Television would never be the same after David Letterman made his second attempt at a show in 1982. But his career before becoming host of the show was quite an interesting and long one.
Letterman was born in Broad Ripple, a neighborhood in Indianapolis, to Dorothy Marie (Hofert), a church secretary, and Harry Joseph Letterman, a florist. He is of German, English, and Scots-Irish descent. His childhood was relatively unremarkable, but he exhibited tendencies of the class clown and showed a very strong independent streak as a child. Letterman went on to graduate from Ball State University in the late 1960s and married Michelle Cook in 1969. From 1970 to 1974, he worked as a weatherman and TV announcer and from 1974 to 1975 as a radio talk show host.
As the late 1970s approached, Letterman was working as a struggling stand-up comic at The Comedy Store and started writing for television shows. He wrote for the summer series “The Peeping Times” and for such shows as Good Times (1974). Letterman had become something of a minor celebrity by 1978, by which time he had appeared on The Gong Show (1976), Mary Tyler Moore’s variety series, Mary (1978), Liar’s Club (1976), The $10,000 Pyramid (1973), Password Plus (1979) and the variety series, The Starland Vocal Band Show (1977). (It was also revealed on the Game Show Network that Letterman hosted a pilot of a game show in the seventies called The Riddlers (1977), but it was not made into a series.)
This exposure prompted many appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962). He became so popular that he was permanent substitute host by the end of the 1970s. NBC saw great potential in the young irreverent comedian, so they gave Letterman his own daytime talk show, The David Letterman Show (1980), which was a disaster and aired for only a few months. At about this time, Tom Snyder was having problems with his late-night show, Tomorrow Coast to Coast (1973), which aired after the “Tonight Show.” His problems were mostly with his co-host, Rona Barrett, and Snyder was forced off air in late 1981. Letterman, who was still permanent co-host of the “Tonight Show,” took over the post-Carson slot with Late Night with David Letterman (1982).
Letterman’s show was extremely unconventional. For starters, Letterman was very political, whereas Johnny Carson had steered away from political jokes. Letterman’s early antics changed talk shows. He would often stage elevator races in Radio City Music Hall. He made random calls to strangers and talked about the strangest subjects. At one point, Letterman got his associate Larry “Bud” Melman to stand outside the Russian Embassy and hand out pamphlets encouraging defection. He often made his guests feel uncomfortable with his intelligent and abrasive style, and guests often participated in funny and unusual skits with him. Letterman became almost an instant success, and some say he surpassed Carson in popularity.
As the late 1980s approached, Letterman was becoming more and more of a household name, often at odds with the censors over his show, and never one to kowtow to guests’ wishes. But that only made him more popular, and he garnered more and more status as a world class talk show host. Among the more classic moments in his early show was the time he covered his suit with Alka Seltzer and jumped in a vat of water. Letterman helped Andy Kaufman with his wrestling saga, as Kaufman and Jerry Lawler pretended to get in a fight on “Late Night.” Letterman also became known for his on-screen reclusiveness with respect to other shows. While Carson at one point in his career would often make cameos and guest appearances, Letterman would shy away from cameos and stuck almost solely to doing his “Late Night” show.
In 1992 Johnny Carson made a landmark announcement: he was retiring. Many thought that Letterman would be the natural choice as Carson’s replacement, but many at NBC were leaning toward current “Tonight Show” substitute host Jay Leno. The battle was very public and very vicious, but in the end Leno won out, and Letterman continued hosting the post-“Tonight Show” slot. But, in 1993, Letterman made his own big announcement: he was leaving NBC for a lucrative contract with CBS to star in the Late Show with David Letterman (1993). The battle intensified even more. NBC claimed that many of Letterman’s gimmicks and jokes, including throwing the pencil at the camera, the Top Ten List, and Larry “Bud” Melman, among many others, were NBC’s “intellectual property.” NBC lost, but Larry “Bud” Melman would now be called by his real name, Calvert DeForest, on the CBS show. Competing in the late night wars with not only Leno but also Chevy Chase, Arsenio Hall and Ted Koppel, Letterman consistently won over all of his competition until the summer of 1995, when Leno had guest Hugh Grant on his show to discuss his highly publicized arrest for being caught with prostitute Divine Brown and Grant cried on screen. The ratings were tremendous, and Leno has consistently beaten Letterman ever since.
In recent years, Letterman has toned down his act. He dresses more conservatively and tends to go the more traditional route of talk shows. It can be said that every talk show since, including Craig Kilborn and especially ‘Conan O’Brien’, has been influenced a great deal by Letterman’s unconventional, irreverent, off-the-wall style. It was thought that Letterman was going to retire in the mid-’90s, but an impressive 14 million-per-year deal has kept Letterman with CBS. Near-tragedy struck, however, in January of 2000 when Letterman was diagnosed with coronary arterial blockage and underwent quintuple bypass surgery. The operation was successful, however, and Letterman received countless get-well cards and a great deal of publicity. Among David’s better-known incidents in recent years have been Drew Barrymore’s infamous table dance, an interview with a bizarre and ditzy Farrah Fawcett, his appearance in the movie, Cabin Boy (1994) (written by and starring his former “Late Night” writer and performer Chris Elliott), his stint as host of The 67th Annual Academy Awards (1995), and his appearance in the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon (1999). When Politically Incorrect (1993) was canceled in 2002, Letterman was sought after to leave CBS for ABC, but he declined to do so and stayed with CBS, where he remained until his retirement in May 2015.
Aside from being a talk show host, Letterman is an active producer. His production company is called Worldwide Pants. Over the years he has been executive producer of his original show, his new show, Everybody Loves Raymond (1996), The Building (1993), Bonnie (1995), The High Life (1996), The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn (1999), and Ed (2000).
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