LETTERMAN, DAVID

U.S. Talk Show Host/Comedian

David Letterman made his mark and cultivated a national following of ardent fans with his off-beat humor and sophisticated smart-aleck television comic style. That style was honed on his nighttime talk show on NBC, Late Night with David Letterman, which debuted in 1982. Almost a decade later he and his growing audience changed time periods and networks when, in 1993 the Late Show starring David Letterman began broadcasts on CBS at 11:30 P.M., a more accessible and lucrative time slot.

Letterman rose to fame as talk show host and celebrity during a period in television history when late-night talk, a unique TV genre, began to stretch beyond the confines of the solid, long-standing appeal of NBC's Tonight Show, starring the king of late night since 1962, Johnny Carson. Indeed, it can be argued that Letterman himself precipitated the expansion of late-night talk. His influence and appeal increased steadily until, by 1995, he was the most-watched and highest-paid late night television talk show host in the United States. His success was the result of a combination of factos: hard work and determination in the businesses of broadcasting and comedy, a kind of popularity which spawned sometimes too-adoring fans and occasional contempt, and a programming milieu that included the rise and fall of a number of shows on other networks with similar host/comic formats. On the cultural level, Letterman's success coincided with a particular climate in the television and entertainment industries and among audiences. The cult of personality was on the rise. So, too, was the appeal of humor based on making light comedy of any topic, from the mundane to the most politically-charged.

David Letterman began his career in broadcasting in his native Indianapolis, Indiana where he worked in both television (as an announcer and weekend weatherman) and radio (as a talk-show host). In 1975 he moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote comedy, submitted scripts for television sitcoms, and even appeared on various sitcoms and game shows. He performed stand-up routines at the Comedy Store where he met Jay Leno, by then a seasoned comedian, and Merrill Markoe, with whom he would later have a long-time professional and personal relationship. In 1978 he made his first appearance as a stand-up comic on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Shortly thereafter he was hired by NBC to host a morning television talk show which was broadcast from New York. Though the program lasted only a short time, it was the comic forerunner to his other NBC hit.

Late Night with David Letterman, programmed to follow the familiar Carson performance, was a different kind of talk show, a format in which the comedy usually outshone the interviews. Letterman's comedy was reminiscent of, yet more off-beat, than that of all the former celebrated Tonight Show hosts, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Carson. His fascination with humor of the mundane, his quirky antics (Stupid Pet Tricks, Elevator Races, the Top Ten List), and his overall irreverence came on the heels of a new, hip style of comedy exemplified by NBC's late-night comedy sketch program, Saturday Night Live (SNL). This style was most appropriate for a younger television audience that had been loyal supporters of SNL since the mid-1970s. However, Letterman retained the Tonight Show comedy/interview format. Letterman was neither as emotionally or politically involved in his interviews as Jack Paar. More like Carson, he exhibited a cool detachment from, and more middle-American stance towards the political and social events of the day.

During his tenure at NBC Letterman occasionally served as guest host on the Tonight Show in Carson's absence. He shared that job with several others, most notably Joan Rivers and Jay Leno. His guest interview style was sometimes easygoing, sometimes mocking. Indeed, a number of guests found him to be a mean-spirited interviewer and some celebrities claimed he was adolescent at best, highly offensive at worst. Nevertheless he had a loyal following of late night watchers, and some took their adoration to an extreme. One woman who claimed to be his wife was arrested several times for stealing his car and breaking and entering into his home. Letterman's popularity was best exemplified, though, in the large number of discussions, references and imitations he inspired among fans, in the media and throughout popular culture.

Thanks in part to Letterman's influence, late-night talk heated up during the mid to late 1980s and the early 1990s. Though the genre is dominated by male host-performers, Joan Rivers eventually (briefly) hosted her own late night show. Arsenio Hall and Chevy Chase were also in the competition for viewers, and like Rivers, hosted programs on the new on the FOX network, competing with Carson and Letterman on NBC. Game-show host Pat Sajak briefly hosted a CBS talk show in the late-night time slot. Rivers, Sajak, and Chase quickly dropped out because of poor ratings. Hall's show, far more successful, lasted for several years. Throughout it all, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson remained the steady touchstone of late night talk TV.

 


David Letterman

By the early 1990s speculation centered on which of the two most successful young comedians--Leno or Letterman--would be Carson's successor upon his retirement. After intense network negotiations with both--and considerable public attention--Leno succeeded Carson. Letterman accepted a generous offer from CBS and the two became direct competitors at 11:30 P.M. weeknights. Though each has a unique style, both were slick comics whose monologues, comic material and choice of guests reflected and fed the contemporary TV audience appetite for celebrity, sarcasm, and irony. Both shows were also emblematic of television's tendency to increasingly blur the line between news and entertainment.

On CBS, Letterman's popularity grew. He kept much of his off-beat comic style, yet softened some of his angry edge and irreverence. Some commentators have attributed the changes to a desire--on his part and the network's--to broaden his audience in the earlier time slot. By the mid-1990s David Letterman was a mainstream favorite among a mostly young audience. Prior to week-day taping sessions, sidewalks outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, venue for the new show, were the site of long stand-by lines of those hoping for seats inside the already packed house. Letterman's persona was clearly a fitting celebrity for a culture impressed with one individual's ability to capture so much popular attention.

-Katherine Fry

DAVID LETTERMAN. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A., 12 April 1947. Graduate of Ball State University, 1969. Married: Michelle Cook (divorced). Began career as radio announcer, TV weatherman and talk-show host, Indianapolis; performer at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles from 1975; writer in Hollywood for television from 1970s; frequent guest host on The Tonight Show, 1978-82; performed and wrote songs for the Starland Vocal Band; host, Late Night with David Letterman, NBC-TV 1982-93; host, The Late Show with David Letterman, CBS-TV 1993-. Recipient: six Emmy Awards. Address: Late Show with David Letterman, CBS, 530 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

TELEVISION SERIES

1974 Good Times (writer)
1977 The Starland Vocal Band Show
1978-82 The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (guest host)
1978 Mary (also writer)
1980 The David Letterman Show (also writer)
1982-93 Late Night with David Letterman (also writer) 1993- The Late Show with David Letterman

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1977 Paul Lynde Comedy Hour (writer)
1978 Peeping Times (actor)
1995 The Academy Awards (host)

FURTHER READING

Adler, Bill. The Letterman Wit: His Life and Humor. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.

Carter, Bill. The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

 

See also Carson, Johnny; Late Night with David Letterman/The Late Show with David Letterman; Leno, Jay; Talk Shows; Tonight Show