Well before Late Night with David Letterman, there were top ten lists. (The Commandments were only the most famous.) But until 1985, when a gap-toothed former weatherman read them aloud on NBC, they had not been done with such irreverence and verve.
The origins of the “Top Ten,” as its writers call it, are tangled and disputed. Thirty years after the fact, no one is precisely sure how it came about. “Like the Internet and the atomic bomb, it had a couple of fathers and mothers,” Steve O’Donnell, Late Night’s former head writer, told me recently.
I talked to Steve about the lists’ knotty history and, with his help, assembled a Top Ten for The New Republic. (Late Night’s last episode airs May 20.)
10) FROM THE MIND OF THE MAN WHO COINED ‘STRATEGERY’1
The real basic idea for the Top Ten List should be credited to [legendary Saturday Night Live writer] Jim Downey, who was the head writer right before me. He used to write these funny, short lists that were so beautifully stylized—so specific and yet so concise.
9) THANKS, WILLIAM PALEY
One afternoon in the writers’ room, looking at either New York magazine or the Daily News, there was a top ten list of eligible bachelors in New York City. One of them was [former CBS President] Bill Paley, who was, like, in his mid-nineties at the time. It impressed me, not that he was a ridiculous choice, but just there was no commissioner or governing body over these top ten lists. Anybody could write one.
8) BORN OF LAZINESS
There was an ongoing, kind of never-ending campaign to come up with what we called ‘repeatables.’ When you do a show on a daily or nightly basis, you don’t want to be cutting things from whole cloth for every minute of every hour every night of the week. You want some kind of framework you can go back to.
7) LETTERMAN LOVED THE IDEA, ASSUMED IT WAS EPHEMERAL
Dave reacted instantly positively, but not imagining that it would go very long. We would do it for a couple of weeks and then retire it. He said something like, “Oh, this is something we can do and beat it into the ground, until everyone’s sick of it.”
6) DAVE ALSO LIKED THAT IT WAS CHEAP (INITIALLY) TO PRODUCE
I do recall that a selling point was that it was repeatable and pretty much cost-free. They eventually involved some production, you know, when you would bring on Britney Spears or somebody to do a Top Ten. They got to be goosed up, jokingly overproduced, to give them some production value.
5) DAVE ADDED HIS TWO CENTS
Letterman himself added the wrinkle about [the Top Tens] coming from the “home office,” which originally was Scottsdale, Arizona. The home office, what can we do about it? So if the crowd didn’t like them, he could always kind of disown them and claim, “Well, they’re from the home office.” Which was itself, I thought, funny. As time went on, we would move the home office wherever we wanted, just to please different affiliates. We’d move it to Philadelphia or to San Diego. Usually it was some slightly off place—you know, Lincoln, Nebraska. It wouldn’t be, you know, Los Angeles.
4) THEY WEREN’T ALWAYS TOPICAL
The first general feeling was that they were going to be absurd. I can’t remember all of the first weeks, but besides “Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas," [Late Night writer] Matt Wickline worked on one called “Top Ten Cartoon Squirrels or Egyptian Pharaohs.” And it just alternated Egyptian pharaohs with cartoon squirrels. You know, Ramsey the Second followed by Secret Squirrel followed by Nutsy followed by Rocky the Flying Squirrel followed by… They weren’t really jokes.
3) ON-SCREEN LAYOUT WAS IMPORTANT
There were certain ones where you hoped to have an audience response. Usually when they print out on the screen, you could only get five at a time. So you wanted the fifth one in the first panel to get a pretty good response because there was gonna be a few seconds when you changed to the second panel.
And then you want things to wrap up pretty well. You want to have a big closer. So your number three and number two to be pretty strong. Your number one had a sort of ceremonial function. It was just supposed to quick, so Dave could quickly toss the card and get out of there and the band could start playing. Whether it’s been hilarious or not, an illusion has been created that you’ve completed some exciting bit of stagecraft.
2) #1 ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THE FUNNIEST
[Viewers] would complain about them, most commonly that number one is never the funniest one. And that was usually true. The reason for that is you want the number one to be short and kind of a summary of everything you’ve been going for. And maybe with a slight little left turn surprise, which may not exactly constitute a super-hilarious gag, but at least something that feels conclusive.
1) OCCASIONALLY DONE ON THE FLY
There is one that was particularly memorable, that I personally had to write extremely quickly—and I mean in under two minutes or so.
There had just been a crash at JFK. An airplane had, like, jockeyed down the runway and just gone into the bay. It was called Flight 5050. And there were no known fatalities.2 But it was a very strange, eccentric airplane crash. So the list we had prepared an hour or so before the show was “Excuses of the Flight 5050 Pilot.”
And I’m standing literally backstage. The band is playing, Dave is looking at the blue card, and says, “You know, Steven, I don’t think we can do this list. I know no one died, but it’s still a plane crash! And it seems like a bad idea. Do we have anything else?” And, of course, we didn’t really have anything else, but I said, “What if we do ‘Top 10 Numbers Between One and Ten?’ I’ll mix ‘em up.” He said, “OK.” Well, I went to the chyron operator and we kind of wrote it as quickly as we could. It really took us about two minutes. I tried to get an element of surprise in there. For example, there’s a tie at number one, and I did that by at number three having a fraction. Two and half or seven and a half or something.
James Downey coined the word for Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell, who portrayed President George W. Bush on the show. It quickly entered the lexicon.
There were, in fact, two fatalities, but this had not been reported at the time of the broadcast.