David Letterman sponsors a scholarship in his name at mine and his alma mater, Ball State University, and way back in 1987 this scholarship was still in its infancy.
The Telecommunications students of today might not recognize the school I went to. We played records on a carrier current radio station (my shift was called "Hotel Rock," and I signed off every Saturday night by playing "Living in the Past" by Jethro Tull), we had a black and white TV studio, we shot Super-8 film, we walked uphill in the snow. One good thing was that there were a lot of Letterman's old teachers still around, telling stories.
I wanted to win a scholarship, badly, but had seen some other's work and didn't think I could win on production value alone. I decided to write a script, even though a script had never won a Letterman before.
I was heavily influenced by public radio at the time, listening to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings radio dramas on a big console television that also had a radio and record player. So I wrote a radio drama called West Coast Campus, a highly fictionalized version of my time as a reporter for the Ball State Daily News, where my alter ego was cooler.
I wrote three thirty-minute episodes in longhand, then starting typing it up on a typewriter. As the deadline for submissions loomed, I thought it wasn't enough, so I basically stayed up all night the night before it was due and wrote a fourth 30-page script directly into the typewriter. At the time there was a typing center at the student union, so I went over there and paid a young woman $25 to type my synopsis for nine more episodes, basically a season's worth of shows.
I was running late, so I called the department secretary and begged her to wait until I got there to turn in my project, all 135 pages. I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled to campus, making the deadline only because she waited for me. She was a really nice woman who later died of cancer.
That spring I went to the gala announcement. They showed clips of each entry, all video productions, and Letterman's lawyer and I think his mother was there. When they got to mine, the program's MC and faculty liaison to Letterman said, "And we have this entry, a writing project," held up my bound pages and let it fall from his fingers to the podium with a hollow slap. I could have sunk into the floor.
But I won a scholarship, the first writing project to ever win one, and because I was a smartass, when the others got up and thanked all kinds of people that helped them, I got up and thanked the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company and the inventor of White-Out, then sat back down quickly.
Back then, David Letterman wrote you a check. They don't do that any more, probably because of me. I took $1,000 dollars of it and bought a 1980 Mercury Monarch. I took $1,000 of it and paid for my whole wedding. The rest I spent on school.
You also got tickets to the Letterman show, if you wanted to go (also a Late Night sponge and collapsible cup and hat). He was on NBC then and the same faculty member who let my project fall to the podium with a hollow thud simply gave me the phone number to Letterman's office. I called and his assistant scheduled our VIP tickets.
My new wife and my brother and a girl he sort of picked up on the way left for New York during Spring Break 1988. We stayed in Newark to save money and took the train to the World Trade Center. We ate at Carnegie Deli and looked for Woody Allen. We got a free carriage ride in the cold rain because the lady driving the carriage was heading home for the day and felt sorry for us.
Then we got to 30 Rock and saw a really long line. I walked to the front and asked for the VIP line and the guy said in his most world-weary New York accent, "This IS the VIP line."
But we got in to the small, scruffy studio. Isiah Thomas was on, and Terrence Trent D'Arby sang "Wishing Well." Chris Elliot popped out of a hatch in the floor nearby. Larry Bud Melman came out and talked. Letterman sat there with a cigar during the commercial breaks.
Somewhere I have the hat but gave the sponge and cup to my brother-in-law. I have a letter from Letterman somewhere as well, though I can't remember what is says. But it was a memorable time in my life, and a point of conversation for a long time after.
Supposedly one day Ball State is going to put up a wall of all the Letterman winners. Some people have seen my picture from that time, and think I have a mullet. I didn't have a mullet, it was a shadow on the wall behind me. But it looks like a mullet.
I always say it was my first paid writing gig. I went a long time before getting paid again, with real life and family in between. I sold my first screenplay in 1999 and have chewed along ever since. But 1987 was an awful good year.