Home TV by Decade TV Shows - 1980s Late Night With David Letterman/Late Show with David Letterman

Late Night With David Letterman/Late Show with David Letterman

1 9 8 2 – 1 9 9 3 (NBC USA)
1 9 9 3 – 2 0 1 5 (CBS USA)

Fans of late-night television delighted in the antics of host David Letterman in one form or another since the beginnings of his talk show on NBC in 1982.

For eleven years, Late Night with David Letterman enjoyed the weeknight 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 $16 million dollar offer to hop networks.

The move took Letterman and his bandleader/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.

It would be too simplistic to classify David Letterman as a talk show host, or his programmes as fitting neatly into the talk show genre.

Still, the format for both Late Night and Late Show resembled the familiar late-night scenario: An opening monologue by the host usually playing off the day’s news or current events. The monologue was followed by two or three guests who appeared individually and chatted with the host for five to ten minutes.

Before and between the guest appearances, the host might indulge in some comedic skit or speciality bit. Despite their similarity to this basic format, however, Dave’s shows differed from others in the areas of programme content, delivery, and rapport with guests.

The content of both Late Night and Late Show remained remarkably steady over three decades.

Standard instalments included “Viewer Mail” which became “The CBS Mailbag” after the move. During this segment, Dave read actual viewer letters and often responded to requests or inquiries with humorous, scripted video segments featuring Schaffer and himself.

Another long-time Letterman bit was” Stupid Pet Tricks”, in which ordinary people travelled to the programme and showcased pets with an 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 presented 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 was the “Top Ten List.” Announced nightly by Dave, this list “express from the home office in Sioux City Iowa”, featured an absurdly comic perspective on current events and public controversies.

Other speciality bits included sketches such as “Small Town News” during which Dave read dorky or ironic headlines from actual small-town newspapers, and “Would You Like to Use the Phone?”, in which Dave invited a member of the studio audience to his desk and offered to place a phone call to someone they knew.

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 visited local businesses near his Broadway theatre: the copy shop, a local cafe, and a gift shop owned by Mujibar and Sirijul, two brothers who became quite famous because of their visits to the show and their performances in skits on the programme.


Letterman’s style melded with the content of his programme, both often unpredictable and out of control. His delivery was highly informal, and like the content, the personal performance was extremely changeable, given to sudden outbursts and frequent buffoonery.

This style built on the carefully constructed persona of “a regular guy” and Letterman often wondered – 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 referred to himself as “the gap-toothed monkey boy”, and frequently called himself a “dweeb” (which his band leader Shaffer usually acknowledged as true).

This “regular guy” excelled at impromptu delivery and the ability to work with his audience. He often handed out “gifts and prizes” such as light bulbs, motor oil, and most notably, his trademark brand “Big Ass Ham”.

He was 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 did not always translate to his treatment of his guests, however.

Over the years of Late Night and Late Show, Dave hosted first ladies, vice presidents, film and television stars, national heroes, sports figures, zookeepers, woodchoppers, six-year-old- champion spellers, and the girl next door. His relaxed attitude made guests feel at home, and he could be a very gracious host if he so chose.

But there were times when he offended guests (Shirley MacLaine nearly decked him) and was offended himself by guests (Madonna offended the nation with her obscene language and demeanour on one of her visits with Dave in March 1994).

In his later years, Letterman became prone to interrupting guests and was often guilty of drawing more attention to himself than to his visitors. He did all this with the full recognition that his position and popularity allowed him to be as goofy as he liked.

The once bitter, sceptical, NBC Dave gave way to the sillier, snottier, CBS Letterman who now shouted “Get your own show” at hecklers in his studio audience.

Still, as a dedicated and long-term late-night talk show host, he consistently provided viewing audiences with zany comedy, great music, and timely, interesting guests.

In April 2014, Letterman announced he would retire as host of Late Show in 2015. He was succeeded by Stephen Colbert (host of competing late-night series The Colbert Report on Comedy Central).

Including his 11 years on NBC, Letterman is the longest-tenured late-night talk show host, having surpassed Johnny Carson.