Marc Karzen’s career shooting stills for ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ began in Santa Monica

By Michael Aushenker

Marc Karzen and “Late Night” colleagues holed up for the weekend at the Berkshire Place Hotel to create this iconic Letterman bumper, one of several on display in Santa Monica

Marc Karzen and “Late Night” colleagues holed up for the weekend at the Berkshire Place Hotel to create this iconic Letterman bumper, one of several on display in Santa Monica

Last night the lights went out on David Letterman’s 33-year reign as late-night talk show royalty, a mantle he inherited with Johnny Carson’s blessing and maintained across two networks. There will be no more Top Ten lists, no more Stupid Pet Tricks, no more dispatching willing pawns such as Calvert “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman” DeForest or Rupert Jee onto the streets of Manhattan.

Truth be told, however, Letterman’s more innovative and influential glory days as a purveyor of irony and sarcasm were behind him. It was during his run at NBC from 1982 to 1993 that Letterman blossomed — smart-assing his way through interviews with self-serious celebrities, dropping watermelons from rooftops and trampolining onto walls in a Velcro suit.

This was also when Marc Karzen occupied a unique position on the “Late Night” crew as official still photographer, accidental logo designer and creator of the show’s iconic “bumpers” — those wacky, single-frame visual segues in and out of commercials that transposed the Letterman likeness and logo onto New York
still lifes.

An assortment of Karzen’s original bumper photographs are on display through Sunday at the Robert Berman Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center before going up for auction in Santa Monica on May 31.

Santa Monica is an unlikely but apropos venue for the exhibit and sale of Karzen’s creations: as Karzen tells it, he owes his career to attending Santa Monica College.

Karzen’s family moved from his native Kentucky to a low-rent, address-in-name-only part of Beverly Hills when he was just a teenager, allowing the former country boy to rub elbows with Porsche- and Ferraris-driving teens at Beverly Hills High School. But it was at SMC that instructor Don Battle infused Karzen with the passion and technical proficiency to become a professional photographer.

“He forced us to learn the basics: composition, lighting, printing, [to] process using the Zone System, which Ansel Adams developed [by way of 4×5 drop cameras],” Karzen said.

After a year in school, Karzen left for Paris, where his portfolio quickly landed him fashion work as a street photographer for magazines Depeche Mode, Marie Claire and Marie France, circulating in the same circles as Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Richard Avedon. This was from 1977 to 1980, when Roman Polanski was “hiding out in the discos off the Champs-Elysee,” Karzen said.

After three years, however, Karzen began feeling stuffed from his moveable feast: “I felt like a foreigner. I started rediscovering my American roots,” he said.

Karzen retreated to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where his roommate, a “Saturday Night Live” production assistant, began getting him into tapings of what had become America’s national water-cooler conversation.

It was on the “SNL” set that Karzen befriended NBC Art Director Bob Pook. One day, Pook told the Karzen, “If you could be at the corner of 49th and 30 Rock, I’ve got a job for you,” Karzen recalled.

A midnight image of the words “Saturday Night Live” scrawled into wet cement landed him inside NBC’s art department working alongside Pook and creative director Edd Hall (a part-time voiceover actor; later the first announcer on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show”).

From 1980 to 1982, Karzen created incidental photos for “SNL”: establishing shots for sketches, product shots for fake commercials, the Weekend Update segment’s skyline backdrop — whatever they needed.

In those years Karzen was privy to a golden era of “SNL” writers and talent — John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Al Franken and the late Michael O’Donoghue, among others. He simultaneously freelanced for Rolling Stone magazine taking advantage of his insider access for photos of Bob Dylan, Liberace and other musicians appearing on the show.

A few months before the Feb. 1, 1982, debut of “Late Night with David Letterman,” Pook approached Karzen about devising bumpers for the new program.

“Almost everything was shot at night,” Karzen said, noting that Pook wanted to maintain an after-hours aesthetic with this bumper imagery.

Karzen would set up basic composition and lighting with a Polaroid, then re-shoot with his trusty 35-millimeter Nikon F (which he still uses). Letterman logos and other lettering details were affixed cut-and-paste style atop the prints in post-production.

Launching with multiple images of Letterman’s mug plastered across a wall of advertisements for concerts by Miles Davis at the Beacon Theatre and Gang of Four and Bad Brains at Roseland, Karzen set the tone for what would become an ongoing series of thematic bumpers. For one image, Karzen thought about photographing a varsity baseball jacket; then he came up with the idea of using a Letterman logo in the style of a baseball team’s. He forwarded the concept to Pook, who had his designers draw it. Once transferred onto a letter jacket, the image captured the interest of the boss.

“Dave, who approved every one of the bumpers, said to make Christmas presents for the staff,” Karzen recalled.

After the “Late Night” crew (who would often play softball) were gifted a batch of the jackets, Karzen’s concept soon found its way onto shirts, sweaters and caps via NBC’s merchandising department.

For another assignment, Karzen and his colleagues holed up for the weekend at the Berkshire Place hotel, milking the location for a slew of images. One of Karzen’s more memorable bumpers from that shoot had bath-robed graphic artist Bill Shortridge standing on his hotel bed, spray-painting “Late Night with David Lett …” across a hotel room wall.

“We ran up the room service tab. We got into a bit of trouble for that,” Karzen recalled.

Karzen’s images typically incorporated the Letterman logo or drawn faces of Letterman and sidekick Paul Schaffer. The Shortridge shot was the rare shot that featured a person. (For another bumper, DeForest dressed up as Santa Claus).

The collection at Bergamot includes one item not directly connected to Karzen’s shoots: a Rubik’s Cube submitted by a viewer that was rubber-stamped with tiny drawings of Letterman’s face on the squares. Karzen attempted to incorporate the ‘80s novelty into a still life, but Letterman rejected it.

“Dave just hated Rubik’s Cubes!” he said.

In the pre-digital age, Karzen and only a handful of other photographers laid down such creative pathways through uncharted terrain.

“There was an experimental sensibility — the feeling of creative freedom. That was a culture that Letterman nurtured,” he said.

Today, Karzen has re-channeled his creative energies as a social media strategist for film and TV.

“Photography, like the music industry, is flooded,” he said. “It’s just not a challenge anymore. You had to be part scientist back then.”

With Letterman’s late-night legacy drawing to a close, Karzen said he will miss his former employer’s nightly on-air presence.

“Carson was like Mom and Dad’s show. Dave was our show,” he said. “This [exhibit] is a celebration of Dave’s 33
years.”

“The Letterman Bumpers, the Art of Late Night” continues through Saturday at the Robert Berman Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., B7, Santa Monica. Karzen’s original prints go on sale through Berman’s Santa Monica Auctions (Bergamot A5) on May 31. Call (310) 315-1937 or visit smauctions.com

michael@argonautnews.com

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