Now, what I do on the David Letterman show is different. My philosophy is similar to that of Walt Disney: "I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained." I'm a character on David Letterman, and I accept that role—it's not all that much different from me in real life anyway, especially when I'm away from the zoo. It's also very different from what I do for Good Morning America, and it reaches a different audience, possibly an audience not typically exposed to animal programming. But on Letterman, people mostly play for laughs, which is something we've managed to do for years now without demeaning or hurting any of the animals.
And along with the laughs, people do learn about animals on the Letterman shows too. I'd like to think that even David Letterman, between all the jokes and the put-downs, has managed to learn something about animals, not necessarily from me but from the animals themselves. They're the real stars.
I had been doing Good Morning America for about a year when I received a call from Laurie David (now Laurie Lennard, former wife of Larry David), the talent coordinator at that time for NBC's Late Night with David Letterman. They were looking for an animal person who could get along with Dave, and Patty Neger had referred me, saying she knew just the guy.
Well, I hated to admit it, but I had never watched the show, mainly because of my job hours. I'd heard of it, but had never seen it. When the show came on, I was in bed. All the same, I told her, "Sure, I'll go on. Just tell me when and where."
Meanwhile, the local media all came to me saying, "Don't go on that show, he'll tear you apart." I thought he was just a talk-show host like I'd seen on Carson, and I wondered what they were talking about. Tear me up? What's he want to tear me up for?
On Valentine's Day 1985, my first Late Night date, snow threatened to cancel the whole thing. We were going to take the animals east in a zoo van, but the roads were mostly closed, and travel was impossible, especially with exotic animals. I was desperate, but I knew we'd get there somehow. If I called the Letterman people and said I couldn't make it, what were my chances of ever being asked back?
A friend of mine, Dale Eisenman, said he'd fly all the animals, no problem. Most of the animals were small, but I hadn't told him about Spinner, the eighty-five-pound baby pygmy hippo. The animals would not fit in his plane, so he found another one and pulled the back seats out so that Spinner, two capuchin monkeys, a pelican, a crow, a European hedgehog and a pig could all squeeze in.
The animals got to the NBC studios in Rockefeller Center just in time for the show, and I was totally psyched, pumped up and ready to show our zoo to the entire country. David and I met on the air, the way it is with most of his guests. I brought the capuchin monkeys out, and got a big laugh when I told him they didn't like women. I caught some flak for this, but, hey, it was true—they didn't like women. The pelican wouldn't eat the fish, Henry the crow flew up into the audience and wouldn't come back, and the pig was running around all over the place. We—my staff and I—just kind of let things happen. David was very polite and courteous, and I knew he liked the pygmy hippo. But I do remember him looking at me like I might be a little crazy.