David Letterman has outlasted his idol Johnny Carson (29 years, eight months) by celebrating his 30th anniversary in late night television this week. There will be no fanfare or special broadcasts on his show or the CBS network, as Letterman prefers to keep the event quiet and low key. His very first guest ever, Bill Murray, returns for the Tuesday episode this week. Another of his most frequent guests, Howard Stern, will be talking with him Wednesday for the 41st time.
On February 1, 1982, “Late Night with David Letterman” debuted on NBC after “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and aired weeknights for the next 11 years. The irreverent and eccentric host was aiming for a younger more male audience, especially those in college and baby boomers having families and starting jobs.
Over the NBC years, Letterman’s primary mission seemed to be showcasing people that wouldn’t be booked on other shows as well as his increasingly looney staff members such as Kathleen Ankers (the NBC bookmobile lady), Jude Brennan, Pete Fatovich, Barbara Gaines, Biff Henderson, Al Maher, announcer Bill Wendell, and especially Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band.
Memorable and frequent guests in that first decade included Marv Albert, Jeff Altman, John Candy, Cher (reuniting with Sonny Bono one night), Bob Costas, Michael J. Fox, Teri Garr, Crispin Glover, Charles Grodin, Tom Hanks, Jack Hanna, Bill Hicks, Andy Kaufman, Michael Keaton, Jay Leno (who would perfect his act, gain exposure, and beat him out for Carson’s job), Richard Lewis, Steve Martin, George Miller, Harvey Pekar, Regis Philbin, Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Short, Siskel and Ebert, Hunter S. Thompson, and Robin Williams.
Well-received regular segments included the Top 10 List (from the home office), stupid pet tricks, stupid human tricks, viewer mail, small town news, Dave’s record collection, Chris Elliott (the guy under the seat and other guys), Larry “Bud” Melman, director Hal Gurnee‘s network time killers, elevator races, suits of velcro and other fun stuff, the monkey cam, visits from Dave’s mom Dorothy, and throwing stuff from the roof.
All of that ended on June 25, 1993, when Hanks and musical guest Bruce Springsteen helped close down this program so Letterman could move the entire show over to the Ed Sullivan Theatre for CBS. During that time, the show earned five consecutive Emmy Awards for variety writing (1983-1986) plus one for variety directing in 1990.
Murray helped launch the new “Late Show with David Letterman” on August 30, 1993, with musical guest Billy Joel and special appearances by Tom Brokaw and Paul Newman. The CBS program dominated Leno’s show in the ratings for two years before they dipped to second place for much of the remaining time. Many of the same staffers and comedy bits transitioned over with Letterman, but newcomers emerging included Rob Burnett, Johnny Dark, Pat Farmer, Joe Grossman, Rupert Jee, announcer Alan Kalter, Tony Mendez, Gerard Mulligan, neighbors Mujibur and Sirajul, Maria Pope, and Bill Scheft.
Most of the favored guests from the NBC show retained their “frequent flyer” status, but quite a few celebrities started appeared regularly with him on CBS or created headlines, including Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Tom Dreesen, Farrah Fawcett, Will Ferrell, Jim Gaffigan, Ricky Gervais, Bonnie Hunt, Jake Johanssen, Andy Kindler, Madonna, Dr. Phil McGraw, Sarah Jessica Parker, Joaquin Phoenix, Julia Roberts, Ray Romano (who received a development deal from Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants which became the blockbuster hit “Everybody Loves Raymond”), Adam Sandler, Amy Sedaris, Martha Stewart, Jay Thomas, Donald Trump, and Bruce Willis.
Darlene Love continues her 25-year annual tradition of singing “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” the last show of each year. Popular NBC regular segments have continued, but Letterman has become even more involved with the audience through “Know Your Current Events,” “Stump the Band,” “Is This Anything?,” “Audience Show and Tell,” and “Will it Float?.”
On a more serious note, his insightful and piercing questions have unsettled many politicians and newsmakers, including Joe Biden, Rod Blagojevich, Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Herman Cain, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Al Gore, John McCain, and Barack Obama. Following the 9/11/11 devastating terrorist attacks in New York City, other late night shows and comedians waited for Letterman’s show to return so his would be the first entertainment voice everyone heard to discuss the events. He also had several empathetic episodes following his heart surgery in early 2000. Rocker Warren Zevon was terminally ill in 2002 when Letterman and the show devoted a full hour in a tearful tribute to him. His show following the death of Carson in 2005 featured several monologue jokes written by his mentor and a discussion of his life and career.
The CBS program won the Emmy for Best Variety Series in 1994 and later followed with five consecutive victories in that same category (1998-2002). It has also won three technical categories for a total haul of nine awards.
Letterman co-hosted the Emmy Awards in 1986 with Shelley Long and infamously helmed the Academy Awards ceremony in 1995. He inducted another idol Steve Allen into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and was part of Carson’s Kennedy Center Honor tribute in 1993.
Video below: Letterman’s first show on NBC.
Video below: Letterman’s final show on NBC.
Video below: Letterman’s first show on CBS.
Video below: Letterman’s first show following the 9/11 attacks.