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 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 Late Night's graphic-design coordinator, Edd Hall, who is moving to L.A. to market his announcer-quality voice to TV shows, commercials, and movies (he did all of Late Night's voice- overs for phony commercials and other funny bits in his eight years there).
The job of producing the bumpers will shift to Hall's collaborators, freelance photographer Marc Karzen and NBC graphics designer Bob Pook, who have been working with Hall 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.''
Despite Hall's departure, his immortality is assured; all the old bumpers will still be used. 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.''
Cheers, Edd. Here's to a bountiful bumper crop.