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Letterman Bumpers Get New Life In Gallery Photo Show


Nothing says David Letterman like a greasy, New York City pizza box strewn with leftover crust remnants and crushed beer cans. The late-night TV host may be retiring next month after 33 years on the air, but many of the photographs that ran as “bumpers” on TV before and after commercials or to introduce interview segments will make up an exhibition opening May 8 at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station.

All of the images in “The Letterman Bumpers, the Art of Late Night” were shot by Marc Karzen, a staff photographer at NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” from 1982 to 1992.

“Initially we were just covering the bases, making bumpers,” Karzen says. “But these images, they started to take on a life of their own; they hit a nerve.” Karzen would set up staged photography shoots with props, often in iconic locations around New York such as Grand Central Station and Yankee Stadium.

Following a planned shot list, he’d create images he felt summed up the tone of Letterman’s show. lRelated David Letterman will have prime-time tribute on CBS SHOW TRACKER David Letterman will have prime-time tribute on CBS SEE ALL RELATED 8 He roamed NYC backstreets in a rented limo, took over and temporarily trashed a Manhattan hotel room, wandered around the abandoned Natural History Museum after hours, commingling with dinosaur skeletons.

He also captured serendipitous moments while out and about -- a bum on the street or copious steam rising from a sidewalk pothole -- that could work as a bumper. Back in the office, in those pre-digital-photography, pre-Photoshop days, Karzen would print the images, then hand-manipulate them with scissors and glue or airbrushing to superimpose the “Late Night with David Letterman” text in witty, unexpected spots, like on the side of a bus. Or on a pizza box.

As a result, the photographs -- each of which Letterman personally approved before they aired -- are an interesting blend of art-directed photography and serendipitous Manhattan street life layered with hand-done graphics work. And they offer a window into a specific subset of New York that’s uniquely “Letterman-esque.” The trick, Karzen says, was always searching for that special Letterman take on things, no matter the location.

Even on an empty 747 airplane, in a hangar at JFK airport, in 1987 -- his favorite shoot. “We had two stewardesses there, food, access to the cockpit,” he says. “We just shot from the point of view of what the Letterman show would see and do in an airplane. It wasn’t polished and pretty; it was more like airplane food on a tray after it was eaten.”

In 1993, after the host moved to CBS, that network created a new look and feel for “Late Show With David Letterman” that didn’t include Karzen’s bumpers. He kept the original photographs, though, and 20 of them will make up the exhibition along with newly printed images from Karzen’s original negatives.

“It was the job of my life,” Karzen says. “As a still photographer, seeing your work on television is a whole diff feeling than seeing it on a newsstand. The idea that millions of other people are watching this slice-of-life image at the same time, unlike now with time-shifted programming -- this simple, shared moment -- it was an exciting feeling.” “The Letterman Bumpers, the Art of Late Night” runs May 8-24.

There will be a preview of the artworks this Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. at the gallery, during which Karzen will give a talk about the work. After the show closes, the original, master C-prints, with hand-done collage work and signed by Karzen, will be auctioned off at Santa Monica Auctions on May 31. Karzen will also exhibit the works at Photo Independent, a three-day photography fair at Raleigh Studios May 1-3. @debvankin Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times

Things That Go Bump in the Night ''Late Night'' art -- Those strange photos that appear before the commercial break are called ''Bumper Art'' -- here's why Letterman has the best on TV

By Jess Cagle on Mar 02, 1990  ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

Bouncing around in her guest seat across the desk from David letterman, tough-girl Sandra Bernhard is on a roll. She’s riffing nonstop, teasing and taunting the increasingly flustered host. Just when it looks as if she’s ready to pounce and take a bite out of him, Letterman is saved by a commercial break.

En route to a word from his sponsor, however, a photo of a woman’s arm tattooed with Late Night with David letterman flashes briefly on the screen.  Wait a second! Was that Sandra? No, it was just a model with a similarly skinny arm. And it wasn’t even a tattoo; the art was drawn on the photograph. What’s with this picture?  It’s a piece of “bumper art,” so called because—like a car bumper—the visual acts as a cushion between the show and commercials.

Bumpers are standard on most TV programs, and the Late Night pieces, reflecting Letterman’s own unpredictable, smart-aleck sense of humor, are the best in show.  Bernhard’s Late Night appearances are always accompanied by the “The Tattooed Lady” because “it just seems like she might have a tattoo,” associate producer Brian McAloon says. Before the show is over, five other bumpers, which may range from a spray-painted hotel room to a customized cocktail napkin, will appear.  But there’s more to bumper artistry than merely creating visuals with humor and style.

Putting them to good use is just as critical. Before each show’s taping, McAloon chooses from among hundreds of bumpers and programs which ones will run based on that night’s lineup. From his seat in the control booth, he monitors the show’s flow, ready to substitute a more appropriate bumper should the right moment arise. “One night a fisherman produced a dead striped bass toward the end of the program,” McAloon recalls. “Naturally we pulled up a bumper of a fish with its head cut off.” 

These 500 offbeat images are the legacy of Photographer Marc Karzen, NBC graphics designer Bob Pook and Edd Hall who have been creating these images since the show’s debut in 1982. 

In Late Night’s history, only a half-dozen bumpers have failed to meet the boss’s criteria. “I like them to look like it’s 12:30 at night,” Letterman says. He prohibits “jokey” bumpers because they’re not funny the second time around. The bumper team learned this early on when it proposed a bumper showing a man struggling with a Rubik’s Cube before the commercials, then smashing it with a hammer when the show resumed. Dave vetoed it. “If it’s cute,” he says, “we’re not interested.”

This year, Karzen and Pook will shoot about 100 more, usually on the street or in Pook’s apartment. But it won’t be the same without their buddy, Pook says; sessions in Hall’s office were more like comedy sketches than business meetings.  “In the beginning, we shot a lot of bumpers with limos in them, because it was fun to have the limo rented for the night,” hall recalls with a bit of melancholy.“ “We did a lot of beer bumpers for the same reason.” Here’s to a bountiful bumper crop.

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