How Lester – With A Little Help From Willie Tyler – Helped Save David Letterman’s Career

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How’s that for a grabber of a headline?

Okay, so let’s start with the back story: while I was compiling an oral history of Battle of the Network Stars – which, hand to heart, you’ll see on the A.V. Club before the end of August, so keep your eyes open – I talked to Tim Reid about the time that he and David Letterman were on CBS’s team in the long-running celebrity athletic competition.

Although I’m enough of a comedy nerd to be well aware of how long he and Dave have known each other, I still felt obliged to ask the question outright. When I did, Reid delivered unto me an anecdote which not only made me laugh, it still made him laugh 40 years after the fact.

Join us in the laughter, won’t you?

Me: So did you know Dave from the days when you and Tom Dreesen were doing stand-up together as Tim and Tom?

Tim Reid: Yes! I actually met Dave when he first came to Los Angeles. He came down in a red pickup truck from Indiana, when he was still with his first wife. And we ended up working together at a place called T.D. Hayes. David actually… I was taping a live comedy album, and Dave is on the album. That’s his voice as the announcer on the album. He introduced me.

Now, Dave doesn’t like that, whenever I’d see him, I’d always go off and tell this story – he doesn’t want to hear it – but it’s true. All of us stayed in a condominium that was owned by the restaurant. It was a three-bedroom condominium. That particular week we were working, it was myself, it was David Letterman, and Willie Tyler and Lester. I don’t know if you remember Willie Tyler and Lester…

Me: Oh, yes.

Tim Reid: [Laughs.] Okay, well, Willie and Lester and I had worked together in South Africa, doing comedy on a review for, like, six weeks. So we had a relationship. And all of us were staying in the condo. And it was not a great night one night, and we just kind of cut out early, and we were sitting and drinking in the condo, talking about show business. And Dave’s career wasn’t going very well at the time, and…I think he was going through a divorce, or he had gone through it already. But he wasn’t a chipper guy. He’d never been a chipper guy, but he was really down.

So we’re all sitting around drinking, and Dave said, “I think I’m going to go back to Indiana and get out of show business.” And I’ve always liked David’s sense of humor. Always. Even when he was doing stand-up, I loved his sense of humor. I said, “Man, you can’t quit! You’ve got to stick with it, man! We’ve all got to stick with it!” And Willie’s saying, “Yeah, you’ve got to do it!” So then Lester jumped in. [Laughs.] And he really went into David…and gave some incredible advice! He’s saying, “C’mon, be a man!” or whatever it was.

Yeah, I remember the three of us – well, at least David and I – talking to this puppet about whether or not Dave should stay in show business…and he’d probably tell you it’s not true, but in my mind, the puppet convinced Dave to stay. [Laughs.] It’s probably not true, but I like to think that it is. I’ll just never forget that we were sitting there drinking, a bit high at the time, he and I talking about whether or not we should stay in show business or keep going on with our career with a puppet…and the puppet was right for David, that’s for sure!

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