As we prepare to bid farewell to Late Show with David Letterman, let's take a moment to appreciate one of the show's most underrated contributions to popular culture, and unlikeliest of hip-hop icons, the much-missed Letterman sidekick Calvert DeForest, better known to fans as Larry “Bud” Melman.
Wait… hip-hop icon? Yes. Allow us to explain.
Born Calvert Grant DeForest in Brooklyn in 1921, Melman was something of a New Yorker cartoon come to life, with a quick wit, thick Brooklyn accent and one of the most infectious laughs ever broadcast. The son of a one-time actress, Melman was discouraged from pursuing his dream until after her death. Working by day as the receptionist for a drug rehab facility, he managed to land a few small speaking roles, the most famous being a brief but memorable appearance as a customer in the 1981 Troma film Waitress!
King of the Zs, an early '80s NYU film made by two Letterman writers, put him on the show's radar. Appearing frequently on both Letterman's NBC and CBS shows, even after the change of networks forced him to drop the Melman alias and use his real name, he was last seen on the Late Show celebrating his birthday in 2002. After a long illness, he died in 2007 at the age of 85.
But Melman's legacy stretches beyond the Letterman universe that made him a star. He was also the focal point of a 1-800-COLLECT campaign, Little Caesar’s commercials and, perhaps most surprising, an impressive number of cameos in hip-hop videos.
The simultaneous explosions of stand-up comedy and hip-hop in the '80s bled into each other on more than a few occasions. The most comic-friendly rappers were Run-D.M.C. who famously had Professor Irwin Corey in 1984's “Rock Box” video and comedy magicians Penn and Teller in 1986's “It's Tricky.” Between those two was 1985's “King of Rock,” which boasted Melman as the security guard in the Museum of Rock. Years before the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame existed (and, ironically, inducted Run-D.M.C. in 2009), Melman's character lost control of keeping the MCs out.
D.M.C. told us of working with Melman, “He was a jolly lil' man who was very appealing and inviting. Had a great smile, but kept you wondering, ‘Does he really think you’re cool?’” Thanks to Melman’s genuine nature, he was warmly received in a hip-hop environment. D.M.C. added, “He was like the grandfather that could actually come and be down and hang out with his grandkids, but didn’t have to act young to do so.”
“King of Rock” wouldn’t be Melman’s last hip-hop cameo. A few years later, he played the evil record executive Dr. Norecords in Special Ed's “Think About It.” This started a trend of comedians playing exaggerated, villainous record executives in music videos, paving the way for Gilbert Gottfried in 3rd Bass' “The Gas Face,” and continuing to this day with Paul Scheer in Odd Future's FunnyOrDie clip.
Around the same time as “Think About It,” Melman got the chance to rap himself as part of his direct-to-video comedy release The Couch Potato Workout. A VHS send-up of the late-'80s aerobic workout tape craze, of course it had to have a “funny rap song” performed by its star. Melman wasn't the first comedian to rap (Chevy Chase's “Rapper’s Plight” and Rodney Dangerfield's “Rappin' Rodney” both predate it by at least a half-decade) or the best, but he has enough charisma to carry it off.
The final time we heard Melman in a hip-hop capacity was in an amusing remix of The Offspring's 1998 send-up of caucasian hip-hop poseurs, “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy).” With Melman's signature voice embodying the song's protagonist on “The Geek Mix,” it's the type of B-side that made hunting for CD singles at Sam Goody so much fun in the late '90s.
Tragic though it is that Melman passed before he could be part of the Late Show's final days, it's been nice to see that nearly all of the various retrospectives celebrating Letterman's most memorable moments have included him. As Melman himself might have said: “Suckers!”