29 years ago tonight, on Monday, February 1, 1982 “Late Night with David Letterman” premiered on NBC.
David Letterman, a former weatherman from Indianapolis, had moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to try his hand at the big time. In just seven years he had succeeded in a major way. Of course, like most comedians of his era Letterman’s real goal was to host “The Tonight Show.” But “Late Night” seemed like a huge step toward eventually reaching that goal.
TV audiences might have remembered Dave’s last TV show, a morning show on NBC called “The David Letterman Show.” It was clear that NBC executives were impressed with his talent and wanted to find a spot to expose it. However, Dave’s sense of humor just didn’t seem to fit with daytime audiences and the show, though critically acclaimed lasted just 4 months.
I personally had predicted greatness for Letterman years earlier. In November 1978 my family went to New Hampshire to celebrate my Grandmother’s 75th birthday during the week of Thanksgiving. While there I watched “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and saw a new standup comedian making his first appearance on the show… his name? David Letterman.
At the time, there was the usual speculation about who might replace Johnny Carson if he left “The Tonight Show.” All the entertainers mentioned as potential successors had their strong points and their drawbacks. When I saw David Letterman that night I saw several characteristics that made me think that someday he might be the one.
(Let me say that I am not ALWAYS a great judge of talent. In 1987, while scouting standup comedians for a video I was producing, I passed on Drew Carey.)
First, he was Midwestern. In the late 1970s network executives still liked white bread hosts from middle America – no one too ethnic. Letterman also looked good in a jacket and tie. Comedian David Brenner, who was considered a potential replacement for Carson, always wore an open collar, which was popularat the time.
The third and most basic requirement Letterman exuded was talent. The man killed in his first appearance. In fact, I still recall one of his bits from that night. He asked if anyone had seen last night’s episode of “The Waltons.” Letterman explained that in the episode, the family had saved up enough money to “get that thing removed from John-Boy’s cheek.”
Succeeding Johnny Carson was years away, but the “king of late night” did take an obvious liking to the new kid and Letterman became a frequent guest on “Tonight.” He also became a frequent guest host. Once NBC signed him to a development deal they tried to find the right place for him. The morning timeslot hadn’t worked out, so they had an idea.
“The Tomorrow Show” hosted by Tom Snyder had been following Carson’s show for eight years. Over the previous year NBC had tinkered with the show until it was an unrecognizable mess. The network decided to cancel “Tomorrow” and put David Letterman in that timeslot. What they actually did was to give Johnny Carson control of the one-hour following his “Tonight Show” and that’s why “Late Night with David Letterman” was produced by “Carson Productions.”
Most readers of this blog know the rest. “Late Night” became a huge hit and Letterman became a huge star. And while he didn’t ascend to host “The Tonight Show,” we all know he was Carson’s choice for the job. And that, I think, is a nice consolation prize.
“Late Night with David Letterman” broadcast more than 1800 new episodes and ran until June 25, 1993. That’s when Dave left NBC and brought his show to CBS to compete against new “Tonight” host Jay Leno.
So “Late Night with David Letterman” lives on. Only now it’s called “Late Show with David Letterman.” Dave’s CBS show premiered on August 30, 1993 and continues today after more than 3500 episodes.
David Letterman is right when he says there will never be another Johnny Carson. But I think the closest we’ll ever come is the true heir apparent, David Letterman himself.