Barbara Gaines's '79 career with "Late Night With David Letterman" a rarity
Job-hopping is often a fact of life if you work in entertainment: Movies wrap, television shows get cancelled, and moving up often entails moving on. Which makes Barbara Gaines’s 33-year, two-network, 6,000-plus episode tenure in late-night television with David Letterman all the more remarkable.
“After graduation, all my friends were freelancing, and some of them still are, because that’s the nature of television — nothing lasts forever,” says the ’79 grad. “I got lucky.”
Gaines was on board with “Late Night with David Letterman" from its 1982 debut, and moved with Letterman to CBS in 1993 as an associate producer when the show became “The Late Show with David Letterman.” By the time the show ended in 2015, Gaines had worked her way up to executive producer—and won five Emmys for her work.
“I wouldn't leave, so they had no choice but to promote me,” she jokes.
Gaines’s big career break actually came about as a result of getting fired from her first job after graduating from Ithaca with a degree in educational communications. “I really wanted to be a film major but I sensed I didn't have the talent,” she recalls. “My [Golden Doorknob] film didn’t have a plot.”
She went out to Los Angeles and was hired to work in production for a Chuck Barris game show called “Three’s a Crowd.” The tagline: “Who knows a man better, his wife or his secretary?”
“I really struggled because it was a very talky job,” Gaines says. “You had to be charismatic, and talk this guy and his wife and his secretary into coming and auditioning to be on the game show. That was so far from something I was able to do at 22 years old.”
She only lasted a month. “Maybe television isn’t for you,” she recalls one of the show’s associate producers telling her.
“I thought I was making this big leap to Hollywood and a life change to a different fate,” says Gaines. “I wasn’t surprised that I was fired, but I was sad that I was fired.”
Gaines moved back home to Long Island, where her mother signed her up for a typing course at Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School. Those skills helped her land a receptionist job at a morning show. The host? David Letterman.
The show lasted less than five months, so Gaines found other work, typing game show questions for “$100,000 Pyramid” and working production for the Orange Bowl Parade, among other jobs.
Then when Letterman got “Late Night,” Gaines went back to working with the man she credits as her biggest influence.
“Dave took me in as, in his words, ‘a box of parts,’" Gaines recalls. “I was very grateful that he helped to assemble me into a human being.”
“He really pushed me to grow up, and he always had more confidence in me than I ever had in myself,” she says.
Since “Late Show” went off the air, Gaines has experimented to see what might come next. She took on a 12-week gig as associate producer for NBC’s variety show “Maya and Marty,” and produced two comedy benefits for lesbian super PAC LPAC.
She returned to Ithaca to speak about her experiences in the professional world as a member of the LGBTQ community, and was honored with the “Trailblazer Award” from The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York.
“I had hoped the show would last until I was 60, but alas it ended when I was 58,” she says. “I felt it was a little early to retire but I’d done what I wanted to do in life.”