Late Night with David Letterman (1982–1993)
|Genre||Comedy, Music, Talk-Show|
|Awards||Won 5 Primetime Emmys11 wins & 40 nominations total|
|Company||Carson Productions, NBC Productions, Worldwide Pants|
Late Night with David Letterman
Late Night with David Letterman is an American late-night talk show hosted by David Letterman that aired from 1982 to 1993. It premiered on NBC on February 1, 1982 and concluded on June 25, 1993. Letterman began hosting Late Show with David Letterman on CBS in August 1993. The series has since been reformatted as Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers.
In 2013, this series and Late Show with David Letterman were ranked #41 on TV Guide's 60 Best Series of All Time. During its run, the show was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Series 11 times. It was also nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series 14 times, winning 4, and won one Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series out of 7 nominations.
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 ($1,000,000 for a year) 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 in 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 (a forerunner to today's Worldwide Pants Incorporated) 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.
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 with David Letterman. The network aired complete shows from various years five days per week from 1993 until 1996. Then, Trio: Popular Arts Television (owned by NBC/Vivendi Universal Entertainment) 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 on September 13, 1993.
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.
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 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 Fatovic, stage hand Al Maher, camera operator Baily Stortz, production manager Elmer Gorry as NBC President Grant Tinker, 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 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. Among 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 and placed in a cage with farm animals, 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.
- Crispin Glover and Oliver Reed frightened Dave with their nearly violent, confrontational behaviour in their appearances.
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 second 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:
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.