A loving look back at Late Night with David Letterman, which debuted February 1, 1982. From the ashes of Dave’s failed daytime show came one of the greatest things ever.
Uncorrected transcript below.
From the basement where a middle-aged man begs you to buy him a coffee it’s daily comedy news, happy new year. We are one month away from the 40th anniversary of late night with David Letterman. So I thought Saturdays in January, I would just talk about my love of the greatest thing ever late night with David Letterman, time magazine nailed it.
I think they wrote this before January 6th of last year, admittedly standing up to watch a late night show on TV does not feel like an insurrectionist act. Now it quite does not these days, but in the 1980s era of late night with David Letterman crowding around the common room TV with my college dorm mates, we had the sense that something amazingly wrong was happening late night was like something that had snuck onto TV and anomaly.
You’d better watch quick before somebody knows. Fire the disgruntled control room staffer who switched it on. That’s how I felt about 1230 Letterman as the series gets on. I’ll talk about 1130 Letterman, but oh my goodness. 1230 Letterman was just so great. It just had this attitude of wait. They gave us a show and nobody working on it really cared if it was cheesy or not all the way there, the more things bombed, the funnier, they got time rights.
Letterman was a baby boomer born in 47. It felt like a gen X-er sarcastic alternative outnumbered. Our parents watched Johnny Carson to be lost it into bed on the gentle arc of his golf swing. We watched Dave to be kept awake late night was not a sleeping pill, but an Alka-Seltzer suit. You put on a jumping into a water tank letting it foam, and effervesce around you, man.
I remember thinking boy, if Letterman was over on at 1130, I’d watch it every night. Such a struggle to stay up to 1230. I’d usually make it about halfway through the show and conk out at one o’clock. Then one year for my birthday, I got a VCR and then I could tape Letterman and watch it the next day. Oh, eighties.
Letterman was so good for my 16th birthday. A friend of my parents got me into see late night with David Letterman. I would have gone with my buddy, Sean O’Shea you had to be 16 to get in and I was 16. So I got in and I saw.
Uh, James Taylor, I think was a guest that night. You could fact check me on that. All the information is online somewhere. We’ll do that. Some other episode back to time they wrote it was an inside job, a nightly feast on the hand that fed in 1986, when GE bought NBC Letterman showed up at GE headquarters with a fruit basket and got rebuffed at the door.
I remember that that was a great episode. Letterman said, oh, is this going to be fun to work with these people? Isn’t it. He was checking watermelons from the inside. Doing liposuction on a bloated profession and bringing it back to its anarchic roots. David Letterman was punk rock.
Whoever wrote this for time. Awesome job. When David Letterman got his first national shot, this was the daytime show. The David Letterman show on NBC that was in 1980. He and his then girlfriend and head writer, Mero. Marco created a talk show for TV’s native latchkey children, absurd winking and referential Letterman wheeled out Steve Martin for an interview in a bed littered with beer cans.
He hosted a 50th wedding anniversary from a long island couple at which the plastic flowers caught fire and had to be doused by stage hands art comic, Andy Calvin stared him down and discomforting silence for a solid minute wiping. Time rates that I mentioned the show aired live at 10 in the morning in place of Hollywood squares.
The program won two Emmys and was canceled in four months. NBC wisely decided this kind of thing might work better nine and a half hours earlier.
So the whole reason I’m doing this series February 1st, 1982, the debut of late night with David Letterman. The first face you saw on late night was not Dave’s. It was Calvert deforest. You know him as Larry, bud. Melman.
Larry said we were about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image without reckoning upon God. It was a mission statement. The freaks would come out at night. The restless, the jobless, the up to later as a
late night was like a national Rocky horror midnight movie. What a great description there and aired from New York city, not sunny Burbank and played up to its homes. Ed conch, Eric grime. He was the mayor back then. It was a talk show sure. With a monologue and guests and music and Paul Shaffer combining both the docs, Aronson and ed McMahon roles.
But mainly it was a comedy show informed by the alternate comics of the seventies, like bill Murray, who was Letterman’s first guest, there was an element of self deflation in it. All Letterman would fill silence with an exaggerated. My, oh my we’re having some fun now. Oh my goodness.
I used to say that phrase all the time and now I’m going to start doing it again. I’m actually recording this in mid December. I bet that has crept into the daily episodes. By the time you hear this, my oh my we’re having some fun. Now he was saying index cards, flying at the backdrop with a crashing glass sound effect for the windows that weren’t there.
Look at us was the message on a fake set, doing the things people do on TV, the monster that mad scientist Letterman created with sitting. At talk show that knew it was a talk show, but above it all, it was fun. Letterman wants told the New York times television’s kind of. Late night had a local access television spirit of playing without adult supervision.
It mounted cameras on wires on Dave’s head on a monkey. Remember monkey him. It turned oddball staff writer, Chris Elliott into a cold star playing characters. Like the guy under the seats. I’m going to do a whole episode on Chris Elliott. Letterman had Terry guards take a shower in the green room, Letterman bay, then 250 gallons of onion dip and threw stuff off a five story tower.
Stupid. Patrick’s a stupid human tricks. If you were male, top 10 list. And those early years flung out a lot of things against the walls as if they were Letterman’s Velcro suit. And many of them stuck.
In the wake of a short-lived NBC morning show being canceled in October, 1980 after only 18 weeks on the air. David Letterman was still held in high enough regard by the network that upon hearing that Dave was being courted by syndication company, NBC gave him a $20,000 per week.
Deal to sit out for a year and guest hosts. The tonight show starring Johnny Carson on multiple occasions
earlier that year and BC and Johnny Carson had reached an agreement on a new contract, which among other concessions to Carson, granted Johnny control over the time slot immediately following the tonight show.
From fall 1980 to the end of 81, Letterman hosted 22 episodes of the tonight show, but also appeared five times as Carson’s guest on Johnny hosted episodes. That’s a lot.
On November 9th, 1981, NBC and Carson’s production company announced late night with David Letterman would premiere early in 1982 when the [12:30] AM slot Monday through Thursday with occasional specials, every few Fridays.
This show displaced tomorrow coast to coast, which was hosted by Tom Snyder and BC initially offered Tom Snyder, move his show back an hour, but Tom Snyder already unhappy, refused and ended the show. Instead, the final episode of tomorrow, air December 17th, 1981.
The staff responsible for getting late night ready, included. Marrow Marco is in the head writing role, seasoned TV, veteran, how gurney as director
and a group of young writers. Most of them in their early twenties.
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 off offbeat humor. The show also got a house band. Paul Schaffer led the world’s most dangerous band.
That was actually used as the band name in the early episodes of late night. Then it was dropped for a few years before returning in 1988 and continuing for the rest of the show,
realizing that NBC executives exhibited very little desire to micromanage various aspects of the show. The late night staff felt confident they’d be allowed to push outside the mainstream talk, show boundaries and set about putting together a quirky absurdist odd program
on February 1st, 1982 late night premiered with that. Larry bud Melman opening. I told you about the Letterman came on stage to Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto. Number one, behind a group of female dance.
After a brief monologue. The very first comedy segment was a sarcastic tour of the studio, the first guest, then 31 year old bill Murray. Wow. Bill was so young.
Bill came out and confronted Dave during jibes and accusations at the host as part of a knowing put on.
Bill stayed on for two more segments. In one, he showed footage of a Chinese Xu, baby Panda.
Then he expressed new, found love for aerobics and pulled a crew member on stage, making her do jumping jacks, along with him to Olivia Newton, John’s physical. The second comedy piece was remote titled the shame of the city, taking the general format of a local news action, segmented featured Letterman touring, several New York locations pointing out various civic problems with righteous indignation.
I will remind a younger listeners, the New York city of 1982, not the New York city of the turn of the century and not even the New York city that you see now. It was seedy and terrible.
The second guest was Don Herbert TVs, Mr. Wizard. And the show ended with a young comic named Steve Bressler. Remember him, meaning either reciting, allow the script of the obscure Bela Lugosi film Bowery at midnight that’s Calvin ask isn’t it.
The reviews were mixed. The LA times wrote much of Letterman’s first week. It did not. However, the show drew 1.5 million viewers, 30% more than a tuned in for Tom Snyder. On the third night
after Hank Aaron finished his interview with Letterman, a camera followed Hank Aaron backstage, where TV sports caster, Al Albert conducted a post-interview chat with a Hank Aaron about how it had gone.
Although the show is produced by Carson’s group. Johnny did have rules on Dave to make the show be different. You may remember Dave did not do a monologue. He only would tell two jokes and then kind of screw around with Paul Schaffer. Letterman was not allowed to have a sidekick.
Although Paul clearly filled that role. He was told he could not book old school showbiz guests like Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, or buddy Hackett.
And let her in was specifically instructed not to replicate any of the signature pieces of the tonight show such as stump the band, which they later did where Carnac the magnificent.
Late-night originated from NBC studios. at 30 rock programmer and four nights a week, Monday to Thursday from February 1st, 1982 until June 4th, 1987 friday shows were added June 12th, 1987. Although the show still only produced four new episodes a week, Mondays became reruns.