David Michael Letterman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1947; he turned sixty-eight years old just last month. He attended Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis and then Ball State University in Muncie, where he began his broadcasting career at the university's student-run radio station WBST 92.1 FM. (The station has since become part of the Indiana Public Radio network.)
Those who know Letterman's story know that Letterman began his television career as a weatherman. It was at WLWI-TV Channel 13, an ABC affiliate, out of Indianapolis. His duties included more than simply forecasting the weather...
In 1977, he hosted a pilot for a game show called The Riddlers that was never picked up. Below, is the opening segment from that pilot.
Letterman also appeared on an episode of the hit series Mork & Mindy, parodying EST creator Werner Erhard.
His affiliation with NBC began with appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as a guest several times and even as a guest host. In 1980, the network gave him his own morning program called The David Letterman Show, which only lasted four months. Below, is an excerpt from an episode of that program.
Less than a year-and-a-half after canceling his morning program, NBC gave him his own late night talk show. Called Late Night with David Letterman, it followed the man he admired the most, Johnny Carson, and ran for more than eleven years, from 1982 to 1993.
After not getting The Tonight Show following Johnny Carson's retirement, Letterman struck a deal with CBS for a talk show of his own. Not wanting to remain at 12:30 a.m., his new show would go head-to-head with The Tonight Show. Below, his closing comments on Late Night -- June 25, 1993. (His final guests that night were Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen.)
Just over two months later, the premiere episode of The Late Show with David Letterman, taped at the historic Ed Sullivan Theater (where Sullivan did his show for over twenty years) aired at 11:30 p.m. on CBS on August 30, 1993.
In January 2000, Letterman, following a routine check-up, had to have heart surgery ... quintuple bypass surgery! He was out from hosting for five weeks, and returned in late February. Below, the opening monologue from his first show back after surgery.
The horrific events on September, 11, 2001, devastated the country. Many weeknight TV shows postponed production out of shock and respect for those who died that day. The first of the late night talk shows to come back the following week was The Late Show. Not only was it the first late night host back on the air after, but it was centered in New York City, where the attacks on the Twin Towers took place. (Late Night with Conan O'Brien, also taped in New York City, but hadn't come back yet, and both ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno taped in Los Angeles.) Instead of his usual opening monologue filled with comedy delivered from center stage, a visibly shaken and somber Letterman instead spoke from the heart while sitting at his desk. Below, his opening monologue from his first post-9/11 episode, aired September 17, 2001
When he signs off for the last time tonight, David Letterman, between Late Night and The Late Show, will have welcomed a total of nearly 20,000 guests and completing over 6,000 episodes. Below, a look back at some of those thousands of guests and episodes from The Late Show.
He survived a changing of networks and the nitpicking of "intellectual property", a stalker, bypass surgery, recovering from 9/11, as well as marital infidelity of his own and a sex scandal blackmail attempt. He also celebrated remarrying and the birth of his son, Harry, in 2003. If nothing else, it can be said that David Letterman is a survivor.
Some final thoughts: I wasn't always up late, especially once I began working and getting on with life, but when I did, the show to watch was The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He truly deserves the title of King of Late Night. After Carson left, and after the dust settled from the drama of who would take over, the show for me was The Late Show with David Letterman. While Carson clocked thirty years on one major program, Letterman has clocked thirty-three years with two major programs ... on two separate networks, no less.
I liked Jay Leno as a stand-up comedian, but not as a talk show host. For me, the so-called "late night wars" between the two of them, which Leno did win in terms of ratings, was a hands-down no-brainer of a choice ... David Letterman. Even when Jimmy Kimmel Live! appeared on the late night landscape twelve years ago, it was still Letterman. When Conan O'Brien ascended from Late Night, Letterman's previous gig, to The Tonight Show (and got royally screwed over months later), Letterman was still the late night guy for me. The transition of Jimmy Fallon from Late Night (after O'Brien) to The Tonight Show and Seth Myers taking over Late Night resulted in this: it was still David Letterman ... not by a nose, but by thirty lengths.
Perhaps it is my age showing -- I'm 53 -- but I don't find O'Brien, Fallon, Kimmel, or Myers as funny. Don't get me wrong, I think they all have their moments of humor and they clearly have their own audiences to whom they appeal. For me, however, Letterman resonates the most. While laughing at bits of the four above-mentioned hosts, it all comes down to who resonates with you the most as to who you will want to watch.
After tonight, the mantle of the current longest-running late night talk show host will go to Conan O'Brien who, combining Late Night and The Tonight Show on NBC along with his current show Conan on the U.S. cable channel TBS, clocks in at around twenty-one years altogether.
No one can replace Johnny Carson, but David Letterman filled that void for me and millions of other viewers. He not only entertained us with his unique style, but he gave us what I consider to be one of the greatest gifts anyone can give, the gift of laughter, and he gave it to us for more than three decades. Since he came along right after Carson's retirement, it did not feel like a void for very long. After tonight, however, it will be a very different story. I don't see that void being filled anytime soon. In my opinion, David Letterman is right up there with Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Steve Allen.
He is the last of the late night greats.