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.
Well, of course, all this was a big hit. David just shook his head at me and said, "Oh, Jack, Jack . . . ," like can't you ever just come up here and be normal? Dave, of course, had to ride the camel and almost knocked his head on one of the studio spotlights, but otherwise the show went great.
When it was time for us to leave, the maintenance people had already fixed a few panels and three or four lights. I'm sure they didn't consider that we had to get the camels back downstairs again. Our dromedaries knocked out those lights and panels the same way they did coming in. Now the building guy was doubly mad. Since then, they put us in a maintenance room instead of the dressing room. But that's fine with us, as long as we're able to mop up all the mess.
In another wild Letterman experience, I was I bitten by an animal on camera. A friend of mine, Leslie Whitt, director of the Alexandria Zoo in Louisiana, flew in a young twenty-pound beaver that I hadn't handled previously. All went well while I held the beaver on my lap. Then I demonstrated how she could swim by placing her in a glass tank in front of Dave's desk.
The beaver was still okay as I lifted her from the tank—with dripping water drenching me and the stage floor. As I got up to take the beaver off during the commercial break, she started to slide out of my hands. I grasped the base of her tail with my right hand, and she chomped down on the space between my left thumb and index finger; I slid on the wet floor, went down on one knee, scrambled up, and hung on to the beaver until an assistant repossessed her. And all this on camera. Not one of my most graceful exits.
In the two minutes allotted to the commercial break, I wrapped paper towels around my bleeding hand and slipped on a flesh-colored rubber glove just as we went back on the air. Sometimes the show must go on. We finished the segment, which included electric eels, a Chinese crested dog, and a yak. The glove on my left hand was rapidly filling with blood, so I was very anxious for the segment to end—especially before Dave had a chance to make some comment about my beaver bite.