David Letterman officially retires on Wednesday from the late night wars after 33 plus years in the trenches. What I am going to do? He started his NBC “Late Night” show when I was finishing junior high school, so he has been a huge part of my life. I have missed less than 50 of the 6,023 episodes in all those years thanks to the magical VCR and then DVR.
Letterman has surpassed by more than three years his idol Johnny Carson, who reigned over “The Tonight Show” for almost three decades beginning in the fall of 1962. And he outlasted his rival Jay Leno, who infamously got the “Tonight” show gig over him and retired a year ago.
I really enjoyed Carson, but Letterman was built for my generation of young males. Carson’s style was old-school Hollywood with style, grace, and elegance. Letterman’s shows were messy, acerbic, witty, and radically changed television.
Back in 1992, I recorded the four final weeks of Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and they are a valued part of my DVD library. Because of that, I have been actively recording the past five weeks of “Late Show” as Letterman has welcomed back many of his favorite guests and musical artists plus showed classic clips and montages. These shows have been way more emotional for me that I realized in advance, and I think the same could be said of Letterman himself, who has somewhat reluctantly allowed those guests to actually reveal what he has meant to them.
Letterman began his career in late night television working for Carson. On Feb. 1, 1982, “Late Night with David Letterman” debuted on NBC in the hour following the “Tonight” show with Bill Murray as the first guest.
Over the NBC years, Letterman made it his mission to showcase people that wouldn’t be booked on other shows as well as his loyal staff members including 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. The show earned five consecutive Emmy Awards for variety writing (1983-1986) plus one for variety directing in 1990.
Among the memorable and frequent guests in that first decade: 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, Richard Lewis, Steve Martin, George Miller, Harvey Pekar, Regis Philbin, Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Short, Siskel and Ebert, Hunter S. Thompson and Robin Williams.
Of those names, Fox, Hanks, Hanna, Keaton, Martin, Murray, Seinfeld, and Short have been on the show in the past few weeks.
Regular NBC segments included the Top 10 list, 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 merriment came to an end on June 25, 1993, when Hanks and musical guest Bruce Springsteen helped to close out the show. Letterman and company shifted over to CBS and a time slot one hour earlier that put them in direct competition with Leno.
Murray was the first guest on “Late Show with David Letterman” on August 30, 1993, with musical guest Billy Joel and special appearances by Tom Brokaw and Paul Newman. A few months later, Carson made his last TV appearance on his pal’s show, something he never did for Leno.
The CBS program dominated Leno’s version of “Tonight” 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. They have included Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Tom Dreesen, Farrah Fawcett, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, 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.
Of those stars, Baldwin, Ferrell, Fey, Johanssen, Parker, Roberts, Romano, and Sandler have stopped by in recent weeks.
Darlene Love continued what is now a 28-year 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 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.
Letterman has overseen 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. And 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. It will be on the ballot one last time this July, with staffers hoping they can jump back into that top race as they conclude.
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. He received his own Kenndy Center Honors in 2012.