This essay first appeared in the book, Seriously Silly.
I got a call from the Late Show with David Letterman. It seems they needed a clown for an in-studio taped segment. The bit was that Dave does kids parties on the weekends as a clown. I was going to be Dave’s hands.
I arrived at the Ed Sullivan theater in Times Square and showed the producer a bunch of different clown costumes I had brought with me. On the stage was a living room set, just near where Dave sits with his guests. The theater was dark except for the lights on the fake living room. It felt strange being in the theater at all, especially eerie with no audience.
I put on the costume and walked around with the camera over my shoulder, as if the camera was Dave’s eyes. You could see my arms through the sleeves of the clown costume.
I was told to twist a balloon dog, which I did. Then the writers thought it would be funnier if “Dave” didn’t know how to make a balloon animal. So for the next take, I just crumpled up another inflated balloon and handed it to a disappointed child. That was the take they used.
I said, “Hey, anyone could have done that. Even Dave.” It was great fun to be behind the scenes working with Letterman’s staff. I mentioned to the producer that if they ever needed another clown for anything, they should be sure to call me.
A few weeks later I did get another call from the Letterman show. Dave wanted to come to my office and videotape a remote segment of us goofing around. The plan was that I would teach the drummer on the show how to be a clown.
We made several appointments that were not kept for one reason or another. That’s okay; I got paid for them anyway. Union rules are cool.
Finally the crew showed up at my office. There was Dave, Anton the drummer, a cameraman, a boom guy, a videotape guy, and a few writers. They crowded into my office, which is actually in a small apartment in a large apartment building in Manhattan.
Dave, Anton and I sat on the couch for a while ad-libbing and goofing around. His staff had warned me that Dave likes to be the funny one. I was not supposed to try to get laughs myself. I showed them a few silly props. I performed the Invisible Deck for Dave. He was blown away. I dressed Anton up as a clown in a wig, nose and costume. Dave wanted to give Anton a clown name. “You could go with one of the classics,” I said. “Bobo, Pickles, Smiley…” “Pickles sounds good,” Dave said. Dave suggested we walk around and see what happens.
So David Letterman, Pickles, and I left the office to begin our journey. We first went to the doorman of my building where Dave gave him a hard time. He said, “Look, it’s Pickles and Silly Billy!” The doorman was nonplused. Pickles and I pretended to be doormen and greeted tenants as they arrived home from work. People in my building (there are 450 apartments) were impressed that I was hanging with Dave. Then we left the building and walked to the local diner down the block.
It was about 8:00 pm so the place was fairly empty. We walked in, a group of about 8, with lights, cameras and action. In my office I had taught Anton how to do the coloring book trick. At the diner he was quick to show the wait staff his new skill. We three sat there for a while, ate pie, and riffed. I did some close up tricks, Anton did his coloring book trick, and Dave ridiculed us both.
Then we went back to my building to ride the elevators. Crammed into the elevator was Dave, Anton, a cameraman, a sound guy and myself. We rode the elevators up and down and played with whoever dared to ride with us.
Finally, the elevator had been called all the way up top the top floor. The elevator door opened and there was a mom and her 6-year-old son. The mom exclaimed, “Oh my god, its David Letterman!” Ignoring this completely, her son yells out, “Oh my god, its Silly Billy!”
One person’s celebrity is another person’s “who the heck is that?”
Our night of fun and frolic ended soon after that. Letterman had the footage he wanted and I had the time of my life.