In 1989, Playboy was preparing to publish a story from a new collection by a young writer named David Foster Wallace when some editors happened to catch a two-year-old episode of Late Night with David Letterman. There, onscreen, were Letterman and his guest, the actress Susan St. James, speaking dialogue from Wallace’s story, verbatim.
The story, called “Late Night” in Playboy and “My Appearance” in the collection published by Viking, was a first-person account of an actress’ appearance on Letterman. The editors who had seen the story up to the moment the rerun aired—two weeks before the magazine closed—had assumed that Wallace had made the interview up wholesale, and Wallace had neglected to tell them otherwise. Playboy and Viking both freaked out: The identical dialogue was not the problem, exactly, so much as the fact that Wallace’s main character shared a first name with Susan St. James—and Wallace had given “Susan” a Xanax addiction. The character’s name was quickly changed to Edilyn.
Now, you can read the original “My Appearance,” name intact, below, and, thanks to an enterprising redditor called disumbrationist, watch the interview above. Disumbrationist picks out a handful of direct parallels:
- Letterman greets her by saying “Terribly nice to see you” (at 9:12 in the video)
- They start discussing her commercial appearance (at 12:43)
- She claims that she “did the commercial for fun” (at 13:02), like in the story. This line was altered to “for nothing” in the newer version.
- Letterman asks “Now, what is the product? Can we say without hitting it right on the head?” and St. James answers “Oreo” (at 13:56).
In the story, the quote is: ‘“Well, and now hey, I wanted to ask you about that, Susan,” Letterman said. “Let’s see,” he rubbed his chin, “is there, maybe, any way we could indicate to the folks at home what they’re commercials for without quite hitting the nail right on the head, I’m wondering.” “Sure,” I smiled. “Oreo.”’
The product is Oscar Mayer weiners instead of Oreos in the later version, and these lines are changed so that she whistles the jingle to give it away.
- She tells a story about filming (at 14:15): “It’s very tricky. You’ve got to hold the cookie so that the cookie looks good. They go ‘Cut, cut, cut!’ I go, ‘Is there something wrong?’ They go ‘The cookie did not look good.’”
In the story, this goes: ‘“God,” I said. “We’d be rolling, and I’d be hitting my stride, you know, really starting to emote—and they’d all of a sudden yell, ‘Cut!’ They’d come rushing out onto the set: ‘Ohmygod, the cookie doesn’t look good.’” I looked at him. “David, the cookie must look good.”’
This story is completely excised from the later version
Tonight is Letterman’s last night as host of the Late Show before retirement.