David Letterman does not melt. Late night’s outgoing elder statesman built his career on the ability to dance between goofball and smart aleck, but there’s always a stoicism to his humor — that is, until you put two dachshunds on a treadmill. His voice rises a few octaves, and suddenly he’s hunched over in awe and oblivious to the 460-some crowd in the Ed Sullivan Theatre.
Stupid Pet Tricks is hardwired into Letterman’s television identity. The recurring segment, featuring all manner of domesticated animals performing feats from the mundane to the head-scratching, has been with the host since morning talker The David Letterman Show enjoyed its four-month run on NBC in 1980. First airing on June 26 of that year, it followed him to NBC’s Late Night in 1982 and ultimately to CBS’ Late Show in 1993. And like all recurring segments, it was born of necessity. Merrill Markoe, the original head writer of Letterman’s first two series and his girlfriend for the bulk of the 1980s, created it out of desperation to fill airtime when NBC gave the comedian his first daily vehicle. “When I was in college, and we were all broke and hanging around drinking beer late at night, sometimes, for cheap amusement, we would do stuff like put socks or a T-shirt on my dog,” says Markoe. “I thought, ‘I bet everyone does something stupid like that with their dog.'”
It turns out that a lot of people do. After some prodding — NBC initially suggested trained animals, “like a horse that can count,” but Markoe ignored that request — the segment premiered during the fourth episode. Now, 34 years later, a total 130 Stupid Pet Tricks segments have run across Letterman’s three series, showcasing roughly 390 different examples of animal absurdity. These days the increasingly daunting task of sourcing new acts falls to Late Show talent coordinator John Klarl. In accordance with the times, he identifies them through a combination of live auditions and a regular dredging of YouTube. “It’s a challenge finding something that is safe and that we haven’t done before,” says Klarl, who grew up watching Stupid Pet Tricks before taking it on as his own in 2013. “Finding some online, there’ll be times when it’s almost too good to believe. That’s when I’ll email them back asking to video the animal doing it five times in a row without cutting.”
Dogs have something of a monopoly on the bit. There have been horses and cats aplenty, rabbits, birds, ferrets and even one iguana, but man’s eager-to-please best friend is unrivaled in appearances on The Late Show — thanks in large part to the fact that dogs constantly surprise. Grabel, a Yorkshire Terrier from South Carolina, became a staff favorite last year when his response to his owner asking “Who’s the president?” was a throaty growl that sounded uncannily like he was saying “Obama.”
Stupid Pet Tricks probably isn’t long for this world. With Letterman’s 2015 TV exit approaching, the segment will likely retire along with spinoff Stupid Human Tricks. Stupidity, it turns out, is something the 67-year-old was eager to mine from a variety of sources. Some suggestions never left the writers’ room. “We briefly considered Stupid Baby Tricks,” admits Markoe, “but we were concerned that the idea would inspire desperate attention-seeking people to commit borderline child abuse.”