Thanks, Dave! The legacy of Letterman

Jeff Pfeiffer

In a year of momentous shifts and departures in the late-night scene, none was as big as David Letterman announcing last April that he would be retiring this year (Stephen Colbert will be taking over as host of Late Show in September). The last holdover of the old-school late-night hosts, Letterman has been keeping people up since 1982, first on NBC’s Late Night, and then on CBS’ Late Show since 1993, in the wake of him being passed over by NBC as host of The Tonight Show upon the departure of Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson.

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Over the years, it may have been easy for some viewers to forget about Letterman, or take him for granted, as more and more late-night hosts were added into the mix. And while he did, in later years, fall into the comfortable position that Carson had later in his career, Letterman remains a trailblazer. By the time he debuted in 1982, Carson had been on the air for 20 years and was a familiar, comforting face for people to watch before bed. Letterman shook things up and brought a different, more vibrant energy that appealed to the night owls, and he developed a cult following among college students and people with an ironic sense of humor. And while Letterman, now at age 68, still has the touch of the earlier wise-ass he once was, he has also tempered that with the wisdom of age, not afraid to speak from his heart on occasions, whether it’s regarding politics, or admitting on-air his affairs with female staffers, or talking about his heart bypass surgery.

Through this delicate, subtle combination that he has honed over the past 22 years on Late Show, it could be argued that he is better now than he was even in those early, more noticeably groundbreaking days. About the only other current late-night host who is close to possessing these attributes is Jimmy Kimmel, and it’s perhaps not surprising, then, that on the day of Letterman’s retirement announcement, Kimmel tweeted out: “David Letterman is the best there is and ever was.”

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Dave’s Top Ten Moments From “Late Night” And “Late Show”
In honor of David Letterman’s trademark “Top Ten List” segment, here, from the home office in Milwaukee, are the memorable moments from Dave’s late-night career:

1. First post-9/11 show (Late Show, Sept. 17, 2001) — An emotional Letterman proclaimed New York City as the “greatest city in the world” following its resolve in the wake of the terror attacks.

2. Return following heart bypass surgery (Late Show, Feb. 21, 2000) — Returning to the show following his surgery, Dave was accompanied by all but one of the doctors and nurses who had participated in the procedure. Letterman was close to tears as he explained how they saved his life.

3. Letterman apologizes for affairs with female staffers (Late Show, Oct. 5, 2009) — Dave apologized on-air to his wife and his staff in the wake of revelations that he had slept with several female employees.

4. John McCain is a no-show (Late Show, Sept. 24, 2008) — Presidential candidate McCain failed to show up at the last minute for a scheduled appearance with Dave. When McCain’s excuse turned out to be a lie, Letterman broadcast an internal live CBS feed of McCain prepping for an interview with Katie Couric.

5. Crispin Glover interview (Late Night, July 28, 1987) — In another weird interview, actor Glover appeared (unknown to Dave) in-character as Rubin, from a then-unreleased movie called Rubin and Ed, baffling host and viewers alike. Letterman abruptly ended the odd interview and walked off.

6. Drew Barrymore flashes Dave (Late Show, April 12, 1995) — Actress Barrymore suddenly jumped on Dave’s desk and lifted her shirt as a birthday gift to him.

7. Madonna goes blue (Late Show, March 31, 1994) — Censors worked overtime when the singer swore several times during her chat with Dave, including calling him a “sick @#$%” after he asked her to kiss an audience member. The swearing, and Madonna giving Dave a pair of her underwear, was only part of the overall weirdness of the interview.

8. Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler “fight” (Late Night, July 29, 1982) — In what was later explained as a staged event, comedian Andy Kaufman and pro wrestler Jerry Lawler got into a heated brawl on Dave’s stage, with Kaufman getting slapped and knocked to the ground before a horrified host.

9. Weirdness with Joaquin Phoenix (Late Show, Feb. 11, 2009) — In what turned out to be part of Phoenix’s I’m Still Here film, the actor, unshaved and wearing sunglasses, gave a bizarre chat in which he announced he was retiring from acting to be a rapper.

10. First guest Bill Murray (Late Night and Late Show, Feb. 1, 1982, and Aug. 30, 1993) — The always-memorable Murray has been one of Dave’s most frequent guests, including the first guest on both his late-night shows. Murray will also be Letterman’s last guest, on his penultimate show airing tonight (May 19).

Photo: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS © 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved