By Tom Gliatto
Updated August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

Originally, explains Late Night with David Letterman head writer Steve O’Donnell, “the Top 10 list was something we thought we would do for two or three weeks.” As historians may note, and surely they will, the topic of the very first list, read by Dave on the night of Sept. 18, 1985, hardly suggested a comedy concept etched in stone—”Top 10 Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas.” (Heats, rice, moss, ties, needs, lens, ice nurse, leaks, and—No. 1—meats.)

Even so, says list inventor O’Donnell, 36, who has been with the show almost from the start, “it has persevered,” somehow surviving the near-death experience of Jan. 29, 1986—”Reasons to Stop Doing the Top 10.” Luckily that was soon followed by the reaffirming “Reasons to Continue the Top 10 a Little Longer”—and a little longer yet. Long enough to have made pointed, silly fun of everything and everyone from Bigfoot (top pet peeve—”Driver’s license photo makes him look like Gregg Allman”) to Rob Lowe (top pick-up line—”Why, you’re as pretty as I am!”) to the reunited Germany (top new name—Cindy). Long enough to merit a paperback compilation of 175 of the funniest lists, to be published in October by Pocket Books. Long enough, even, to outdistance stupid pet and human tricks and become a barometer of national mood, a bellwether of smart-ass wit and the most popular gimmick that Letter-man has going.

If you believe the modest O’Donnell, compiling lists nearly every night of the week neatly qualifies as a stupid human trick. “The whole thing gets done in the course of an hour and a half,” he says, “Fast. We pick the subject. We write them, we run them past Dave, he picks what he likes, he sometimes adds more, we edit some out. It’s pretty simple, when you think about it.” Simple, okay, but not pretty simple. It’s a very particular brand of hip-dippy comedy that could imagine Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega losing because voters thought Sandinistas were Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Though such throwaways often leave the audience rolling in the aisles, that doesn’t mean that laughter echoes down the corridors of NBC when the Letterman writers—a staff of about 10, most of them men in their 20s and 30s, many of them cut from what O’Donnell calls the same “dimly midwestern-looking” cloth as their boss—sit down to come up with that night’s list, (You already knew, didn’t you, that despite what Letterman says, the lists aren’t really compiled by “the home office in Lebanon, Pa.”?)

It’s 3 P.M., 2½ hours until taping. Time for comedy by committee. The writers, swigging Perriers and diet Cokes, cluster in a conference room on the 14th floor of NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios. Larry Jacobson, 34, pitches “Top 10 Campaign Pledges that George Bush Has Broken.” Randy Cohen, 42, takes a different tack, suggesting “Why Bush Has It in for the Owls.”

“An owl failed to save his life in ‘Nam,” he offers.

“Woodsy reneged on a poker debt,” adds Gerry Mulligan, 45, who also worked for Letterman on his short-lived morning show in 1980.

O’Donnell suggests “Top 10 Proposed Bioengineering Projects” (“Phyllis Diller Chili,” muses Mulligan). Dave Rygalski, 28, later described by O’Donnell as “the guy who has 5 o’clock shadow at the 3 o’clock meeting,” follows up moments later with “Top 10 Injuries Sustained by New Kids on the Block.”

Taking notes on the one-liners zinging around the room, O’Donnell goes off to convene with the Great Man himself—he’s busy rehearsing skits, including one about giant dominoes—and returns 10 minutes later to announce that the night’s list will be George Bush’s broken campaign pledges. “Dave likes the list to be timely and topical,” says O’Donnell, although “every once in a while, we get fanciful—like the ‘Top 10 Fears of Snuggle, the Fabric Softening Bear.’ ”

A more frequent—and, some might say, cuddly—target is Vice President Quayle (No. 3 complaint about France—Happy Meals taste different). “He is kind of hard to avoid,” O’Donnell says. The Donald is also a favorite choice. (“He’s this sort of tragic figure now,” says O’Donnell. “I mean, can you imagine having to live on $450,000 a month?”) And Cher was a favorite for a time, but “we use her name sparingly now, like a rich, wonderful spice.” Nowadays the list will even make an occasional reference to the highly sensitive topic of Margaret Ray, the obsessed fan whose repeated impersonations as Letterman’s wife made so many headlines. Not too often, though. Letterman is “fatigued by his own caution,” O’Donnell says.

Later that afternoon the writers reconvene to flesh out Bush’s broken campaign promises. Each writer tosses his eight to 10 suggestions, written on computers, into the middle of the table. To O’Donnell falls the duty of skimming the lists and reading them aloud, without benefit of an assist from Paul Shaffer and the band. Among the proposed campaign promises: a nude Elvis stamp…a new dollar coin with the face of “that ‘Hey, Vern guy” (writer Paul Simms, 24, is always trying to work in Ernest jokes, O’Donneil sighs)…squares with only three sides…add mechanical shark attraction to White House tour…increase phrase you betcha in Third World….

What is needed now is something off-the-wall but not too offensive. “Something Bush promised in the way of a miracle,” says O’Donneil. “Like he hits a homer for…”

Steve Young, 25, suggests comatose socialite Sunny von Bülow, Mmmm, no.

Someone proposes, “Adding Michelle Pfeiffer to Mount Rushmore.”

Jacobson tops that: Jane “Josephine the Plumber” Withers.

Another quick meeting—five minutes—with Dave. “He liked the nude Elvis stamp.” O’Donneil says. “And he also liked the “Hey, Vera’ guy on a coin. As for ‘increase the use of phrase you betcha in Third World,’ he said yes at first and then had a second thought.” Letterman and his writers are usually in sync, though occasionally the sync sinks. “You remember the flight that went into the water off La Guardia airport? The next night we had a list ready on Top 10 Pilot Excuses.’ A few minutes before airtime, Dave said, ‘Let’s not do this one. Let’s wait—like a year.’ We substituted real fast with Top 10 Numbers Between One and 10.’ We did things like 4½.”

Such quick thinking aside, the secret of the Top 10’s success, says O’Donneil, lies in the format itself. Because each list contains 10 different punch lines, there are 10 chances to get it right. “It can’t go horribly awry or fall flat or fail.” he says. ‘There is always something that someone will find funny. It’s no more profound than that.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is comedy, as Letterman would say.

—Tom Gliatto, Alan Carter in New York City