Rest in peace, Larry “Bud” Melman

It’s difficult to imagine now, 25 years later, the impact the early days of the NBC Letterman show had on us young hipsters.  Cable was still  a rarity and TV comedy in the days after Monty Python was Mork and Mindy.  The 1982 Letterman show was a bizarre, cathartic psychotic freakout of TV culture, a show that took everything that had preceded it and turned it inside-out, and then devoured it, and then shat it out and devoured it again.  You could turn on Letterman in 1982 and, quite literally, have no idea what to expect.

(I remember, early on, there was a “wheel of fortune” bit they did where Letterman would spin the wheel to see what would happen next.  Selections were all mundane or ridiculous things, but then one choice was “Surprise Visit From Mick Jagger,” and there was a booth onstage with the hand of “Mick Jagger” waving out the top.  In 1982, the idea of Mick Jagger showing up for Letterman was a cruel joke; now it would be commonplace.)

One of the high-water marks of the period was the character of Larry “Bud” Melman, a cranky, befuddled old man who was too real to be fake (although, of course, he was fake, an actor named Calvert DeForest).  His timing, whether produced by comic brilliance or simple ineptitude, was absolutely stunning, and he could destroy a routine in the blink of an eye, then resurrect it into another realm in the following breath.  Letterman would thrust him into situations clearly beyond his comprehension, seemingly to make fun of a sorry old man on national television, and Melman’s palpable haplessness, rage and desperation could become almost unbearable.  You couldn’t figure out why Letterman kept using this guy except to make fun of his ineptitude, and you couldn’t figure out why Melman would keep showing up for the gig when he was only there to be laughed at.  His every appearance in the early days was a high-wire act, with the audience not knowing quite what to make of this cranky, easily distracted and opaque old man.  He couldn’t tell a joke — Christ, he could barely read his cue-cards — but the electricity between him and Letterman was astonishing.  Routines would fall apart or turn into horrifying, cruel shouting matches and you didn’t know whether you wanted to laugh or cry but you certainly weren’t going to change the channel.

It turned out it was all a joke, but I never knew to what extent the joke was on Melman, DeForest, Letterman or the audience.

Nowadays, Letterman’s art of spinning comedy gold from the common man (Rupert Gee, Sirajul and Mujibar, et alia) is the norm on the show and everyone is in on the joke, but in the beginning, it was untested, even dangerous ground he was treading and the volatile Larry “Bud” Melman was his advance scout.
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15 Responses to “Rest in peace, Larry “Bud” Melman”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    RIP Bud

    See, this is what happens when you leave New York.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I was kind of dismayed when I learned that NBC wouldn’t let Letterman take the character with him when he moved over the CBS. Intellectual property like the Top Ten List could make the transition, but not Larry “Bud” Melman? What was the difference there?

  3. clayfoot says:

    Larry “Bud” Melman was an actor? *cries*

    What about the panicky guy? He was for real, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?

    • Anonymous says:

      Well . . .

      For what it’s worth, although Larry “Bud” Melman was actually a character, Calvert DeForest wasn’t really an actor. That’s all him out there.

      Supposedly, one of the writers quipped that if Calvert actually “developed real talent, he’d be useless to us.”

  4. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting – especially the idea of “common man” to Leterman.

    Having watched Letterman from back during his many versions on TV, I enjoy the odd sensation of catching his
    early clips on YouTube by accident, partly as I wonder -did he always look so…everyday? Sure he was the guy doing shtick with products on Carson and the like. But suddenly with his attempts at his own shows, he was just exchanging the “products” he presented to the audience, with creations of another kind – characters certainly, but creations as well – one such as Melman.

    It was long transition to the Letterman that would think to spar with O’Reilly. Or just any of the celebrity-tv stakes, for example, another early YouTube with him,

    Madonna and Bernhard, is so…painfully indicative of the change still underway to the pumped up Letterman that will “compete” with Leno for the late-nite stakes.

    Having said all that, it is the context Melman’s character came within on Letterman’s show that could be good to recall. This was the same Letterman show that Pee Wee Herman was appearing quite a few times as a regular almost. The role of bandleader went to Paul Sheaffer as a role, he was coming from Sat.Nite Live after all. Nothing was as it appeared ever, that was the 80s within the everyday of Letterman. Characters were not so easy to pin down, which is what made the almost too caucasian, bland Letterman the right person to center all these creations around his “everydayness”. When he was pushed to, he could be quick and cut to the glib retort, but mostly in the beginning he provided a center and tried to play response to creations like “Melman”.

    “Melman” is a good way to look at the difference betweeen early Letterman and Conan. Letterman’s atitude was aligned to his audience as an intention. He brought these creations in to roam free, but because he knew his audience in a way and could still experiment with the medium.

    Conan created this obvious “I am from improv” background characters, which must be fight attention-span, hammer the viewer in the head in the college-frat boy level of humor. The preferred demographic. And Letterman, if anything, was no college frat boy, nor wrote for the Simpsons.

    Perhaps Conan’s “Melman” was Andy Richter, but that’s another story.

    • rjwhite says:

      college-frat boy level of humor


      • Anonymous says:

        right – now if this were Conan it would have been: extreme grimace and “whhaaaaaaa…..?”

    • Todd says:

      I could go on about early Letterman for hours, but —

      In the beginning, the show’s opening went like this: It’s the middle of the night in New York, everything is shut down, lonely cabs trundle along deserted streets, all the lights are off, and here, in Rockefeller Center, one light burns, because apparently everyone at NBC has gone home and left the door unlocked in one of the studios and these yahoos have snuck in to create some kind of weird TV show. And all the comedy flowed from that premise.

      Then, in a few years, the opening changed to: we’re in New York and we’re going somewhere, there’s a party somewhere and we’re going to it, as the camera swooped and dived through the streets and in and out of buildings. And the party, it turned out, was the Letterman show. So the show went from being “the lunatics take over the asylum” to “the destination for the hip kids” and it changed the comedy a little too.

      Now he’s an institution, in the freaking Ed Sullivan theater for Chrissake, and the show opens like a star-studded spectacular.

      The reason Letterman bombed at the Oscars is because his humor is based on being the marginal guy who stood off to the side and said “get a load of these crazy people.” Thrust into the center of an august institution, the audience at the Oscars saw no humor in a Midwestern yahoo making fun of the names “Uma” and “Oprah” and throwing out show-biz glamor in order to glamorize the little guy.

  5. rjwhite says:

    According to Wikipedia, his great uncle was broadcasting technology pioneer Lee DeForest, which, given Letterman’s love of broadcasting history, must have been some bonus in his hiring.

    The classic Port Authority segment:

    It’s weird seeing Letterman lose it here, as that’s something that very rarely ever happened in a show that’s written and structured within an inch of its life.

  6. ninjaguydan says:

    A Bad ass pic of Mr. Melman…

    Here he is hanging out with Nine Inch Nails @ woodstock 94 (aka-the god one)


  7. ninjaguydan says:

    Conan’s “Larry bud”?

    I don;t think it was andy…lest we forget of the gone (but seldom remembered) Oly Olafson….although Abe Vigoda is probably filling the “weird old man” shoes nowadays..