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Questions for the Very Funny "Late Show" Executive Producer Barbara Gaines '79

Written by Alyssa Richard
9/10/2009

Barbara Gaines '79, executive producer of the "Late Show with David Letterman." Photo courtesy of Barbara Gaines

Executive producer of the Late Show with David Letterman and Ithaca alum Barbara Gaines talks to Fuse about her experience at IC and the journey that led her to a successful career in television.

In eleven years as a producer on the show, Gaines has garnered 11 Emmy nominations and won five consecutive awards for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program. She is up for another Emmy this year.

Then-Senator Barack Obama delivers the top ten list on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2008.


Please describe your career path upon graduating from IC and how it led to where you are now.

My high school guidance counselor told me that I was not college material. And I probably was not. But my mother said she didn’t care what anyone else said; she didn’t want me in the house anymore, so off to Ithaca College I went.

I studied communications. I was a B- student at best. I was lucky to find some wonderful writing professors (my minor) who really took me under their wings (Barbara Adams, Miriam Brody, and Cathy Penner), and I was lucky to have some wonderful friends in Garden Apartment 27-1-7. I graduated in 1979.

I went to California to find my fame and fortune in television … that didn’t work out. I worked on Three’s A Crowd, a Chuck Barris game show. I lasted out there about six months and then came back to New York.

Back in New York, I lived with my parents. Clearly California didn’t work out. My mother made me take an eight-week typing course at Katherine Gibbs and Dale Carnegie’s course on how to make friends and influence people.

I got a job in 1980 on Dave Letterman’s morning show as the receptionist. The show lasted 18 weeks/90 shows … and then was canceled. I then worked on The $50,000 Pyramid game show and an Orange Bowl Parade.




In 1981 I got a job on One of the Boys, a sitcom starring Mickey Rooney, Dana Carvey, Meg Ryan, and the very wonderful Nathan Lane. It was canceled.

My mother kicked me out of the house ... again.

Dave asked me to join the start-up team for Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. We were sure it would be canceled.

It lasted 11 years.

In 1991, I met my partner Aari Ludvigsen.  We have a three-year-old son named Simon. When Aari was pregnant, I gained 29 pounds.

In 1993 the production moved the show from NBC at 12:30 a.m. to CBS at 11:30 p.m. We changed the name to the Late Show with David Letterman. It took us two months to think of that name.

I got promoted.

I got promoted.

I got promoted.

In 1996 I became one of the producers of the show.

I won two Emmy Awards (1998 and 1999).

In 2000 I became one of the executive producers of the show.

I won three Emmy Awards (2000, 2001, and 2002).

In 2002 I became the runner of the show and even accepted the award on behalf of the show.

Each time I got promoted the stress level increased and the fun decreased.

I had always wished to become a television producer; I had never wished to be the producer.

Be careful what you wish for.

Dave has pushed me through all of this.  He has always had much more confidence in me than I could ever have in myself.

Sigmund Freud said “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” With all of my rocky beginnings, I managed to find both.

What did you do at IC to prepare for a career in television?

I stayed in my room in my robe.

How did IC help you in your career prospects?

They graduated me.

Please describe the work you do now for the Late Show and your greatest accomplishments.

I am one of the executive producers of the Late Show with David Letterman.  One of my greatest accomplishments was accepting the Emmy Award for the show in 2002.

What advice would you offer to students going into the television industry?

Law school.



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