's a frustrating problem, actually, because there's not really any particularly easy answer or solution to the problem and we have tried," Roberts said. "We have possibly the most open application process in late night. I mean, other shows require people to have agents to make writers' submissions. We're kind of one of the last places where you can basically call up the switchboard and say 'How do I write for the show?,' and you'll get sent out a release form and instructions and you can take a stab at sending in some material and we'll look at it. It will go in the same stack as the veteran writer who's being represented by William Morris or CAA or whatever…It's a serious issue…We've paid a lot of attention to this, we've asked agencies…'Please encourage your women writers to submit to our show.' The numbers are just surprising. You'd be shocked. We get about 25 submissions from men for every one submission we get from a woman. So just by the numbers alone, that's how it shakes down."

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