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The Big Fish

A Reflection

In my mid-twenties, I sensed that my career advancement at The Record of Hackensack hinged on landing stars such as David Letterman. At the time, my job consisted of rewriting boring press releases into boring suburban news columns about women's clubs and boy scout troops. It wasn’t challenging, nor interesting—to say the least.

I had started at the paper as a part-time news clerk in the Business News Department. Over time, I landed three full-time news clerk positions on three different shifts, including the graveyard shift, from 11:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. I had gradually won the confidence of various department editors as a reliable freelancer, and had moved up to “staff writer,” a nine-to-five gig in a coveted time slot.  

One day I boldly told entertainment editor Virginia Lambert, a woman who used a cigarette holder ala Cruella De Vil—and who had little patience for young punks—that Letterman had agreed to have me write a profile for her section. Even she couldn't turn it down.

I had landed the gig by politely calling the NBC publicist every few months to inquire about the possibility. I learned that gentle persistence, not obnoxious pushiness, pays off.  

On the way to Letterman’s office, the publicist said Letterman had turned down Playboy because the writer had insisted on two days of access. I would have 45 minutes, he said. He might as well have said five minutes. It was all fine with me.

Ushered into his office, I tried to hide my nervousness. I got brownie points when I mentioned Fred Raker, my high school comic buddy who had met Letterman while performing at a comedy club in LA. Fred is still a great friend (who I also profiled for  The Record  and whose story appears in the arts category on this website).

Luckily for me, I sensed that Letterman felt that a friend of Fred was worthy of extra time and consideration. He invited me to hang out for the day and watch the process of how his team pulled the show together. I visited the control room and met director Hal Gurnee, interviewed the head writer, and stood next to the producer for the taping. A sweet assigment and a huge career milestone.