Here’s a David Letterman story that involves a Jay other than Leno.
It’s about how 25 years ago, Jay Putt and Karl “Skip” Wolf, friends since seventh grade, got Letterman to move his TV show’s fictitious “home office” to their hometown, Lebanon, Pa.
Letterman is retiring after 33 years in the late-night talk show business. His final “Late Show” airs at 11:30 p.m. EST Wednesday on CBS.
I first became a fan of Letterman back in summer 1980, when “The David Letterman Show” aired mornings on NBC. (In this murky clip from one of those episodes, at the 4:20 mark he reads a funny item from the weekly Press & Journal newspaper in Middletown, Pa., which he misidentifies as being in Hanover, Pa.)
NBC cancelled the morning show, but the comedian returned to the network from 1982 to 1993 with “Late Night with David Letterman.” It aired at 12:30 p.m., after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” (Letterman moved to CBS in 1993.)
Starting on Sept. 18, 1985, Letterman read a nightly “Top Ten List.” The first one was “The Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas,” which you can view here in all of its original simplicity.
At some point, Letterman began to attribute the lists to an ersatz home office, which originally was in Milwaukee and then moved to Scottsdale, Ariz.
I’m not sure where the home office was that night in January 1990 when, on a lark, Putt and Wolf altered history and put Lebanon on the “Late Night” map. Eleven cities were home offices between “Late Night” and its successor on CBS, “Late Show with David Letterman,” according to CBS, with Lebanon being the only one in Pennsylvania. Nowhere could I find a chronological list of home offices.
Calling Tom Snyder
But Wolf gave me the scoop on how the whole thing with Lebanon unfolded. He emphasized that the genesis of the idea lay with Putt, who died in 2013.
Putt and Wolf were regular “Late Night” viewers. They were both 40 years old and Lebanon teachers, Putt at Lebanon High School, Wolf at Northwest Elementary School.
Another legend of late night, Tom Snyder, had a national radio show that aired from 10 to midnight on WLBR-AM in Lebanon. Putt had heard that Letterman was going to be a guest, so he suggested that he and Wolf call in. Wolf recalled that it was a Thursday night, the third week of January.
Left to his own devices, Wolf said, he might have asked Letterman how he liked show business or “something common” like that. No, Putt said, ask him to change the Top Ten List home office to Lebanon.
That night, the friends listened to Snyder’s show at Putt’s house on Light Street. Putt only had a rotary phone, so they borrowed his girlfriend’s touch-tone phone to make redialing faster. And redial they must.
Wolf, who now teaches driver education and dabbles in local sports history, said he must have gotten a busy signal 50 times. Thirty-five minutes in, however, Snyder’s phone line started to ring.
“Jay, I’m in,” Wolf said to his friend. “Somebody’s going to answer the phone.”
He first went through a call screener, then Snyder came on and introduced “Karl from Lebanon, Pa.”
Wolf told Letterman that he enjoyed his show and asked if he would move the home office to Lebanon. There was a pause.
“And he said, ‘Done. We’re changing the home office.’ ”
Wolf and Putt didn’t tell anyone about the call or Letterman’s pledge for fear that it wouldn’t pan out. But the next Tuesday (Mondays were re-runs), 15 minutes into his show, Letterman announced to band leader Paul Shaffer that the home office was changing to Lebanon.
“Jay and I fell out of our chairs,” Wolf said.
‘Home of the Top Ten List’
Of course, in those pre-Internet days, news traveled much more slowly. No one was quite sure how or why Lebanon was chosen until Putt and Wolf gave the story to Henry Homan for his “Up the Snitz Creek” column in the Lebanon Daily News.
The friends started getting media calls. The community embraced it, spelling out “Home of the Top Ten List” on the marquee of the vacant Colonial Theatre at Cumberland and 9th streets. A cardboard cutout of Letterman started making the rounds of local restaurants.
There were two schools of thought, Wolf said, each of them incorrect: That the friends had a direct connection to Letterman or that the show’s writers actually were in Lebanon.
Putt and Wolf made “numerous forays” to see Letterman’s show, Wolf said. They were never introduced to Letterman, but as audience members once presented the host with pretzels, opera fudge and a Lebanon bologna from his home office. In exchange, during his monologue Letterman presented Wolf with a canned ham, unaware that the recipients were responsible for that original request on Snyder’s radio show.
Lebanon kept the home office for more than two years; in 1992 Letterman bestowed the mantle on Tahlequah, Okla.
I asked Wolf what he got out of the experience most of all.
“Just the fun of it,” he said. “Just that we could pull it off.”
Wolf said it always bothered him that because he was the one who spoke on the Snyder show, he got more credit than Putt, who was the inspiration behind it.
So to be clear: Wolf made the call, but it was his dear friend Putt’s idea.
Let’s give each of them a round of applause — and a canned ham.