The pachyderms were a big hit, and it was on this show that David started to kid me a bit. He asked me how the lesser anteater I'd brought on the show got his name, and I said, "Because they eat less than other anteaters." He made a face, like sure, Jack, and everybody laughed. I wasn't trying to be funny or to set myself up; I was just kind of preoccupied when he asked—some animal had disappeared under his desk. It wouldn't be long before he'd be telling me that I wasn't really a zoo director, that there really wasn't any zoo in Columbus.
Everything on the Letterman show happens spontaneously; there is no script. But we still have to have the animal situation under control—you can't just bring them out in any order. Once we had a cheetah on the show, with a variety of other animals, half of which might be the cheetah's prey in the wild. As I was going over the list, the producer asked me, where was our "wow" animal? We were starting with the cheetah and ending with a Chinese pheasant, and I think he would have liked it the other way around. "We can't bring the cheetah on with those other animals," I told him. "We'd have a scene right out of National Geographic. It wouldn't be pretty."
We bring animals on the basis of their availability, their health, their temperament—how they'll react to rock music, for example—and we also try to vary the selection from show to show. Ideally, I'd like to have as many "wow" animals as possible on there. They're all "wow" animals as far as I'm concerned, but I know that if I bring a snail and a housecat on the show, my future in promoting the animals and the zoo wouldn't be too bright.
In a sense, I'm between a rock and a hard place on this. The producers would like to have wild animals running all over the place—that's the big payoff. But just as a singer knows what songs he can sing and in what style, as a zoo director, I know what animals I can handle, where I can put them, how fast I can pick one up and a host of other intangibles that crop up. Dave obviously has to get the laughs, that's what the show's for, but I'm also out there to make sure nobody gets hurt; him, me or the animals. And in the process, I hope to educate the viewing audience a little as well.
One of our nuttiest visits ever was when I brought up a couple of full-grown camels. I weighed and measured them, like I do with all the animals before we come on, but I forgot to measure their humps. They had plenty of room in the elevator, but the ceiling where they got off was too low. And I learned a new animal fact: once a camel's walking straight in a narrow hallway, you can hardly turn him around. We walked them down the hallway to the studio, and their humps took out just about every ceiling panel—ruined them, lights and all.
The building manager came up and really let me have it. I apologized and told him I'd pay for the damage. He told me this would cost more than $5,000. By now, a crowd of NBC personnel had gathered around like it was a big party—we probably cleared every office on the entire floor. I'd been trying to concentrate on the show coming up, and now I was a wreck about the damage.
Barry Sands, who was Late Night's producer then, came out and told me not to worry about it, that the building people don't run the show. I told Barry I was really sorry, but I never noticed that he had a camera shooting this whole fiasco, that he was going to open the show with it. It looked like a tornado had struck.