CBS News Los Angeles segment about The Letterman Bumpers

May 12, 2015

Prior to working for Letterman, Marc Karzen says he was a magazine photographer.

“I was a magazine photographer and got a call one day,” he recalls. “Next thing you know, I’m working on the Letterman show, which was this crazy 12:30 late-night show that, you know, college students were watching.”

Karzen went on to work with Letterman for 11 years during those early talk show days starting in 1982.

“Great boss. The best boss ever, David Letterman, without a doubt,” Karzen said.

His job was to create what’s known as “bumpers” for the show, which back then consisted of still photographs that would appear between commercial breaks.

Karzen explained that the graphics, “Late Night With David Lettermen,” were rubbed on everything from dog food and beer cans to hotel room walls.

“We would get into a rent-a-car or a limo and go off into the night and shoot until 4 or 5 in the morning creating these images,” he recalls.

Karzen sometimes would even put himself in the bumpers.

“Shooting with one hand holding the cards with the other hand,” he said.

But he always needed approval from one guy: Letterman.

“This is probably one of the most famous props of all because it was sent in from a viewer. We did a bumper with it and presented it to Dave and didn’t realize that he hates Rubik’s Cubes, so he rejected it,” he recalls.

But almost always, he says, Letterman liked and approved the bumpers.

“Dave was cool. I mean, it was great for me because he loved what we did,” he said. “For any creative person, what you dream of, is creative freedom.”

Now, decades after he worked alongside Letterman, Karzen describes the moments he captured as “history” and the memories he created as some of the best of his life.

“Best job of my entire career,” he said.

Letterman will retire as host of CBS’ “Late Show” on May 20.

Of the original “bumpers” from the show, 33 have been chosen for an upcoming auction to celebrate Letterman’s 33 years of hosting late-night talk shows. 

The auction through Santa Monica Auctions will take place on Sunday, May 31. Click here for more information.

For more information on the Letterman “bumpers,” click here or visit Marc Karzen’s website.


Letterman Bumpers on Facebook  


Saturday April 25, 2015

Letterman Bumpers Get New Life In Gallery Photo Show

Nothing says David Letterman like a greasy, New York City pizza box strewn with leftover crust remnants and crushed beer cans.

The late-night TV host may be retiring next month after 33 years on the air, but many of the photographs that ran as “bumpers” on TV before and after commercials or to introduce interview segments will make up an exhibition opening May 8 at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station.

All of the images in “The Letterman Bumpers, the Art of Late Night” were shot by Marc Karzen, a staff photographer at NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” from 1982 to 1992.

“Initially we were just covering the bases, making bumpers,” Karzen says. “But these images, they started to take on a life of their own; they hit a nerve.”

Karzen would set up staged photography shoots with props, often in iconic locations around New York such as Grand Central Station and Yankee Stadium. Following a planned shot list, he’d create images he felt summed up the tone of Letterman’s show.

He roamed NYC backstreets in a rented limo, took over and temporarily trashed a Manhattan hotel room, wandered around the abandoned Natural History Museum after hours, commingling with dinosaur skeletons. He also captured serendipitous moments while out and about -- a bum on the street or copious steam rising from a sidewalk pothole -- that could work as a bumper.

Back in the office, in those pre-digital-photography, pre-Photoshop days, Karzen and team would print the images, then hand-manipulate them with scissors and glue or airbrushing to superimpose the “Late Night with David Letterman” text in witty, unexpected spots, like on the side of a bus. Or on a pizza box.

As a result, the photographs -- each of which Letterman personally approved before they aired -- are an interesting blend of art-directed photography and serendipitous Manhattan street life layered with hand-done graphics work. And they offer a window into a specific subset of New York that’s uniquely “Letterman-esque.”

The trick, Karzen says, was always searching for that special Letterman take on things, no matter the location. Even on an empty 747 airplane, in a hangar at JFK airport, in 1987 -- his favorite shoot.

“It was the job of my life,” Karzen says. “As a still photographer, seeing your work on television is a whole different feeling than seeing it on a newsstand. The idea that millions of other people are watching this slice-of-life image at the same time, unlike now with time-shifted programming -- this simple, shared moment -- it was an exciting feeling.”

“The Letterman Bumpers, the Art of Late Night” runs May 8-24. There will be a preview of the artworks this Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. at the gallery, during which Karzen will give a talk about the work.

After the show closes, the original, master C-prints, with hand-done collage work and signed by Karzen, will be auctioned off at Santa Monica Auctions on May 31.

Karzen will also exhibit the works at Photo Independent, a three-day photography fair at Raleigh Studios May 1-3. @debvankin


Bumper-to-Bumper Graphics 

Argonaut News - Feature By Michael Aushenker

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 4x5 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

“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



Things That Go Bump in the Night -- Those strange photos that appear before the commercial break are called ''Bumper Art'' -- Here's why Letterman has the best on TV

By Jess Cagle on Mar 02, 1990  ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

Bouncing around in her guest seat across the desk from David letterman, tough-girl Sandra Bernhard is on a roll. She’s riffing nonstop, teasing and taunting the increasingly flustered host. Just when it looks as if she’s ready to pounce and take a bite out of him, Letterman is saved by a commercial break.

En route to a word from his sponsor, however, a photo of a woman’s arm tattooed with Late Night with David letterman flashes briefly on the screen.  Wait a second! Was that Sandra? No, it was just a model with a similarly skinny arm. And it wasn’t even a tattoo; the art was drawn on the photograph. What’s with this picture?  It’s a piece of “bumper art,” so called because—like a car bumper—the visual acts as a cushion between the show and commercials.

Bumpers are standard on most TV programs, and the Late Night pieces, reflecting Letterman’s own unpredictable, smart-aleck sense of humor, are the best in show.  Bernhard’s Late Night appearances are always accompanied by the “The Tattooed Lady” because “it just seems like she might have a tattoo,” associate producer Brian McAloon says. Before the show is over, five other bumpers, which may range from a spray-painted hotel room to a customized cocktail napkin, will appear.  But there’s more to bumper artistry than merely creating visuals with humor and style.

Putting them to good use is just as critical. Before each show’s taping, McAloon chooses from among hundreds of bumpers and programs which ones will run based on that night’s lineup. From his seat in the control booth, he monitors the show’s flow, ready to substitute a more appropriate bumper should the right moment arise. “One night a fisherman produced a dead striped bass toward the end of the program,” McAloon recalls. “Naturally we pulled up a bumper of a fish with its head cut off.” 

These 500 offbeat images are the legacy of Photographer Marc Karzen, NBC graphics designer Bob Pook and Edd Hall who have been creating these images since the show’s debut in 1982. 

In Late Night’s history, only a half-dozen bumpers have failed to meet the boss’s criteria. “I like them to look like it’s 12:30 at night,” Letterman says. He prohibits “jokey” bumpers because they’re not funny the second time around. The bumper team learned this early on when it proposed a bumper showing a man struggling with a Rubik’s Cube before the commercials, then smashing it with a hammer when the show resumed. Dave vetoed it. “If it’s cute,” he says, “we’re not interested.”

This year, Karzen and Pook will shoot about 100 more, usually on the street or in Pook’s apartment. But it won’t be the same without their buddy, Pook says; sessions in Hall’s office were more like comedy sketches than business meetings.  “In the beginning, we shot a lot of bumpers with limos in them, because it was fun to have the limo rented for the night,” hall recalls with a bit of melancholy.“ “We did a lot of beer bumpers for the same reason.” Here’s to a bountiful bumper crop.