Exactly 30 years ago tonight, Late Night with David Letterman debuted on NBC.
Letterman had hosted a morning show on the peacock network back in 1980 and it was such disappointment that it was pulled after 18 weeks. The network still believed in Letterman though, especially when he started being courted for a syndicated show. He was signed to guest host for his idol on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and it became clear what Letterman should be doing.
In November 1981, the creation of Late Night with David Letterman was announced, produced by Carson productions. This meant that Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Coast to Coast would be moved back an hour but Snyder refused and that show was cancelled in mid-December.
To accompany Letterman on his new show, musician Paul Shaffer was hired to lead a group named The World’s Most Dangerous Band.
The first episode began with a cold opening featuring Larry “Bud” Melman (Calvert DeForest) delivering lines as an homage to the prologue of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. He was followed by Letterman coming out on stage behind a group of female dancers called the peacock girls. After a brief monologue and a sarcastic tour of the studio, Bill Murray came on as the show’s first guest. Some reviews of the first week weren’t positive but the ratings showed a 30% increase over Tomorrow.
Late Night with David Letterman ran for 1,819 episodes on NBC but 1,820 were actually produced. An episode that had been shot for January 16, 1991 was pre-empted due to the start of the Gulf War and was reportedly never shown.
Letterman left NBC in June 1993, after being passed over for the Tonight Show chair. His show morphed into Late Night with Conan O’Brien and ran for 16 years. Letterman, of course, didn’t leave late night. He and many of his staffers and comic bits simply moved to CBS and started Late Show with David Letterman.
The snarky host ended his run on NBC with Tom Hanks as a guest, along with a performance of “Glory Days,” sung by surprise guest Bruce Springsteen. Letterman’s first show on CBS included appearances by Billy Joel and, appropriately enough, Bill Murray.
Murray returned to the Late Show with David Letterman last night to mark his friend’s 30th anniversary in late night. Here are two videos; Murray’s first appearance and his visit from last night (where he played football with Letterman and Regis Philbin).
What do you think? What are your favorite Letterman memories? Do you prefer Letterman’s early work over his current stuff?
Image courtesy NBC.