After his morning show on NBC was canceled in October 1980 after only 18 weeks on the air, David Letterman was still held in sufficient regard by the network brass (especially NBC president Fred Silverman) that upon hearing the 33-year-old comedian was being courted by a syndication company, NBC gave him a $20,000 per week deal to sit out a year and guest-host a few times on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
In 1981, NBC and Carson, after significant acrimony, reached an agreement on a new contract, which (among other concessions to Carson) granted the venerable host the rights to the time slot immediately following The Tonight Show. All throughout 1981, in addition to guest-hosting the Tonight Show as outlined among the terms of his NBC contract, Letterman also frequently appeared as guest on the highly-rated program as the network groomed the 34-year-old for a new project. Finally, on November 9, 1981, NBC and Carson's production company Carson Productions as well as Letterman's newly-established production company Space Age Meats Productions announced the creation of Late Night with David Letterman, set to premiere in early 1982 in the 12:30 a.m. time slot Monday through Thursday, with occasional specials every few Fridays, all aimed at young men. The network wanted to capitalize on catering to young males, feeling that there was very little late-night programming for that demographic. The newly announced show thus displaced the Tomorrow Coast to Coast program hosted by Tom Snyder from the 12:30 slot. NBC initially offered Snyder to move his show back an hour, but Snyder, already unhappy with being forced to adopt changes to Tomorrow that he detested, refused and ended the show instead. The final first-run Tomorrow episode aired on December 17, 1981.
The staff responsible for preparing the launch of Late Night included Merrill Markoe in the head writing role, seasoned TV veteran Hal Gurnee as director, Letterman's manager Jack Rollins as executive producer, and a group of young writers — most of them in their early twenties, including the somewhat more experienced 29-year-old Jim Downey who had previously written for Saturday Night Live and 27-year-old Steve O'Donnell. Markoe stepped down as head writer after a few months, and was succeeded by Downey who was in turn succeeded by O'Donnell in 1983. O'Donnell would serve as the head writer through most of the rest of the show's run while Downey went back to Saturday Night Live in 1984. Also on board, initially as a production assistant in charge of the "Stupid Pet Tricks" segment, was 21-year-old Chris Elliott. Elliott would quickly be promoted to writer and a recurring featured player.
The plan from the start was to resurrect the spirit of Letterman's morning show for a late-night audience, one more likely to plug into his offbeat humor. The show also got a house band, hiring NBC staff musician Paul Shaffer to lead the group; after several years on the show without a formal name, the band was eventually given the moniker The World's Most Dangerous Band in 1988.
Realizing that NBC executives exhibited very little desire to micromanage various aspects of the show, the staff felt confident they would be allowed to push outside of the mainstream talk-show boundaries and thus set about putting together a quirky, absurdist, and odd program. Snyder's Tomorrow re-runs continued until Thursday, January 28, 1982 and four days later on Monday, February 1, 1982,Late Night premiered with a cold opening featuring Larry "Bud" Melman delivering lines as an homage to the prologue of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, followed by Letterman coming out on stage to Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" behind a group of female dancers — the peacock girls who had also opened the finale of The David Letterman Show. After a brief monologue, the very first comedy segment was a sarcastic tour of the studio. The first guest, 31-year-old comedian and actor Bill Murray, came out in confrontational fashion, throwing jibes and accusations at the host as part of a knowing put-on. He remained for two more similarly sardonic segments in which he first presented footage of a Chinese zoo baby panda as a supposed home video of his recently adopted pet, before expressing newfound love for aerobics and pulling a crew member onstage, making her do jumping jacks along with him to Olivia Newton-John's "Physical". The second comedy piece was a remote titled "The Shame of the City"; taking a general format of a local news action segment, it featured Letterman touring several New York locations pointing out various civic problems with righteous indignation. The second guest was Don Herbert, TV's "Mr. Wizard", and the show ended with a young comic named Steve Fessler reciting aloud the script of the obscure Bela Lugosi film Bowery at Midnight.
The reviews were mixed — Los Angeles Times wrote: "Much of Letterman's first week did not jell" — but more importantly, the show drew 1.5 million viewers, 30% more than had tuned in for Snyder's Tomorrow.
On the third night, after baseball great Hank Aaron finished his interview segment with Letterman, a camera followed him backstage, where TV sportscaster Al Albert conducted a post-interview chat with Aaron about how it had gone. Eccentric and awkward, the show immediately established a sensibility that was clearly different from The Tonight Show.
The show was produced by Johnny Carson's production company, as a result of a clause in Carson's contract with NBC that gave him control of what immediately followed The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson, for his part, wanted Late Night to have as little overlap with his show as possible. In fact, most ground rules and restrictions on what Letterman could do came not from the network but from the production company itself. Letterman could not have a sidekick like Ed McMahon, and Paul Shaffer's band could not include a horn section like Doc Severinsen's. Letterman was told he could not book old-school showbiz guests such as James Stewart, George Burns, or Buddy Hackett, who were fixtures on Johnny's show (the fact that Tonight had long moved to Hollywood and Late Night was taped in New York helped minimize guest overlap). Letterman was also specifically instructed not to replicate any of the signature pieces of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson like "Stump the Band" or "Carnac the Magnificent". Carson also wanted Letterman to minimize the number of topical jokes in his opening monologue.
After the battle for The Tonight Show, when NBC executives decided to give it to comedian Jay Leno, Letterman decided to accept an offer from CBS for a late night talk show to compete with The Tonight Show. So, in 1993, Letterman and his crew moved to CBS (in the newly renovated Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City) and the Late Show with David Letterman was born, beginning on August 30, 1993 (although NBC would air repeats of Late Night from June 28, 1993 until September 10, 1993).
Up until this point, the three competing television broadcast networks had tried to create talk shows to compete with the success of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, but all had failed. A total of 1,819 shows were broadcast during its 111⁄2-year run (an episode on January 16, 1991 went un-aired due to preemption for coverage of the beginning of the Gulf War; the program already had been taped before word came out of Baghdad that United States airstrikes were beginning).
Production and scheduling
Late Night originated from NBC Studio 6A at the RCA (later GE) Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The program ran four nights a week, Monday to Thursday, from the show's premiere on February 1, 1982 until June 4, 1987. Friday shows were added on June 12, 1987, although the show still only produced 4 new episodes a week—Monday's shows were re-runs. (NBC previously aired Friday Night Videos in the 12:30 a.m. slot on Saturday morning, with occasional Late Night specials and reruns.) Starting on September 2, 1991, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was pushed back from 11:30 p.m. to 11:35 p.m., with Letterman starting at 12:35 a.m., at the request of NBC affiliates who wanted more advertising time for their profitable late newscasts.
On September 30, 1991, A&E, a U.S. cable channel at the time partly owned by General Electric — the same corporate entity that owned NBC, began airing Late Night repeats in an effort of monetizing the show's vast accumulation of old episodes. The repeats aired less than a year, until July 24, 1992. The syndication deal was done without Letterman's blessing, and he frequently made his displeasure known on-air, feeling that having reruns air five nights a week, earlier in the evening on cable, diluted the value of the nightly first-run shows on NBC — fearing people would not be willing to stay up late for the first-run if they could watch the show at a more reasonable time. Because of Letterman's opposition, the syndication run was ended early and not attempted again until he had left NBC.
In mid-1993, E! Entertainment Television purchased syndication rights to Late Night. The network aired complete shows from various years five days per week from 1993 until 1996. Then Trio (owned by NBC) picked up reruns and showed them from 2002 until the channel went off the air in 2005.
A number of programs were sold by GoodTimes Entertainment in 1992–93. These episodes were stripped of the series theme, open and close. No DVD release is currently scheduled (GoodTimes went bankrupt in 2005; the company's assets are now owned by Gaiam, which does not typically distribute general-interest programming).
Letterman moves to CBS
Letterman, who had hoped to get the hosting job of The Tonight Show following Johnny Carson's retirement, moved to CBS in 1993 when the job was given to Jay Leno. This was done against the wishes of Carson, who had always seen Letterman as his rightful successor, according to CBS senior vice president Peter Lassally, a onetime producer for both men. On April 25, 1993, Lorne Michaels chose Conan O'Brien, who was a writer for The Simpsons at the time and a former writer for Michaels at Saturday Night Live, to fill Letterman's old seat directly after The Tonight Show. O'Brien began hosting a new show in Letterman's old timeslot, taking over the Late Night name.
When Letterman left, NBC asserted their intellectual property rights to several of the most popular Late Night segments. Letterman easily adapted to these restrictions for his CBS show: The "Viewer Mail" segment was continued under the name "CBS Mailbag," and Late Night fixture Larry "Bud" Melman continued his antics under his real name, Calvert DeForest. Similarly, the in-house band (now free to add horns) was unable to use the name "The World's Most Dangerous Band," so the name was changed to "Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra". The name "CBS Orchestra", approved by CBS (who retained rights to the name after Letterman retired in 2015), was Shaffer's idea. Notably, however, "Stupid Pet Tricks" originated on Letterman's 1980 early morning show The David Letterman Show, to which Letterman, not NBC, owned the rights. This meant "Stupid Pet Tricks" was able to cross over to the CBS show with its name and concept unchanged. With Carson retired, Letterman was also granted free use of some of Carson's sketches, and in due time, "Stump the Band" and "Carnac the Magnificent" (with Shaffer as Carnac) entered the Late Show rotation.
Both "Late Show" and "CBS Orchestra" are names from broadcasting's past. Beginning in 1951, The Late Show was the title under which some CBS affiliates, including network-owned stations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, ran movies late at night. These films began after the late local news, generally at 10:30 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. local time. The Late Show would usually be followed by another film on The Late Late Show and, on a night when there was time to add a third feature to the schedule, The Late Late Show II. Movies were regularly shown under the Late Show umbrella title well into the 1980s, after which they were increasingly displaced by overnight news broadcasts and infomercials. Still, The Late Show continued to appear sporadically for more than another decade; the last Late Show film was shown in 1999.
Another series called The Late Show was an unrelated attempt by Fox to establish its own late-night talk show. It was Fox's inaugural series, premiering in October 1986 and running on-and-off for four years.
The CBS Orchestra was the name of the orchestra that occasionally played on the CBS Radio Network. The name was also seen as an homage to Carson's band, the NBC Orchestra.
Like most other late-night talk shows, the show featured at least two or three guests each night, usually including a comedian or musical guest.
Letterman's show established a reputation for being unpredictable. A number of celebrities had even stated that they were afraid of appearing on the show. This reputation was born out of moments like Letterman's verbal sparring matches with Cher, Shirley MacLaine and Harvey Pekar.
Because of the creativity of staff writers like Merrill Markoe, Letterman's NBC show, in its first few years especially, had innovative segments and theme shows that were new and different from other talk shows of the time. Some were visual gags that owed a debt to pioneers like Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen. Amongst the highlights were:
One early episode showed everything from Dave's eye view with Markoe and others coming at Dave to pitch ideas as he walked onto the stage, and the audience was shown from Dave's view during the monologue and the opening segments.
In another show, the picture turned like a clock, eventually being seen upside down halfway through.
There were segments where Letterman was dressed in a suit of Velcro and stuck (thrown) to a Velcro wall, a suit of chips and dunked into a vat of chip dip, a suit of Rice Krispies and doused with gallons of milk while lying in a huge bowl, a suit of Alka Seltzer tablets and dunked in water, a suit of suet, etc.
Visual segments showing things being crushed by a hydraulic press, thrown through fluorescent lights or dropped off an office building to smash on the ground, were also common.
Letterman's desk featured a control panel where he could operate a bubble machine, "radioactive" steam, a belch of New York soot or strange lighting.
When he threw his pencils through the fake window scene behind him, a sound effect of breaking glass was always heard. Occasionally, if sound effects technician Howard Vinitisky was slow in triggering the appropriate breaking glass sound effect, Letterman would mockingly chide Vinitisky for the error. (He would also congratulate Vinitisky when the sound effect was especially well-timed.)
A robotic arm for a while delivered the Top Ten List, and for another week or so, a complicated series of tubes would produce swirling coffee to eventually land in his cup on the desk.
Cameras mounted on a chimpanzee's back (Late Night Monkey Cam) or on the roof (Roof Cam) would show odd viewpoints of the set and its participants.
Other show format innovations related to the way individual episodes or segments were presented:
The Custom Made Shows allowed the audience to vote on each part of the hour, what they wanted to see, and the resulting shows had guests talking in high-pitched voices like they had inhaled helium (Jane Pauley refused to say a word during this, and answered his questions by writing answers on cards and showing them), sitting in dentist chairs or lawn furniture, the theme music replaced by the theme from Gilligan's Island, and an opening montage of the director's vacation photos.
Reruns were often scoffed at by Letterman, telling the audience not to waste their time watching next Monday. Sometimes the entire rerun would be dubbed into a foreign language for rebroadcast, baffling viewers.
Letterman once had a member of the audience host the show and interview guests while he left the studio (ostensibly to search for a missing tooth).
Letterman hosted the show from his home while waiting for his cable TV to be installed; another episode was done from the production offices upstairs, as the cast claimed they were "too tired" to go downstairs to the studio.
Sonny & Cher reunited on his show in 1987 and sang together for the first time in 11 years, at his request (which Cher at first was against) in an impromptu performance which had audience members in tears. Ringo Starr was talked into playing drums unrehearsed with Paul Shaffer's band when he appeared in 1989. Captain Beefheart was interviewed and showed part of his latest music video which MTV had not aired. Guests such as Jerry Garcia, Ringo Starr and Arnold Schwarzenegger also participated in comedy sketches which were shown before the opening credits. Carly Simon performed on the show broadcast from a hotel room, because of her terror of appearing before a live audience. Eric Clapton appeared on the program, promoting his album Behind the Sun.
The Top Ten List, from various "home offices": The very first, “Things That Almost Rhyme with Peas,” was presented on “Late Night” on Sept. 18, 1985. In 33 years, Letterman had presented 4,605 Top Ten Lists on shows.
Stupid Pet Tricks: The very first segment was presented on the morning show, “The David Letterman Show,” on June 26, 1980.
Stupid Human Tricks: A sister segment to the above-mentioned Stupid Pet Ricks, the first segment premiered on "Late Night" on October 3, 1983.
Viewer Mail, a segment of humorous replies to letters sent in by viewers. After delivering his reply, Dave would then unceremoniously toss each letter out the "window" behind him with the familiar glass-shattering sound effect (see above). Usually seen weekly, initially on Thursdays, later on Fridays. Henry Mancini was at one point hired to compose a special "viewer mail" theme song ("first we read them, then we answer them"), though after its first few appearances it was quietly dropped.
Flunky the Clown: A lazy, somewhat misanthropic "staff clown" played by writer Jeff Martin.
Dave Fires Old Henry: A recurring bit during Viewer Mail where something goes wrong, and the blame is pinned on longtime NBC staffer "Old Henry" (played by Wolfgang Zilzer AKA Paul Andor). In spite of the fact that Henry is two months away from retiring, Dave unceremoniously fires the old man to much disdain from the studio audience. (Henry often proved so sympathetic to the audience, Letterman would have to reassure them it was just a joke.) When Zilzer/Andor's health began to fail, he was succeeded in the role by writer Gerard Mulligan.
Dave's wearing of various suits: the "Suit of Velcro" (Feb. 28, 1984), "Suit of Rice Krispies", "Suit of Alka-Seltzer", "Suit of Magnets", "Suit of Marshmallows", "Suit of Chips", "Suit of Suet", and "Suit of Sponges".
Small Town News – a compendium of odd newspaper items, similar to Jay Leno's later "Headlines" segment on The Tonight Show.
Dave's Record Collection, real records but presented out of context, like a record of advertising jingles.
In May I Make a Phone Call for You? he would assist audience members who needed to place a call but were afraid to, because it was usually to communicate bad news. Letterman would make the call for the audience member.
Short plays presented by the Peace Through Dramatization Players featuring Marie O'Donnell and Jeff Martin, with less frequent appearances by Steve O'Donnell, Chris Elliott, and other Late Night writers and staffers. The plays would involve a "typical" American family (always attired in bright red sweaters) discussing a current topic of some sort, before Letterman would drop by to enlighten them with new information. By 1986, a regular feature of these sketches would be writer Larry Jacobsen appearing as race car driver Bobby Rahal; Rahal would be announced with much fanfare, but would never have any lines in his appearances. Also featured was "Rex", a stuffed dog who played the family dog in many later sketches.
A series of characters portrayed by Chris Elliott. Each of these characters made numerous appearances over the course of a few months before being retired, usually amidst much mock fanfare. Then Elliott would appear a few weeks later playing the next in his series of "Guy" characters.
The Conspiracy Guy (October 1983-January 1984): Elliott would pretend to be an audience member and ask Dave a question. Things would quickly devolve into his character shouting and making crazy accusations about Dave before being forcibly removed from the set by two goons (played by Late Night writers Joe Toplyn and Sandy Frank).
The Panicky Guy (April 1984-June 1984): Elliott would again pretend to be an audience member, who panics and runs from the studio at the slightest threat of danger (similar to doomed characters in disaster movies). Once in the hallway he would be run over and crushed by an advancing floor waxer, with his hands raised in terror. In one variation, he played a German Panicky Guy in Lederhosen, who was run over by a hand dolly full of cheese wheels. Regular players in the Panicky Guy sketches were astronaut Gordon Cooper (always heard over the phone, chatting with Elliott about the sketches); and Paula Niedert (a Late Night staffer and Elliott's wife) as his love, and later his wife.
The Guy Under the Seats (October 1984-April 1985, plus a "lost" episode aired in December 1985): A short character-comedy bit by Elliott who emerges from a hatchway underneath the seats in the studio audience, and asks Dave for help in finding something. When Dave is unable to help, Elliott goes back under the stairs. Immediately following this brief interruption, Letterman then cajoles Elliott back up to take a bow, and discuss the sketch and the character, often in great and tedious detail. These conversations are usually much longer than the ostensible 'sketch' that had just been performed, and at some point Letterman will make an innocuous comment or innocent joke that causes Elliott to overreact. The sketches generally culminate with Elliott threatening Letterman with some metaphorically articulated future comeuppance, and withdrawing back under the seats with the admonition "But until that day, I'm gonna be right here, making your life ... a living hell."
The Laid Back Guy (May 1985): A one-shot character, whose major characteristic is his long flowing blonde hair and an extremely Californian "laid back" attitude. Performed when the show spent a week in California.
The Fugitive Guy (July–November 1985): Every so often, Letterman would introduce "Roger Campbell" (Elliott, wearing an extremely bad toupée), either as a segment guest or as a new member of the Late Night crew. In each appearance, "Campbell" would have a different job (e.g., gymnast, cue card holder, tambourine player for the band), and would grow increasingly nervous as Letterman amiably asked Campbell innocuous questions about his job and his life. Fairly quickly, Campbell would break down under the "grilling," and would then hear the approach of "the one-legged man" (Late Night writer Matt Wickline) and flee. This sketch was a parody of The Fugitive, and included a title sequence that parodied the original Quinn Martin TV series theme (with billing for Elliott, Wickline and Sandy Frank, usually seen as an unnamed assailant "Campbell" would have to fight while escaping.) The Fugitive Guy sketches concluded with a final episode where Campbell confronted the one-legged man in an abandoned amusement park.
Gerry & Baby (October 1985–August 1986): Dave would introduce writer Gerard Mulligan, who had brought his (initially unseen) newborn baby Kevin to the studio for a visit. When revealed, "Kevin" would turn out to be Chris Elliott, dressed as and behaving as a baby. Seen occasionally even as "The Fugitive Guy" and "The Regulator Guy" were making their appearances.
The Regulator Guy (February–April 1986): A series of cheesily expensive-looking promos for a Terminator-like action character aired on "Late Night" over a period of several months, with Elliott playing the super-cool half-human, half-mechanical "Regulator Guy," even speaking with a bad Schwarzenegger-esque accent. Repeatedly promoted during "Late Night" as "Coming soon to NBC!", with Letterman even interviewing Elliott about the upcoming show, the "Regulator Guy" appeared only once in a sketch on Late Night. This appearance was a (deliberately) cheap and poorly-done affair, with the result that the Regulator Guy was cancelled part-way through his debut episode.
The New Regulator Guy (May 1986): Shortly after "The Regulator Guy" was retired, Elliott came back with a re-tooled version called "The New Regulator Guy." This character similarly did not last long, and ended with Letterman interviewing the New Regulator Guy's newly created sidekick character, Ajax, while completely ignoring Elliott (much to his faux-chagrin).
Skylark (May 1987): A flashy Las Vegas entertainer billed as a professional Chris Elliott impersonator.
"Marlon Brando" (July 1987 to January 1988): Letterman would announce special guest Marlon Brando, and a padded Elliott (usually carrying his belongings in grocery bags, and often wearing battered clothing or a Hawaiian muumuu and lei) would appear, doing an exaggerated mumbling Brando impression while being interviewed by Letterman. Later appearances would culminate in Brando's shambling, ritual "Banana Dance" (performed to Bent Fabric's "Alley Cat").
Chris Elliott, Jr. (January–September 1988): A take-off of Morton Downey, Jr., with Elliott as an aggressive, audience-baiting talk show host.
Elliot also appeared in other sketches over the years. In a recurring bit at irregular intervals, Letterman would announce an appearance by a Late Night regular such as Jack Hannah, Marv Albert, Jay Leno or Paul Shaffer -- but Elliott would come out in costume as the guest. Elliott would then perform an interview segment in character with Letterman, ineptly parodying the guest's catch phrases and behavior.
The destruction (with comic effect) of certain items, including "Crushing Things with a Steamroller," "Throwing Things Off a Five-Story Building," and "Crushing Things with an 80-Ton Hydraulic Press."
Poetry with My Dog Stan
Charlie the Bubble-Eating Dog (who never actually ate bubbles)
Visits with Meg Parsont in the Simon & Schuster Building, in which Dave would have Hal Gurnee "turn on the external camera" pointed across the street to the office window of Simon & Schuster employee Meg Parsont. Letterman would converse with Parsont on the phone, as well as surprise her with gifts, guests, etc. delivered to her office. Parsont would make a return appearance on Letterman's Late Show in 1993.
Peaboy (played by intern Dave Ellner wearing green tights and green Adidas, blowing athletic whistle, throwing frozen peas at audience)
Hal Gurnee's Network Time Killers: Introduced during the summer of 1988 (after Late Night had returned from a lengthy hiatus due to a Writers Guild strike), the feature included Hal Gurnee introducing bizarre time-killing features from his director's perch in the control room.
What's Hal Wearing?
Various 'cam' shots, including Late Night Thrill Cam and Late Night Monkey Cam
Los Problemas de la Vida Cotidiana(The problems of everyday life: Dave) : Dave ("como Dr. Suarez") shows off his Spanish language skills in this spoof of Latin telenovelas
Leaving the studio
More than any other major talk show, Late Night ventured outside the studio frequently. Letterman ran elevator races, taxi races (the taxis went around Rockefeller Center), had a flock of sheep herded out of the studio, down the hall, and onto the elevators by two border collies, and ran various kinds of races or other "sporting events" in the corridor outside the studio. He would charter a steam roller and have it run over cans of tomatoes (not in Manhattan). He would interview strangers on the street, searching for Miss November. Sometimes he just walked, commenting on signs in store windows. He might visit a guest's or staffer's house, in New Jersey. There were repeated segments outside the studio, such as:
"May We See Your Photos Please?" Letterman and crew would visit a nearby photo finisher, where people were picking up their newly developed and printed photos. Letterman would ask patrons at random to see their photos.
"My Dog Bob." Letterman attached a miniature camera ("dog-cam") to the head of what he said was his dog, at home, and offered viewers very jerky footage of a dog's view of the world. He also had, once, a monkey and monkey-cam, which did not go as planned because the monkey (actually a chimpanzee) headed for the metal rafters of the studio, which held lights and other equipment. A Thrill-Cam, mounted in the ceiling, ran down a track toward the set.
Visits to Live at Five, a WNBC local news/talk show which was broadcast live at the time Letterman's show was being taped, from a studio across the hall. The allegedly superior-quality guests of Live at Five were the subject of repeated jokes on Late Night. With portable camera he would interview their staffers manning the doors, or guests coming or going, or go in (quietly and off-their-camera). On February 18, 1988, he actually crashed the live broadcast (Al Roker giving the local weather).
July 28, 1982: Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler are guests. The two appear to get in a fight on the show with Lawler knocking Kaufman out of his chair. It is later revealed to have been staged, and was re-enacted with Letterman, Shaffer, Lawler, and Jim Carrey as Kaufman in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon.
October 6, 1983: The American rock group R.E.M. made its debut American network television appearance on Late Night. The band performed both their debut single "Radio Free Europe" and a new unnamed song that eventually was titled "So. Central Rain", and became the first single from the band's second album, Reckoning. After their performance, singer Michael Stipe (known for his shyness) sat down on the drum riser, forcing Letterman to interview the other band members.
May 13–16, 1985: The show traveled to Los Angeles, California for a week, taping and airing four episodes. The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson was among the guests. This marked the first time Late Night was taped on the road.
August 19, 1985: Letterman used a bullhorn to interrupt NBC's The Today Show outdoor primetime taping in the Rockefeller Center's lower plaza. Yelling from the RCA Building, he introduced himself as "the president of NBC News" and announced, among other things, that he was not wearing any pants. This incident became the cause of a long-standing feud between Letterman and Today Show host Bryant Gumbel.
April 8, 1986: Shortly after General Electric had purchased NBC parent RCA, Letterman brought a camera crew and a fruit basket to the General Electric Building. Framed as an unannounced goodwill visit to NBC's new owners, the trip resulted in "The GE Handshake," in which a GE security officer in the building's lobby offered to shake Letterman's hand before pulling it away as Letterman went to shake it. Soon afterwards, the officer ordered Dave and his crew to exit the building.
May 22, 1986: Singer Cher made an appearance where she got into a verbal sparring match with Letterman. At one point she called Letterman an "asshole", which had to be censored.
May 18–21, 1987: The show traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada for a week. This marked the second time Late Night was taped on the road.
July 28, 1987: Actor Crispin Glover appeared as guest, giving one of the most bizarre interviews in the history of the show. At one point, the actor kicked at Letterman's head while wearing giant platform shoes, after which Letterman ended the segment, walking off the stage and saying, "I'm going to go check on the Top Ten." Crispin later mentioned being in character during the interview.
August 5, 1987: After being introduced as "the only guest we've ever had that can drink Lee Marvin under the table", actor Oliver Reed pulled Letterman toward him while shaking his hand, causing Letterman to lose his balance. When Letterman asked Reed about Marvin during the interview, the actor replied, "Your researcher was told already that I don't want to talk about drink, understand, so let's cool that one, get on to a new subject." Reed acted strangely throughout the two segments of the interview, however, leading Letterman to joke about his "condition" near the end of the second segment, at which point Reed demanded to know what Letterman was referring to.
July 1, 1988: The show marked its 1,000th episode.
August 31, 1988: American Splendor author Harvey Pekar accused Letterman of being a shill for NBC parent company General Electric; the segment ended prematurely. Pekar did not appear on the show again until April 20, 1993, near the end of Letterman's tenure with NBC.
May 1–5, 1989: The show traveled to Chicago, Illinois for a week, taping and airing five episodes. Among the guests that week were Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. This marked the last time Late Night was taped on the road.
May 23, 1991: Johnny Carson made a surprise walk-on appearance on the show, only hours after taking the stage at the NBC affiliates meeting in New York City where he announced his decision of leaving The Tonight Show in a year.
June 28, 1991: The show marked its 1,500th episode.
February 6, 1992: The show's 10th-anniversary special aired in prime time.
June 25, 1993: Letterman's last Late Night at NBC before moving to CBS, which began with a cold open from the show Cheers (1982-1993), and it featured a guest appearance by Tom Hanks, and surprise musical guest Bruce Springsteen performing "Glory Days".
Primetime Emmy Awards
1982–83 Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Comedy or Music Program
1983–84 Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Comedy or Music Program
1984–85 Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Comedy or Music Program
1985–86 Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Comedy or Music Program
1989–90 Outstanding Directing in a Variety, Comedy or Music Program
The show was nominated as Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series for 10 consecutive seasons, from its 2nd full season in 1983–84 through its final season in 1992–93. Including the nominations for the CBS Late Show variant, the Letterman team was nominated 26 consecutive times in this category.
Once a television wasteland, late night has become a daypart of increased interest to programmers, performers, and viewers. In the past ten years, one show has moved to the position of the leader in late night television in creativity, humor, and innovation. That program is Late Night With David Letterman. As one member of the Peabody Board remarked, "David Letterman is a born broadcaster." He is also a savvy co-executive producer. Along with co-executive producer Jack Rollins, producer Robert Morton, director Hal Gurnee, and musical director Paul Shaffer, Mr. Letterman has surrounded himself with exceptional talent and given them the go-ahead to experiment with the television medium. Particularly noteworthy is the work of head writer Steve O'Donnell and his talented staff. Together, the "Late Night" team manages to take one of TV's most conventional and least inventive forms—the talk show—and infuse it with freshness and imagination. For television programming which, at its best, is evocative of the greats, from Your Show of Shows, to The Steve Allen Show, and The Ernie Kovacs Show, a Peabody to Late Night with David Letterman.
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