of late night television have delighted in the antics of host David
Letterman in one form or another since the beginnings of his "talk"
show on NBC in 1981. For eleven years Late Night with David Letterman
enjoyed the week night time slot following The Tonight Show with
Johnny Carson (later Tonight with Jay Leno). But after
being passed over as the replacement for the retiring Johnny Carson
on Tonight, Dave accepted CBS's multi-million dollar offer
to hop networks. The move brought Letterman and his band leader/sidekick
Paul Shaffer to CBS, moved them up an hour in the schedule to run
opposite Tonight with Jay Leno, and prompted renovation of
the historic Ed Sullivan Theatre in downtown New York to be the
exclusive location for Dave's new show. The Late Show with David
Letterman featuring Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra premiered
on 30 August 1993, and within weeks had overtaken and passed the
Leno show in the ratings race.
would be too simplistic to classify David Letterman as a talk show
host, or his programs as fitting neatly into the talk show genre.
Still, the format for both Late Night and Late Show resembles
the familiar late night scenario: An opening monologue by the host
usually plays off the day's news or current events. The monologue
is followed by two or three guests who appear individually and chat
with the host for five to ten minutes. Before and between the guest
appearances, the host might indulge in some comedic skit or specialty
bit. Despite their similarity to this basic format, however, Dave's
shows differ from others in the areas of program content, delivery,
and rapport with guests.
content of both Late Night and Late Show has remained
remarkably steady over the past fourteen years. Standard installments
included "Viewer Mail" which became "The CBS Mailbag" after the
move. During this segment, Dave reads actual viewer letters and
often responds to requests or inquiries with humorous, scripted
video segments featuring Schaffer and himself. Another long-time
Letterman bit is "Stupid Pet Tricks", in which ordinary people travel
to the program and showcase pets with unusual talent. In one sequence
Letterman hosted a dog that would lap milk out of its owner's mouth
and from that bit sprang "Stupid Human Tricks." In this bit people
present unusual talents such as tongue distortion and spinning basketballs;
one man vertically balanced a canoe on his chin. One of the most
popular elements in Dave's repertoire is the "Top Ten List." Announced
nightly by Dave, this list "express from the home office in Sioux
City Iowa", features an absurdly comic perspective on current events
and public controversies.
specialty bits have included sketches such as "Small Town News"
during which Dave reads dorky or ironic headlines from actual small
town newspapers, and "Would You Like to Use the Phone?", in which
Dave invites a member of the studio audience to his desk and offers
to place a phone call to someone they know. Letterman sent his mother,
known to fans as "Dave's Mom" to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer,
Norway where she interviewed First Lady Hillary Clinton and skater
Nancy Kerrigan for the Late Show. Dave frequently visits local businesses
near his Broadway theatre: the copy shop, a local cafe, and a gift
shop owned by "Mujibar and Sirijul", two brothers who have become
quite famous because of their visits to the show and their performances
in skits on the program.
style melds with the content of his program, both often unpredictable
and out of control. His delivery is highly informal, and like the
content, the personal performance is extremely changeable, given
to sudden outbursts and frequent buffoonery. This style builds on
the carefully constructed persona of "a regular guy" and Letterman
often "wonders" with the audience just how a guy like him managed
to become the host of one of the most popular late night shows in
America. He has referred to himself as "the gap-toothed monkey boy",
and frequently calls himself a "dweeb" (which his band leader Shaffer
usually acknowledges as true). This "regular guy" excels at impromptu
delivery and the ability to work with his audience. He often hands
out "gifts and prizes" such as light bulbs, motor oil, and most
notably, his trademark brand "Big Ass Ham". He has been known to
send his stand-by audience to Broadway shows when they were not
admitted to his taping. Letterman's relationship with his studio
and viewing audiences does not always translate to his treatment
of his guests, however.
the years of Late Night and Late Show, Dave has hosted
first ladies, vice presidents, film and television stars, national
heroes, sports figures, zoo keepers, wood choppers, six-year-old-
champion spellers, and the girl next door. His relaxed attitude
can make guests feel at home, and he can be a very gracious host
if he so chooses. But there have been times when he has offended
guests (Shirley MacLaine nearly decked him) and been offended by
guests (Madonna offended the nation with her obscene language and
demeanor on one of her visits with Dave).
his later years, Letterman has become prone to interrupting guests
and is often guilty of drawing more attention to himself than to
his visitors. He does all this with the full recognition that his
position and popularity allow him to be as goofy as he likes. The
once bitter, skeptical, "NBC" Dave gave way to the sillier, snottier,
"CBS" Letterman who now shouts "Get your own show" at hecklers in
his studio audience. Still, as a dedicated and long term late night
talk show host, he has provided viewing audiences with zany comedy,
great music, and timely, interesting guests. Letterman presents
himself as pal and equal to his audiences; letting down a layer
of formality allows him to be the spontaneous host that audiences
have come to love. Once again, the Ed Sullivan Theater is home to
a "Really Big Show".
NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN
Calvert DeForest as Larry "Bud" Melman
February 1982-May 1987
Monday-Thursday 12:30-1:30 A.M. June 1987-August 1991 Monday-Friday
12:30-1:30 A.M. September 1991-September 1993
Monday-Friday 12:35-1:35 A.M.
SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN
August, 1993-- Monday-Friday
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Bill. The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle
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Caroline. The David Letterman Story. New York: F. Watts,
David. "The Playboy Interview." Playboy (Chicago), October
Merrill, editor. Late Night With David Letterman: The Book.
New York: Villard, 1985.
Tom. "David Letterman and the Power of Babble." Esquire (New
York), November 1986.
Robert E., Jr. "Letterman: The First 100 Nights." Vogue (New
York), January 1994.
James. "The Swivel Throne." The New Yorker (New York) 18
______________. "Sleepless Nights: Letterman vs. Leno Has Become
a War of Attrition." The New Yorker (New York), 12 June 1995.
Johnny; Leno, Jay; Letterman,