Late Night with David Letterman

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents




Fans 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.

It 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.

The 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.

Other 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.

Letterman's 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.

Over 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).

In 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".

-Dawn Michelle Nill


David Letterman


Paul Shaffer
Calvert DeForest as Larry "Bud" Melman



February 1982-May 1987   Monday-Thursday 12:30-1:30 A.M.

June 1987-August 1991   Monday-Friday12:30-1:30 A.M.

September 1991-September 1993   Monday-Friday 12:35-1:35 A.M.


August, 1993-2015   Monday-Friday 11:30-12:30 A.M.


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.

Kaplan, Peter W. "David Letterman: Vice-President of Comedy." Esquire (New York), December 1981.

Latham, Caroline. The David Letterman Story. New York: F. Watts, 1987.

Letterman, David. "The Playboy Interview." Playboy (Chicago), October 1984.

Markoe, Merrill, editor. Late Night With David Letterman: The Book. New York: Villard, 1985.

Shales, Tom. "David Letterman and the Power of Babble." Esquire (New York), November 1986.

Sullivan, Robert E., Jr. "Letterman: The First 100 Nights." Vogue (New York), January 1994.

Wolcott, James. "The Swivel Throne." The New Yorker (New York) 18 October 1993.

______________. "Sleepless Nights: Letterman vs. Leno Has Become a War of Attrition." The New Yorker (New York), 12 June 1995.

Who talked about this show

Connie Chung

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Connie Chung on her appearances on Late Night with David Letterman
Connie Chung and Maury Povich on Chung's appearances on David Letterman's show
Connie Chung and Maury Povich on Povich's favorite Chung story

Charles Grodin with Emerson College

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Charles Grodin on appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman

Bob Elliott

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Bob Elliott on "Bob and Ray" appearing on Late Night with David Letterman, on which his son Chris Elliott worked

Michael J. Fox

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Michael J. Fox on his success with The David Letterman Film Festival

Maury Povich

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Connie Chung and Maury Povich on Chung's appearances on David Letterman's show
Connie Chung and Maury Povich on Povich's favorite Chung story

Paul Shaffer

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Paul Shaffer on joining Late Night with David Letterman and their approach to the show
Paul Shaffer on David Letterman and working on his shows
Paul Shaffer on Sonny and Cher's reunion (November 13, 1987) on Late Night with David Letterman
Paul Shaffer on Letterman guest James Brown
Paul Shaffer on Bruce Springsteen's performance on the last Late Night with David Letterman Show

Ruth Westheimer

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Dr. Ruth Westheimer on being a guest on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson; on crediting her popularity with college students to David Letterman

Vanna White

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Vanna White on appearing on Late Night with David Letterman

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