Late Night Last Century: Martin Mull Banters With Letterman

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Late Night Last Century: Martin Mull Banters With Letterman

Late Night Last Century is a weekly column highlighting some of the funniest and most unforgettable comedy from late night, talk shows, and variety shows of the 20th century that’s currently streaming on YouTube. This week, we remember Martin Mull, who visited David Letterman three months into his new late night show.

How could this week’s column feature anyone but Martin Mull? Singer, painter, actor, and, of course, comedian, Mull, who passed away at the age of 80 last month, was a prolific performer on stage and screen for 50 years. 

In the 1970s, after graduating with degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Mull hit the road as a singing comedian, often compared to Steve Martin. He opened for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and Billy Joel. In 1976, he landed his first major role on television, on the Norman Lear-produced Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a send-up of soap operas. Mull played two characters on the show, twin brothers Garth and Barth Gimble. Mull played the latter in a spin-off, a show that made him a star.

For 65 episodes in 1977, Mull as Barth Gimble hosted Fernwood 2 Night, a satirical comedy talk show with Fred Willard as Jerry Hubbard, the Ed McMahon to Mull’s Johnny Carson. Set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio, Mull’s home state, the show was a unique blend. It spoofed both late night television and the kind of stuff one might find on local access television. From July to September of that year, the seeds of programs like The Larry Sanders Show, Between Two Ferns, and The Eric Andre Show were planted. The show returned the following spring as America 2-Night. 

Four years later, David Letterman would innovate the talk show format once again by launching Late Night with David Letterman on NBC. Letterman, born four years after Mull, shared with him a similar comedic sensibility. Hip, conceptual comedy was in, and few could do it better. Thus it makes sense that Mull would pay Letterman a visit three months into Late Night, on May 26, 1982. 

The clip below is a wonderful document of that time. Mull is as hilarious and poised as Letterman, still new to the job, at first seems nervous. His questions feel unfocused and tend to be a bit basic. Mull, who had also guest hosted for Carson in addition to his fake talk show duties, is a pro’s pro. He follows Letterman wherever he takes him, working in the funny stuff at every turn. And Letterman gets in a few good one-liners when he gets a chance. Witty, calm, and always up to something interesting, Mull is simply at the top of his game. 

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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