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The Last Amateur: Calvert DeForest, 1921 - 2007

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The Last Amateur: Calvert DeForest, 1921 - 2007

When television was young, its performers didn’t just call it television. They called it “TV land,” as if to invite us into a mythical place where people exhibit behavior that has no equivalent in life—a world of agreed-on fiction, a place that only exists in flashes of light. One didn’t have to be on television to be a part of TV land; one became a part of it by watching it.

TV land’s inhabitants included numerous invented eccentrics, oddballs who were supposed to be regular people but were played by professional comics or actors. By the time the little man known as Larry “Bud” Melman (a.k.a. actor Calvert DeForest) wobbled and fumbled his way onto the American cultural stage via NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman, the invented eccentric had long been a tired recurring device, used and over-used on situation comedies and variety shows since TV land’s earliest days.

Steve Allen as early as 1954 conducted mock “man on the street” interviews with Don Knotts performing his patented “nervous man” character. In these sketches, Knotts impersonated a man whose self-consciousness gave way to quaking fear after Allen thrust him onto the national stage. Allen’s characters, and faux simpletons such as Johnny Carson’s Floyd R. Turbo (that plaid capped right-wing extremist and TV commentator) were funny because we recognized ourselves and our neighbors in these well-crafted parodies of the American character. Jackie Gleason was nicknamed “The Great One” because he invented and perfected some of the most memorable characters from TV land’s golden age, all of them rooted in the American psyche: The Poor Soul, Reggie Van Gleason III, and of course, the blustering prole Ralph Kramden. But it’s important to note that Knotts, Carson and Gleason were already established comics by the time they appeared in America’s living rooms. Their success set a template that barely changed until 1982, when a gap-toothed Hoosier stormed late night TV with his unapologetic, sly, grumpy style. Americans wanted something familiar but different; Letterman filled that order and then some, introducing a garden gnome in horn-rimmed glasses known as Larry “Bud” Melman—a TV land simpleton with a male/female voice that—either way—sounded as if it was under the influence of hormone shots.

The pairing was as perfect as it was bizarre. Even as Letterman delighted in his creation in those early days, we were baffled. Here was a man so untalented, so utterly devoid of performing skills, you just had to stare at him in wonder. But the character aligned nicely with Letterman’s style as a performer and a host, which centered on satirizing, even attacking, the very idea of being a performer or a host. In Letterman’s numerous cooking segments, for instance, the point seemed to be to destroy the very idea of a cooking segment; it was nearly impossible for the audience to learn anything because the focal point was always Letterman’s (a) incompetence and (b) utter disinterest in whatever process was being demonstrated. Letterman almost never played characters in the way that Carson did; he usually played David Letterman not even trying to play a character.

Melman took Letterman’s strategy a step further without even trying. He was already was a character, so performing was beside the point. Their kinship was highlighted when Letterman “acted” opposite Melman, whose utter inability to disappear into a role made the sketch into an anti-sketch. Here, and even more so in the bits where Melman went on location and spoke to Dave in the studio via satellite, the humor was born out of watching Melman stew on national television. All he could do was bark one or two lines over and over again.

Better yet were the countless segments that sent Melman into the world as Letterman’s “representative.” He was the least professional TV personality imaginable; when he interviewed people, he’d begin a question holding the microphone close to his face, then jerk the microphone away midway through the question so that the rest of it was inaudible. You had to wonder: Am I seeing a brilliant piece of performance art, echoing, say, the work of Andy Kaufman, or is David Letterman actually reveling in the public flogging and humiliation of another human being? Even worse, what does it say about me that I find these faux sketches so damned funny?

Well, as it turned out, Larry “Bud” Melman was not real. He was a character played by—of all people—a drug counselor by the name of Calvert DeForest, who happened to be the great nephew of Lee Deforest, the man who invented the Audion tube in 1906, which made large-scale broadcasting commercially feasible. But his eccentricities and the innocence he projected through the airways were real enough, and Letterman made the most of them, using Larry “Bud” Melman’s combination of klutziness and guile to send up TV’s insatiable thirst for content, whatever its form. It was a satirical experiment; Letterman was trying to see how little effort he could exert and still have the result be classified as entertainment.

Letterman put Melman in a bear suit and dispatched him into the hallways of NBC headquarters to trade two five-dollar bills for a ten. After lowering the furry helmet onto Melman and tucking money into his paw, Letterman sent him on his way, admonishing him, “Don’t touch your face.” Melman wandered the halls aimlessly for several minutes; then we heard Letterman ask in voice-over, “How much time do we want to devote to this bit of fascinating television?”

Another bit sent Melman to the Port Authority bus terminal to hand out hot towels to arriving passengers. The segment cut to DeForest at the terminal wearing a “Welcome” sash; no buses had arrived, but DeForest was standing next to a driver. “Let me ask you this, Larry,” Letterman asked from the studio. “How is it you have no buses arriving, but yet you have a driver there?” “Yeah, well,” DeForest replied, “I guess he must have come from one of the other buses.” While interviewing the driver and passengers, Melman’s earnest tone and incompetent handling of the microphone made Letterman laugh so hard that he could barely utter wisecracks. “It’s like a ventriloquist in training, isn’t it?” Letterman asked the audience.

For Generation X-ers, this tiny TV neophyte came to embody everything we loved about Letterman’s post-modern approach to late night TV. He—David Letterman—and we—the audience—had thought we’d seen it all in TV land. After watching decades of brilliant performers pretending to be eccentrics, TV land had—to the delight of all involved—vomited up the next stage in the device’s evolution—a genetic mutant, a real-life eccentric pretending to be a performer. For many in the TV industry at the time, Larry “Bud” Melman must have seemed like the Devil’s spawn, the ultimate anti-performer hell-bent on destroying whatever dignity television had left.

Yes, others such as Jimmy Kimmel’s Uncle Frank and Cousin Sal would follow in DeForest’s footsteps. But none of them do it with the same innocence, with the same unpretentious ease and good humor as did DeForest. When the character made his final appearance in 2002 in Letterman’s newer, glossier venue, CBS’ The Late Show with David Letterman, DeForest couldn’t portray Larry “Bud” Melman because NBC owned the intellectual rights to that name. He was forced to portray the same character under his own name. He was as unpretentious as ever, untainted even though TV land itself had been receding for decades, shrinking before the advance of so-called “reality” TV. In a culture where everyone’s life can become a TV show and every viewer is media savvy, DeForest was a neophyte to the end—or so it seemed. We’ll never see his like on TV again. Nearly a quarter-century and countless reality shows after Larry “Bud” Melman’s first appearance, it truly seems as if everyone has been famous for 15 minutes. Calvert DeForest’s passing marks the death of TV land itself.

Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer based in Dallas, Texas.