Shared from the 2017-04-13 Chattanooga eEdition

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Letterman’s mom helped shape show

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ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

David Letterman, right, the host of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and his mother Dorothy Mengering share a laugh in 2007.

The first time David Letterman’s mom, Dorothy Mengering, appeared on “Late Night,” she was part of a Take Your Parents to Work-themed episode, in which the staff, including members of the band, stood not far from their mothers.

It was the kind of oddball concept Letterman pioneered in the middle of the 1980s, when his show was required viewing for the cool, young and caffeinated. Taking cameras outside the studio and into his office, Letterman recruited his mother, a whitehaired church secretary from the coal-mining town of Linton, Ind., to speak into a bullhorn through an open window of Rockefeller Plaza.

“Attention, New York,” she said, her gentle voice amplified, as she made a reference to the “Today” crew. “My name is Jane Pauley. I’m being held prisoner by Willard Scott. He’s not wearing pants.”

Letterman made a similar bullhorn joke with Bryant Gumbel five months earlier, but his comedy didn’t sting as much when filtered through his mother. It even acquired a new and essential incongruity, introducing a sweetness and warmth that made him more relatable to viewers who might have been alienated by his acerbic sensibility.

Mengering, who died Tuesday at 95, was the most unlikely television star. She was soft-spoken, reserved and, as her three children explained in a beautiful obituary, she “was the happiest when she could curl up in a quiet place with a book and a box of chocolate-covered cherries.”

When Letterman moved to CBS in 1993 to begin “The Late Show,” the role of his mother changed, shifting from an offstage voice to an on-air correspondent, reporting from her home in Indiana and at three different Winter Olympics, including one in Norway, where she interviewed Hillary Clinton.

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