The Late Night King: A look back at Letterman


For those accustomed to spending their evenings in Studio 6A of 30 Rockefeller Centre, May 23 1991 began like any other.

Susan Sarandon’s presence only served to heighten the midnight din which routinely swept the NBC wing of midtown Manhattan, the Academy Award winner but the latest Hollywood alumna to lend her services in that regard.

And yet although the supporting cast of this particular production varied night on night, its protagonist remained the same.

Indeed, since the show’s inception in 1982, NBC’s good-ship ‘Late Night’ had been steered by one David Letterman.

A waspy Midwesterner from Indianapolis, Letterman had always been a self-proclaimed ‘first-class wise-ass’.

Rather than resign himself to the detention room during his time in Broad Ripple High School, he chose to channel any anarchic tendencies down more fruitful avenues, enrolling in a range of speech and drama classes during his teenage years before subsequently completing a broadcasting degree at Ball State University.

Having initially dabbled in campus radio, his 20th birthday saw him land a job on his more favored medium. The American Broadcasting Company hired Letterman as their booth announcer for TV programming in the Midwest.

He soon found himself parlaying into a variety of other domains, anchoring everything from news and weather to sports and even children’s entertainment.

Although grateful of the exposure, it soon became apparent that creative and professional ambition would require Letterman to take his talents a little further afield. Courtesy of an ad in a Hollywood trade magazine, he set about establishing ties with a casting manager in Los Angeles.

By the time he ultimately made the trek west in 1975, however, he found that his would-be agent had ceased operations.

Unbowed, Letterman earnestly set about pedaling whatever wears he had to offer.

Shorn of the contacts required to do so in the traditional sense, he opted for the fabled ‘build it and they will come’ approach. The ‘Comedy Store’ on Sunset Boulevard was very much the rock upon which a he built his church in that respect. His sets at the famous venue became the stuff of legend, drawing interest and bookings all along the coast.

Although an overnight sensation within the Hollywood goldfish-bowl, it wasn’t until 1979 that David Letterman truly made his mark on the wider public consciousness.

NBC’s ‘Tonight’ show had long since been a launch-pad for those of a like mind, giving aspiring stand-ups their heads on a daily basis. Such was the strength of Letterman’s debut appearance on the programme that, rather than invite him back as a guest, the network hired him as an employee.

Come June of the following year, ‘The David Letterman Show’ was on the air.

Things soon ground to an inauspicious halt, however; the enterprise was curtly cancelled after just 19 weeks. Top brass deemed the host too ‘edgy’ for what was then an uber-conservative daytime market. Ironically, it was that very trait which had the potential to ingratiate him to audiences a bit further down the dial, a reality not lost on NBC.

Just over a year later they switched him to a time-slot more befitting his comic disposition.

As well as being safe in the knowledge that he dovetailed a little better with midnight than midday, 12.30 – 1.30am was also an altogether less competitive hour on the ledger.

In truth, the only challenge to Letterman’s monopoly at that time was the viewers’ desire for a good night’s sleep.

The show, as such, was pitched unabashedly at ‘the college crowd’, ‘the people that don’t have to get up at eight in the morning’.

Its content was suitably irreverent. The presenter was also partial to just about anything, whether that be submersing his body in a tank of water while clad in an Alka-Seltzer suit, or letting a roller-skating monkey loose on set with a camera on its back.

Letterman would make famous the remote segments now synonymous with the American talk-show circuit. In one such piece, he visited the residence of Colleen Boyle, a fan who had panned his choice of footwear a week earlier.

These zany hijinks were a nightly occurrence on NBC, and although originally a slow-burner in terms of mass appeal, the show’s cult following soon became a mainstream one.

As well as securing an average of four million viewers per night, figures released by the A.C. Nielsen Company reported that Letterman lead the way when it came to pervading the much sought after 18-49 age bracket. Widespread critical acclaim was also forthcoming, a quintet of prime-time Emmy awards rolling in during the eighties.

By any metric, ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ was America’s programme of the decade.

The transition into the nineties was a seamless one. Advertising revenue had almost doubled from 50 to 90 million dollars since his arrival in 1982. And while the then 43-year-old may have headed something of a revolution in that regard, he was still very much second-in-command when it came to NBC’s late-night hierarchy.

As in the previous three decades, it was Johnny Carson who truly led the charge.

A fellow Midwesterner, Carson was also an entertainer whose penchant for showmanship had been cultivated at an early age. Indeed, during his adolescence, ‘The Great Carsoni’ was earning a workaday wage as a roving magician.

A la Letterman, Carson cut his formal broadcasting teeth on local radio before ultimately moving to California to take up a job with CBS. His stellar 11-year run was enough to convince NBC to prise him across the precipice to replace departing ‘Tonight Show’ host Jack Paar in 1962.

By decade’s end he had turned the programme into their preeminent franchise, and one which regularly drew in 20% of the profits recorded by the entire company. This was owed in no small part to the fact that, in an era when local syndicated channels were impeding the nationwide reach of major networks, ‘The Tonight Show’ continued to receive full clearance in all 50 states.

Upon presenting Carson with a Peabody award for his Outstanding Contribution to Television, the National Association of Broadcasters described him as “an institution, a household word, and the most widely quoted American”, adding that it was “time to recognize the contributions that he had made to television, to humor, and to the country.”

Those contributions were certainly not lost on one young Indianan.

After all, not only did David Letterman owe him a debt of gratitude for affording him his big break on NBC, it was Carson who had inspired him to pursue a showbiz career in the first place.

Carson & Letterman. Master & apprentice.
Carson & Letterman. Master & apprentice.

As his boyhood hero bound onto the ‘Late Night’ stage during that fateful day in May of ’91, it was clear that particular idolatry had yet to wane.

What neither the ebullient crowd nor its host realized, however, was that just minutes earlier ‘The Great Carsoni’ had performed his greatest disappearing act of all.

Indeed, prior to visiting his protege in 30 Rock studios, Carson informed a stunned NBC Convention at Carnegie Hall that he would be abdicating the ‘Tonight Show’ throne.

The 65-year-old, although, appreciative of the seismic nature of his decision, was comfortable in the knowledge that his employers had a more than capable heir in waiting. In fact, on a previous night when his own monologue was falling flat, he even went so far as to say “Why don’t I just go on home and we can bring Letterman in right now”?

As it turned out, neither man would have a say in that matter.

In their haste to establish a contingency for such a knee-jerk departure, the powers that be at NBC had already made provisions regarding Carson’s successor.

Ironically, it was Jay Leno’s famed routines with Letterman at 12.30 which initially saw him secure the role of ‘Tonight Show’ guest host in 1987.

Four years later, the New Yorker was about to be given the position on a permanent basis.

Of the impending appointment Letterman quipped, “Passover might be a Jewish feast – but it’s also what’s happening to me at NBC”! And although, for the most part, he dealt with the snub in typically off-hand fashion, it soon became clear that his relationship with the network had been irreparably damaged.

Despite his employers’ best efforts to the contrary, Letterman did not renew his ‘Late Night’ contract, leaving NBC in June of 1993.

Rather than follow Leno, he had opted to make his own move to 11.30 in order to meet him head-on. ‘

The Late Show with David Letterman’ premiered on CBS just nine weeks later.

“Anyone fancy the Late Shift?”
“Anyone fancy the Late Shift?”

While the swathe of publicity which surrounded the switch granted both CBS and their new employee a honeymoon period of sorts, reality soon bit.

After all, in an industry dictated by numbers, romanticism can only carry one so far.

If NBC was historically the prince of late night, CBS was very much the pauper. Their two failed attempts to infiltrate the chat-show market with Merv Griffin and Pat Sajak were reminder enough of that.

By the time they had coaxed Letterman across enemy lines for a third bite at the cherry, they didn’t even have a premises from which to broadcast.

Broadway’s ‘Ed Sullivan Theater’, once home to The Beatles and The Jackson 5, was eventually purchased for upwards of four million dollars. Subsequent renovations to the building, coupled with compensation packages paid to NBC for their staff and intellectual property, saw CBS’ total outlay tip the scales at just shy of 150.

Letterman, for his part, had red tape of his own to contend with.

Indeed, aside from trying to transfer popular elements of his show from one network to another, the move to prime-time also required him to submit to convention a little more than had previously been his want.

As such, he erred more toward the conservative in his latter years, choosing to draw empathy with rather than satire from his guests.

A captivating one-on-one with the late Warren Zevon was a prime example of what the media dubbed “new Letterman”. Months after undergoing his own life-saving quintuple bypass surgery, the host talked to Zevon about the musician’s battle with terminal lung cancer.

Aside from interviews, Letterman also began to increasingly favor the real over the surreal when it came to other aspects of his show.

His 9/11 monologue endures among the more noteworthy instances of his new-found introspection. The segment was acclaimed by the New York Daily News as ‘one of the purest, most honest and important moments in TV history’.

With all of that being said, it would be remiss to suggest that the host had totally forgone his penchant for the irreverent. His memorable set-tos with everyone from Joaquin Phoenix and Madonna to Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump are testament to that.

But despite having become considerably more well-rounded during his stint at CBS, and racking up a further six Emmys in the process, his grip on the coveted 18-49 demographic had faded significantly by the time he announced his retirement plans in April of last year.

By that point, the ‘Late Show’ was attracting just a .52 rating from the age group which had first made its host a star, this compared to Jimmy Fallon’s 1.12 on NBC, and Jimmy Kimmel’s .63 on ABC.

In an era when American talk-shows are essentially a smorgasbord board of shock-jock, Twitter-ready clips, an individual of Letterman’s vintage was always unlikely to flourish.

That the venerable statesman ultimately came to represent the old guard which he once rallied against is something of a bitter irony in and of itself. After all, it was he who first pushed the late-night envelope.

David Letterman at the taping of his first talk-comedy hour
David Letterman at the taping of his first talk-comedy hour “Late Night with David Letterman” with guest Bill Murray, February 1, 1982 in New York. (AP Photo/Nancy Kaye)