Late Night with David Letterman

Late Night with David Letterman
Also known as Late Night (franchise brand)
Genre Talk
Created by David Letterman
Written by Merrill Markoe
(head writer 1982–88)
Steve O'Donnell
(head writer 1988–92)
Rob Burnett
(head writer 1992–93)
Presented by David Letterman
Starring Paul Shaffer
and The World's Most Dangerous Band
Narrated by Bill Wendell
Country of origin United States
No. of seasons 11
No. of episodes 1,819
Executive producer(s) Jack Rollins (1982–92)
David Letterman
Robert Morton (1992–93)
Peter Lassally (1992–93)
Location(s) Studio 6-A, NBC Studios
New York, New York
Running time 42–43 minutes
Production company(s) Carson Productions
Worldwide Pants Incorporated (1990–93)
Space Age Meats Productions (1982–90)
NBC Productions
Original network NBC
Picture format 480i (4:3 SDTV)
Original release February 1, 1982 
June 25, 1993
Preceded by Tomorrow Coast to Coast
Followed by Late Night with Conan O'Brien
Related shows The David Letterman Show
Late Show with David Letterman

Late Night with David Letterman is a nightly hour-long comedy talk show on NBC that was created and hosted by David Letterman. It premiered on February 1, 1982 as the first incarnation of the Late Night franchise and ran until 1993, when Letterman left NBC and moved to Late Show on CBS. The series was then reformatted as Late Night with Conan O'Brien, with Jimmy Fallon later taking over from O'Brien as host. Late Night continues to air as of 2016 with Seth Meyers as host.

In 2013, this series and Late Show with David Letterman were ranked #41 on TV Guide's 60 Best Series of All Time.[1]


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 Carson the rights to the time slot immediately following The Tonight Show.[2] On November 9, 1981, NBC and Carson's production company Carson Productions and Letterman's 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 Late Night consisted of Letterman's girlfriend Merrill Markoe in the head writing role, in addition to seasoned TV veteran Hal Gurnee (Jack Paar's director) directing the landmark program, Jack Rollins as executive producer, 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 offbeat humor. The show also got a house band, hiring prominent 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, 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 behind a group of female dancers the peacock girls (who had also opened the finale of The David Letterman Show with "Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1"). After a brief monologue, the very first comedy segment was a sarcastic tour of the studio. The first guest, 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 the home video of his newly adopted pet, before expressing his 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 [3] 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.[3]

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. 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.

Leaving NBC

After the battle for The Tonight Show, when NBC-TV executives decided to give it to comedian Jay Leno, Mr. Letterman decided to accept an offer from CBS-TV for a late night talk show to compete with The Tonight Show. So in 1993, Letterman and his crew moved to CBS-TV (in the newly renovated Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City) and Late Show with David Letterman was born, beginning on August 30, 1993, although NBC would air repeats of Late Night 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 eleven and a half year run (an episode on January 16, 1991 went unaired due to pre-emption for coverage of the beginning of the Gulf War; the program already had been shot 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 in September 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.


In September 1991, the A&E Network began airing repeats of the show which lasted until the summer of 1992. This first syndication deal was done without Letterman's blessing, and he frequently made his displeasure known on-air (he felt having reruns air five nights a week, earlier in the evening, diluted the value of the first-run shows as 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 this the syndication run was ended early and not attempted again until he had left NBC.

In mid-1993, E! Entertainment Television purchased broadcast 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.[4] 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 many 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 was unable to use the name "The World's Most Dangerous Band," so the name was changed to "Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra".

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 off-and-on 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 other talk shows, the show featured at least two or three guests each night, usually including a comedian or musical guest.

Letterman frequently used crew members in his comedy bits, so viewers got to know the writers and crew members of the show. Common contributors included bandleader Paul Shaffer, Chris Elliott, Calvert DeForest as "Larry 'Bud' Melman," announcer Bill Wendell, writer Adam Resnick, scenic designer Kathleen Ankers, stage manager Biff Henderson, producer Robert Morton, director Hal Gurnee, associate director Peter Fatovich, stage hand Al Maher, camera operator Baily Stortz and the "production twins," Barbara Gaines and Jude Brennan. The cramped quarters of 30 Rockefeller Plaza also often played into the humor of the show.

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 innovations 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. Some were visual gags that owed a debt to pioneers like Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen. Amongst the highlights were:

Other show format innovations related to the way individual episodes or segments were presented:

Notable musical guests

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. Sly Stone gave his last ever TV performance on the show in 1982. 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.

Most 'Late Night' appearances

The "king" of 'Late Night' show appearances was sportscaster Marv Albert, with 73 total appearances over the 11-year period. Second most appeared person was Richard Lewis with 48, George Miller and Tom Brokaw with 40, Jay Leno with 39 and Teri Garr and Robert Klein 30 appearances.

Recurring Late Night segments

Memorable shows


Primetime Emmy Awards

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.


In 1991, the show's three production companies Carson Productions, Worldwide Pants, and NBC Productions were awarded a Peabody Award, which cited the following:[10]

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.

See also


  1. Bruce Fretts (23 December 2013). "TV Guide Magazine's 60 Best Series of All Time".
  2. Bushkin, Henry. How Johnny Carson Nearly Quit 'Tonight' and Scored TV's Richest Deal Ever. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 4, 2014.
  3. 1 2 Rothenberg, Fred (February 6, 1982). "Letterman's Late Night dares to be unconventional". Daily News. Bowling Green, KY. Associated Press. p. 6B.
  4. Carson Feeds Letterman Lines. New York Post (Post Wire Services). p. 102. January 20, 2005.
  5. " The Official David Letterman Song Book".
  6. "Classic Dave: Mexican soap opera (1990) on YouTube
  7. "Outrageous Oliver Reed Interview on Late Night (1987)". YouTube. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  8. Sonny joins Cher on show - says he's got a new partner. Eugene Register-Guard (Wire services). November 15, 1987.
  9. "Sonny & Cher Boost Ratings", The New Mexican, Santa Fe, New Mexico. November 29, 1987, p. 35, accessed through on March 13, 2009. Retrieved via Google News August 16, 2010.
  10. Late Night with David Letterman - 1991. Peabody Awards.

External links

Media offices
Preceded by
Late Night era by host
1 February 1982 – 15 June 1993
Succeeded by
Late Night with Conan O'Brien
Preceded by
The David Letterman Show
David Letterman talk show
1 February 1982 – 15 June 1993
Succeeded by
Late Show with David Letterman
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