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As the host of two award-winning late night talk shows, David Letterman and his ironic style were powerful influences on the changing comedy landscape of the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. From the start of his 11-year run on "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993), Letterman promptly disassembled the conventional talk show format, slyly poking fun at the medium, the guests and the audience. His penchant for self-deprecation and sarcasm may have been a factor in NBC's decision to hand over "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1952- ) and its more conservative 11:30 p.m. time slot to Jay Leno upon Johnny Carson's 1993 retirement - a deal that incurred Letterman's wrath enough that he jumped ship to CBS. Taking his team with him, he launched "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993-2015) where he continued to flourish in the same irreverent capacity. Leno may have dominated the ratings, but Letterman took home the Emmys while becoming executive producer of primetime comedy hits like "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS, 1996-2005) and "Ed" (NBC, 2000-04). Despite nearly three decades on television, Letterman remained staunchly private, though he often made headlines for questionable jokes, his alleged feud...
As the host of two award-winning late night talk shows, David Letterman and his ironic style were powerful influences on the changing comedy landscape of the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. From the start of his 11-year run on "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993), Letterman promptly disassembled the conventional talk show format, slyly poking fun at the medium, the guests and the audience. His penchant for self-deprecation and sarcasm may have been a factor in NBC's decision to hand over "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1952- ) and its more conservative 11:30 p.m. time slot to Jay Leno upon Johnny Carson's 1993 retirement - a deal that incurred Letterman's wrath enough that he jumped ship to CBS. Taking his team with him, he launched "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993-2015) where he continued to flourish in the same irreverent capacity. Leno may have dominated the ratings, but Letterman took home the Emmys while becoming executive producer of primetime comedy hits like "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS, 1996-2005) and "Ed" (NBC, 2000-04). Despite nearly three decades on television, Letterman remained staunchly private, though he often made headlines for questionable jokes, his alleged feud with Oprah Winfrey, bypass surgery, having a stalker, death threats and being blackmailed for affairs with subordinates. But through it all, Letterman kept the juggernaut going and remained atop the ratings heap as the true king of late night for generations of viewers and fellow comics who still looked to the gap-toothed trailblazer as their Carson. In 2013, Letterman broke his early mentor's record, logging 31 years as a late night talk show host. Letterman announced in April 2014 that he would be retiring the following year. The host's final year of goodbyes from famous friends and fans culminated in an uncharacteristically heartfelt final broadcast on May 20, 2015.
David Michael Letterman was born on April 12, 1947, growing up in Indianapolis, IN. Father Harry Joe owned a florist shop and mother Dorothy was a secretary at a Presbyterian church. By Letterman's own account, family life was middle-class and picturesque, complete with little league baseball games, a tree house in the yard, and when Letterman was eight years old, the addition of a television set to the family room. As the gap-toothed budding comic grew into a teenager at Broad Ripple High School, his academics failed to impress, moving the self-proclaimed "goofball" increasingly toward broadcasting. He often hung around a storefront radio station in downtown Indianapolis, watching the DJ at work and imagining himself cueing up records, answering the phone, and announcing the station call letters. He landed his first job as a stockboy at the Atlas supermarket, but it did not take long for him to decide that this kind of working world was not for him. He graduated from high school in 1965 and enrolled in Ball State University's telecommunications department.
At Ball State, Letterman immediately began learning the ropes at the college's 10-watt powerhouse, WERK AM. Letterman again was not a great student but he began evolving socially as a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and challenged his inherent shyness with a spot on the debate team. He also spent time lurking around local TV station WLWI with a friend whose brother worked there. The summer between Letterman's sophomore and junior years, the station had an opening for a temporary announcer. Letterman landed the job, which was an ideal opportunity to learn the business from the inside. He began filling in as a news announcer and weather man before hosting the local 4-H kids' show called "Clover Power" and breaking into his future time slot as the host of a late night movie show called "Freeze Dried Movies." Meanwhile, he continued to gain experience on air in local radio and landed a girlfriend, music major Michelle Cook who shared Letterman's sense of humor. The two married young in 1969 - the same year Letterman graduated from Ball and was given a full-time job at WLWI.
Even then, Letterman had already begun earning a reputation for his unpredictable antics on air - most notably, as a weather man who erased state borders and congratulated a tropical storm on being upgraded to a hurricane. As the host of "Freeze Dried Movies," he blew up a cardboard model of the set during the show. What would someday be nationally recognized as the distinct "Letterman" sense of humor was already fully formed and searching for an audience. He began doing stand-up, but soon understood that Indy was not the town for taking comedic risks. In 1975, with almost 10 years of valuable TV and radio experience under his belt, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles. At The Comedy Store, a hallowed venue for aspiring comedians, Letterman perfected his stage persona and joined the ranks of several dozen regulars - including future rival Jay Leno - all hoping to hit it big. He landed comedy writing work with "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79), "The Paul Lynde Show" (ABC, 1972-73) and Afternoon Delighters "The Starland Vocal Band" (CBS, 1977), where he was also an occasional performer. Several 1978 appearances on Mary Tyler Moore's variety series, "Mary" (CBS, 1978) paled in comparison to his appearance on "The Tonight Show" that same year, when he would meet his comic idol Johnny Carson. Carson recognized a kindred spirit in Letterman and his role quickly evolved from idol to mentor, championing the young talent and helping him get his foot in the door of Hollywood.
Carson gave Letterman his first big boost by offering him slots as a guest host on "The Tonight Show," a duty shared with others including Joan Rivers and Leno. In 1980, Carson's production company put Letterman in the spotlight as the star of "The David Letterman Show" (NBC, 1980). The quirky talk/variety show had echoes of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and reflected a new breed of younger, edgier comedy. It was unlike anything else on the air - certainly anything on at 10 a.m. Morning audiences did not embrace Letterman's ironic take on the morning programming genre and "The David Letterman Show" lasted only three months, but it was critically well-received and garnered a handful of Daytime Emmy Awards. Around this time Letterman, whose first marriage ended in 1979, became involved with comedy writer Merrill Markoe, who had worked with him on the morning show. She would go on to play a crucial role as the head writer of Letterman's breakthrough program, "Late Night with David Letterman." Despite being justified, NBC had not lost heart in their comic after the "The David Letterman Show;" instead calling him back to retool his morning show for hipper late night audiences. On Feb. 1, 1982, "Late Night with David Letterman" joined the network in the post-"Tonight Show" slot of 12:30 a.m.
While "The Tonight Show" had incorporated some sketch comedy elements like the famous "Carnac the Magnificent" routine, most late night fare like Tom Snyder and Dick Cavett adhered closely to the revered one-on-one interview format. Packed with remote stunts, audience participation, many flying pencils and regular breaking of "the fourth wall," "Late Night" represented a marked shift in late night television that would eventually be felt across the networks and the schedule. Not only would the show's popularity draw attention to the lucrative potential of the time slot and inspire every network to launch its own competitor - including such spectacular hits-or-misses as Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg and Pat Sajak - but in the long-run, the cult status of "Stupid Pet Tricks," the "Top Ten List" and snarkily answered "Viewer Mail" segments helped usher in a whole new era of comedy irony. Letterman took television, which was supposed to be the sacred territory of "stars," and devoted much of it to the humor he found in every day people and places. Viewers ate up such guests as the lady who dressed her parrot like Cyndi Lauper or loved such bits as when Dave hit the streets to visit a lighting store called "Just Bulbs," and trying to buy something other than bulbs. Meanwhile, stars who visited the show did not receive their usual blind adoration but rather had to attune themselves to Letterman's almost combative interview style. Being able to "roll" with Letterman definitely lent a star street cred with viewers; Teri Garr was willing to be interviewed wrapped in a bath towel while Natassja Kinski stormed offstage after having her spiked hair mocked by the host.
Letterman's willingness to mock himself first and foremost helped him break down the status barriers and prepared guests for the Late Night attitude that "hey, we're all just people trying to be entertaining - go with it." In addition to endlessly making fun of his own crooked teeth, thinning hair, inherent dorkiness, or the low production values of the show, Letterman was always willing to make himself look unbelievably foolish, whether dumping mayonnaise on his head, leaping onto a Velcro wall in a Velcro suit, or lowering himself into a giant bowl of milk while covered in Rice Krispies. Playful sidekick and bandleader Paul Shaffer, plus a crack writing staff including Markoe and many former "SNL" writers, rounded out a team whose innovations outshone anything else on TV at the time. And their work did not go unnoticed. The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing 1984-87. In a gesture of recognition as well as an atypical acknowledgment of his own success, Letterman established a scholarship in his name at Ball State University, to which he contributed $20,000 per year for the remainder of his career. But Letterman's high profile and increasing fan base was not without its drawbacks. Beginning in the late eighties, he was the target of a schizophrenic stalker who was found numerous times trying to break into the host's New Canaan, CT, home and was once stopped while driving his Porsche, claiming to be his wife. The woman was hospitalized off and on before eventually committing suicide in a sad episode that even the comic genius found hard to laugh off. In fact, unlike most stars with stalkers, Letterman appeared to have more than enough sympathy for the mentally ill lady and seemed genuinely sad at her passing, even extending condolences to her family.
When Johnny Carson made a surprising retirement announcement in 1992, Letterman seemed the heir apparent to his mentor's chair at "The Tonight Show" desk. He had served as guest host 50 times and already had a long-term relationship with the network; not to mention a complete and highly functioning production staff. As a unit, the team was ready to head to Los Angeles, but the offer never came and Jay Leno was given the job. Speculation about the decision was endless, with the press building up a real or imagined rivalry between the two comics and fueling rumors about the Leno management's cutthroat tactics to win the crown. Questions about NBC's loyalty abounded. Were they unwilling to let go of the excellent ratings Letterman earned them in the traditionally difficult time slot, or were they fearful of how Letterman's edginess would fare in the 11:30 p.m. ratings and passed him over in favor of Leno's broader, red state appeal? Whatever the reason, Letterman took this opportunity to review his relationship with NBC and entered into a highly-publicized deal with CBS to develop a show for their 11:30 p.m. time slot, as well as several other primetime comedies, essentially thumbing his nose at the peacock.
On June 23, 1993, Letterman bid his audience and the National Broadcasting Corporation farewell, returning to television on August 30 with a revamped "Late Show with David Letterman" on CBS. Letterman held on to his perennial favorites by slightly tweaking them to avoid "intellectual property" infringements with NBC; the "Top Ten List" became "The Late Show Top Ten," "Viewer Mail" became "CBS Mailbag," and Paul Shaffer's "World's Most Dangerous Band" became the "CBS Orchestra." The host who was known for carelessly wearing sneakers also now wore loafers, albeit with white gym socks. But the show format remained relatively untouched and even benefited from its rebirth with a bounty of new material to work with within the large Ed Sullivan Theater. There was a bounty of new neighbors to play with, including the proprietor of Hello Deli and a duo who operated a gift shop next door. Letterman introduced his mother Dorothy as a recurring player, mining her emotionally flat demeanor for big laughs as a correspondent at the Olympics and other events. New recurring pieces showed that he and his team had not lost their ability to keep coming up with fresh material, launching new bits like "Will it Float?" and "Is this Anything?" as well as having staffers reverently read aloud transcripts from "Oprah" shows.
The former bit contributed to a long-running feud between Letterman and Winfrey, who felt uncomfortable being the butt of Letterman's jokes and repeatedly turned down offers to appear as a guest on the show. His mentor Carson, however, who rarely appeared in public at all made a surprise appearance during a week of Los Angeles tapings and never managed to get a word out due to an endlessly applauding crowd. Carson consistently faxed material for Letterman to use in his monologues, right up until the end of his life in 2005, with Letterman subtly crediting the master for his jokes by following them with his signature golf swing. Overall, it was business as usual and Letterman's late night production seemed to thrive following its network migration. For the first 18 months it steadily led the ratings. In 1995, however, Letterman hosted the 67th annual Academy Awards and failed so spectacularly, that it appeared viewing audiences held a grudge against him for besmirching the pomp with his flip sarcasm (i.e., "Uma, Oprah Oprah, Uma "). As the ratings began to slip, "The Tonight Show" scored a winning hand with Leno's post-prostitute bust Hugh Grant interview, and apparently many of the record number of viewers who tuned in that night never returned to Letterman. It appeared the network wanted Letterman to re-tool the show, and several of his key staff including director Hal Gurnee and executive producer Robert Morton left under unclear circumstances.
The series never fully regained its foothold, but still remained popular with Emmy voters, garnering top prize for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series in 1998-2002. His production company Worldwide Pants also used its production deal to develop a hit prime time sitcom for the network, "Everybody Loves Raymond" which jettisoned stand-up comic Ray Romano into star status. In 2000, Worldwide Pants also debuted the modestly successful dramedy about a New York lawyer returning to small town life with "Ed" on NBC. Letterman was a professional workhorse who was known for never missing a show until 2000, when the host had to undergo emergency quintuple bypass surgery. His recovery took six weeks, during which time friends like Regis Philbin, Bill Murray, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams and Janeane Garofalo took over hosting duties. In typical Letterman Humor fashion, he welcomed the staff responsible for his health onto the show afterwards and attempted to get a section of Indiana freeway renamed the David Letterman Bypass. Some maintain that this was a turning point for the comedian, who began to mellow with age, drop some of the sarcastic armor, and be a little more gracious and forthcoming. Paul Shaffer bluntly stated in an interview that his boss just stopped caring about doing a good show, but it could be argued that it was a welcome evolution for the comic and a respite from the world of sarcastic, ironic television that he had helped to create.
Never had the Teflon host offered a glimpse into his personal feelings as he did on Sept. 17, 2001. As one of the first shows to return to the airwaves following the terrorist attacks of September 11, he spoke compellingly and compassionately about New York City's loss and shared an emotional segment with guest Dan Rather, both men seemingly on the verge of tears. Thereafter, "The Late Show" opening announcement touted New York City as "The greatest city in the world" and replaced its former shot of Battery Park City with one of the Empire State Building. Whether the pair of humbling episodes had anything to do with a change in lifestyle, Letterman moved in with girlfriend Regina Lasko in 2001 and became a first time father in 2003, naming his son after his father. In 2007, Letterman further came out of his shell; this time to bury the hatchet with Winfrey, and was slated to tape an interview for her show in September, following an appearance Winfrey had made first on his show the previous year.
Throughout 2009, the spotlight-shunning comedian found himself making headlines for various reasons. His March wedding to Regina Laskoe after 23 years together allowed the public a rare glimpse of Letterman the man in all his vulnerability as he humorously recounted for his audience the reasons he decided to finally take the plunge. The rest of the headlines, however, were not so sweet. After over a year of taking comical swipes at former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, she first leveled accusations of sexism against the "Late Show" host for likening her public appearances to that of a "slutty flight attendant" during one of his famous Top Ten lists. She stirred up outcry by airing her grievance on "Today," and received more grist for the mill when several weeks later, Letterman's opening monologue included an off-color joke whose intended punch line involved womanizing New York Yankee pitcher Alex Rodriguez "knocking up" Palin's 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, a notorious single teen mother. But it had not been Bristol at Yankee Stadium that day; it had been Palin's 14-year-old daughter, Willow. Armed with statutory rape insinuations to level Letterman's way, Palin again decried the talk show host in the media. Eventually she accepted the host's second on-air apology.
Despite Letterman's repeated and sincere on-air mea culpas for what he admitted was a poorly constructed joke with no malicious intentions, conservative media and women's groups picked up the story and ran with it. Protestors lobbied for Letterman's dismissal outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, while defenders produced six months' worth of examples of Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson and "Saturday Night Live" jokes that showed Palin's daughters clearly having been the butt of sexual punch lines since her arrival in the public eye, and that she had not only ignored these earlier jabs, but continued to appear as a guest on those shows during the campaign. While the story dominated entertainment news headlines for a few weeks, CBS never considered pulling Letterman from his post over the incident.
But the Palin controversy paled in comparison to Letterman's own bombshell that he voluntarily dropped during the Oct. 1, 2009 episode. He admitted that he had been a recent victim of an extortion attempt in which $2 million had been requested to keep Letterman's sexual relationships with female "Late Show" staffers under wraps. Copies of a diary and other proof Letterman could not dismiss were found in a folder in the back seat of his car. Though he nervously joked his way through the issue at hand, he made it clear in his monologue that it was a serious enough charge that the New York district attorney's office set into motion a sting operation to nab the extortionist, who was revealed to be a fellow CBS network staffer, Robert Halderman, a producer for "48 Hours Mystery." As the scandal erupted over the weekend, it was revealed that Halderman had recently broken up with Stephanie Birkitt, who had been Letterman's personal assistant for years and reportedly one of the women with whom he had been involved with for years. Not surprisingly, the man who made countless Monica Lewinsky jokes was now forced to be the butt of similar jokes. Pundits wondered if this was the end of Letterman. The only late night comic who would not make jokes at his friend's expense was Conan O'Brien, who simply said "no comment." Four days after he admitted his transgressions, he memorably spent a segment of his show apologizing to his wife as well as his staff.
All was forgotten in January 2010 when a fresh round of talk show wars broke out, this time between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien over a scheduling move that pushed "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" back a half our to accommodate "The Jay Leno Show." The network's move soon led to O'Brien's departure amidst outrage from fans and fellow talk show hosts, most of whom favored O'Brien. But no one was more gleeful than Letterman, who took great pleasure in watching both Leno and NBC being raked over the coals in what was deemed a major public relations disaster. Night after night, Letterman skewered Leno and his former network while defending O'Brien. In a strange twist, Letterman appeared in a Super Bowl ad at the time of the debacle, sitting on a couch with Leno separated by Oprah Winfrey in the middle. The attempt by both was to repair their respective images; Leno wanted win people back to his side while Letterman sought to soften some of the cruel barbs he had hurled. Reportedly, Letterman wanted O'Brien to also be in the spot, but his wish never materialized. Meanwhile, in 2011, he was the subject of some sobering news when it was revealed that a Muslim militant made an Internet threat to cut Letterman's tongue out for a joke he made about the death of an Al-Qaeda leader in a drone strike. In typical Letterman fashion, he spent most of his show joking about the threat and even managed to put the blame on Leno. In September 2012, he received a prestigious honor when he was named a Kennedy Center honoree, the nation's highest honor bestowed upon influential cultural figures. Letterman was set to be inducted in December alongside Dustin Hoffman, bluesman Buddy Guy, Led Zeppelin and ballerina Natalia Makarova. Letterman's timeslot rival Leno finally ceded "The Tonight Show" to Jimmy Fallon in early 2014. On April 3, 2014, Letterman officially announced that he would be retiring in 2015. As the official retirement date of May 20, 2015 inched closer, favorite guests and famous fans began making public goodbyes during their final appearances on the show. Within the last month of shows, as the farewell reached a crescendo, the ironic and taciturn Letterman began showing uncharacteristic nostalgia and wistfulness on the air and in interviews. Letterman's final show featured an all-star group of fans including Barbara Walters, Tina Fey, and Peyton Manning reading the show's final Top Ten List ("Top 10 things I've always wanted to say to Dave"), followed by a compilation of favorite clips from the entirety of Letterman's career and a bon voyage performance by one of Letterman's favorite bands, Foo Fighters. The episode was one of the highest-rated shows of Letterman's career.
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