Tonight’s Musical Guest: How ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ Books Its Acts

The show’s music producer discusses what it takes to make it to the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater.

Musical guests on late night talk shows have historically played the soundtracks to TV viewers’ dreams. After the host’s monologue, a comedy skit, and two guests telling stories about their idiot kids just so they can plug their new movie with Judd Apatow, most people at home are sound asleep under the TV’s warming glow before the band takes over the less-than-coveted 12:25 to 12:30 AM slot. But this being the glorious age of the internet, no television moment goes forgotten, with most shows having last night’s episodes broken down into easily shareable clips by the time people sit down at their work computers the next morning.

Late Show With David Letterman has been especially good about stepping into the modern TV-to-web age, which is impressive considering that the show has been on the air for over 20 years and that most of our grandmas in Iowa probably watch it from the second rate nursing homes we stuck them in (sorry, Nanna!). So to have acts like Against Me!’s 6’ 2” transgender frontwoman Laura Jane Grace playing a song called “FUCKMYLIFE666” in front of millions of viewers is a huge, progressive step, not only for television but for America.

We talked to Sheryl Zelikson, Late Show’s music producer, about how she selects guests, what goes into booking the musical segment, and yes, how to get your crappy band on the show.

So what’s your title at Late Show?
I’m the music producer.

And what does that entail?
Basically, I book the bands for the show and produce the segments.

I’m sure a thousand bands will read this and want to know: What does it take for a band to get on the show?
I wish there was a formula to it. The majority of the time, it’s me searching, seeing what’s coming out, new albums, big releases, a lot of times paying attention to what publicists are pitching. As you can imagine, there is a tremendous amount of music out there, a lot of which is excellent. That is the most comprehensive part of my job, just trying to look at everything that’s sent to me.

And how much of it is your personal preference?
I have to like it. And I have to think it’s a good fit for the show. I have my own personal tastes in music but that doesn’t mean that everything that’s booked on the show is my personal taste. Our demo is very broad and our show, I’m hoping, is very eclectic.

Yeah, you guys have had some really interesting guests lately.
Thank you. I appreciate you watching!

It’s been really cool to see the show taking a progressive stance in your musical acts. You recently had gay rapper, Le1f, on as well as Against Me!, who’s fronted by a transgender woman. And it’s really cool that you’re not treating them as sideshows.
I don’t think they are sideshows. The way I review music is, I get a press release for Le1f, for example. The lovely people over at Biz3, Kathryn and Dana, sent over a press release. I don’t read the press release first. I listen to the music or watch a video first and then I’ll scan through the press release and do my own research. I’ll either request to see the band live if I can and if they’re coming through. In the case of Le1f, I went to YouTube, I looked at some live performances, I looked at some other videos, and I instantly loved it. I liked his rapping style, I liked his voice, I could see that there was a sense of humor in his videos and what he did, and I could see he could perform, most of all. And when he got to our stage, he really pulled it out, it’s a great performance. He brought in live horns and a live band and great dancers and it’s everything you want in a TV performance.

Did you see his tweet the next day?
No, I don’t do that. I don’t tweet, I’m not on Facebook.

You’re probably better off.
[Laughs] Yeah.

Well he just thanked Letterman for inviting him to perform as a musician and not as a spectacle, which I thought was very nice.
That is very nice. I heard about it. But he’s a great performer. And generally when I’m booking for the show, I look past the single. I wanna know that an artist is sustainable, that there’s more than one song that they can do. And I think he’s wonderful.

The show has been around for decades and it’s on a major network. I’m sure some of your audience is older and you have a lot of the middle of the country watching. What kind of reactions do you get when you put a transgender woman or a gay rapper on a big network show like that?
I generally don’t follow what people are saying about the show. I didn’t look at Le1f as a gay rapper. And Against Me! has been on the show before and I thought they were tremendous the first time they were on, and that’s all I look for. As far as gay, not gay, anything like that doesn’t weigh into decision-making.

That’s a great approach. How much of your decision to book a band is influenced by your audience?
I think our audience is very eclectic and our demographic is very broad, so if I’m liking something and I’m very excited about it, which I was with Le1f, I’m hoping that the audience will feel the same way. I really approach music as a fan. I don’t come from a journalistic background or musical background so for me, I feel that’s one of the benefits I have. I just like it or I’m amused by it or I think it’s thoughtful. It’ll elicit something emotional in me.

Can I ask what you were doing before you got to the Late Show?
Before I got to the Late Show, I was a student at NYU. I started here as an intern when Dave was still at NBC. So I’ve been here for a very, very long time. My first job here was in the mail room.

How long have you been on the music segment side?
I think I worked in the mailroom for about a year and I became talent assistant to Sheila Rogers who was the music producer at the time. Then I was a talent coordinator, I think, and then I just worked my way into the music aspect of it. I might’ve been booking 10 years, 12 years, I don’t know.

That’s a great story.
Yeah, it’s been great. I feel very lucky to be here.

So even though you don’t follow Facebook or Twitter, I imagine even you must’ve heard about the reaction that the Future Islands segment got.
Yeah, a lot of people have been buzzing about Future Islands. They were great.

Dave seemed to be genuinely impressed by the performance.
Yeah, he had a great reaction to it. And I have been hearing about people tweeting about it, having reactions to it. He’s very theatrical and it makes for great TV. That is the perfect example of music that’s great for TV because there’s a performance in what he does.

Dave also seemed to really like the Strypes this week.
Dave’s reaction seems to get a lot of pick up. [Laughs]

How much say does Dave have in the bookings?
Every once in a while, he’ll ask if we’ve heard of something and if can we get it on the show. But he’s very good at allowing the talent department in general to do what we do.

I also have to ask about the band Eagulls. I interviewed them recently about how they were on the show and got a Bill Murray tattoo.
[Laughs] ...OK?

Did you know about this?
No, I don’t think I do.

So they were on the show the same night as Bill Murray and when they found this out, they got a tattoo that just said “Bill Murray” and they showed it to him and his reaction was to kiss it.
[Laughs] I think I read about that somewhere. Now it’s coming back to me. [Editor’s note: She probably read about it on Noisey.com, a wonderful, wonderful website.]

You must see so many ridiculous things in your day-to-day if you forgot about someone getting a Bill Murray tattoo.
Yeah, well, I don’t know if I saw the tattoo but it’s a good story. [Laughs]

Do you have any favorite memory of your years booking bands?
Oh my God, there are so, so, so many. I love a good performance and I love an artist that surprises me. I’m a fan of Pearl Jam and they were in our first webcast show as part of our “Live on Letterman” series many years ago and I just loved it. I love to see them in our venue, which is a great theater, great sound. To be so intimate and see how that helped propel “Live on Letterman” and the transition that you’re seeing now in the industry. U2 being here for a week was tremendous. The staff was thrilled. I’m trying to think...the Yeah Yeah Yeahs…

What would you say was the most memorable performance?
There’s so many, please don’t make me choose! I loved My Morning Jacket with the full orchestration, I think that really stood out in my mind. Some of the simpler performances thrill me. I love singer/songwriter, basic music. I’m gonna say things that are more recent, but we had Glen Hansard just doing it acapella and I thought that was incredibly brave and I loved that performance. I remember Ty Segall just surprising everyone. There are just so many.

Last question: Why does Dave always ask about people’s drums?
[Laughs] It’s a good question. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve seen the YouTube clip people put together of him asking. He likes drums, I guess. I really don’t know the answer to it.

I guess when you do a show every single day, you have to find a way to make yourself laugh.
I think it’s that and that he really does appreciate a good drummer. He definitely seems to have a fascination with the drums.

Dan Ozzi makes top ten lists for fun. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi

Also check out:

Eagulls Talk About Bill Talk about Bill Murray Tattoos, Mill Murray Movies, and Bill Murray

Future Islands: Your Favorite Band Went Viral, Don’t Freak Out

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Against Me! (Again)