top of page

Our April 12 New Yorker of the Day is Talk Show Host David Letterman

Television personality and talk show host David Letterman was born on April 12, 1947, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Harry Joseph Letterman, a florist, and Dorothy, a church secretary who appeared regularly as a correspondent on his late-night talk show. He has two sisters, Janice and Gretchen. Letterman is best known for his self-mockery and his brash, wry, somewhat cynical sense of humor. His unconventional demeanor and sense of humor attracted a cult following, which has went on to inspire countless comedians and talk show hosts who have followed him.

In total, Letterman hosted 6,080 episodes of Late Night and Late Show, surpassing his friend and mentor Johnny Carson as the longest-runninglate night talk show host in American television history. In total his show won six Prime Time Emmy Awards. He is also a television and film producer. His company, Worldwide Pants, produced his shows as well as The Late Late Show and several prime-time comedies, the most successful of which was Everybody Loves Raymond, now in syndication.

Letterman’s big break came when he began appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was eventually offered his own program, Late Night with David Letterman, on which he featured such popular segments as Stupid Pet Tricks. When NBC gave Carson's spot to Jay Leno in 1992, Letterman moved to CBS to host Late Show for the next two-plus decades.

Several late-night hosts have cited Letterman's influence, including Conan O'Brien (his successor on Late Night), Stephen Colbert (his successor on The Late Show), Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, and Seth Meyers. Letterman currently hosts the Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.

Letterman began his broadcasting career as an announcer and newscaster at the college's student-run radio station—WBST—a 10-watt campus station which now is part of Indiana Public Radio. He was fired for treating classical music with irreverence. He then became involved with the founding of another campus station—WAGO-AM 570 (now WWHI, 91.3).

Soon after graduating from Ball State College in Indiana in 1969, Letterman began his career as a radio talk show host on WNTS (AM) and on Indianapolis television station WLWI (which changed its call sign to WTHR in 1976) as an anchor and weatherman. He received some attention for his unpredictable on-air behavior, which included congratulating a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane and predicting hail stones "the size of canned hams."

He would also occasionally report the weather and the day's very high and low temps for fictitious cities ("Eight inches of snow in Bingree and surrounding areas"), while on another occasion saying that a state border had been erased when a satellite map accidentally omitted the state border between Indiana and Ohio, attributing it to dirty political dealings. ("The higher-ups have removed the border between Indiana and Ohio making it one giant state. Personally, I'm against it. I don't know what to do about it.")

TV Writer and 'Tonight Show' Guest Host

In 1975, Letterman moved to Los Angeles and wrote material for popular sitcoms, including Good Times. His big break came when he began appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, whom he has since referred to as his mentor. In 1978, he became Carson's regular guest host, and in 1980, he was offered his own daytime show, the David Letterman Show. The show only lasted for three months, but was a critical success, and convinced NBC-TV to give the young comedian a late-night show following Carson's The Tonight Show.

In 1992, Johnny Carson retired, and many fans believed that Letterman would become host of The Tonight Show. When NBC instead gave the job to Jay Leno, Letterman departed NBC to host his own late-night show on CBS, opposite The Tonight Show at 11:30 p.m., called the Late Show with David Letterman. The new show debuted on August 30, 1993, and was taped at the historic Ed Sullivan Theater, where Ed Sullivan broadcast his variety show from 1948 to 1971. For Letterman's arrival, CBS spent US$8 million in renovations. In addition to that cost, CBS also signed Letterman to a lucrative three-year, US$14 million/year contract, doubling his Late Night salary.

Letterman's signature features included The Top Ten List, Stupid Pet Tricks (along with its companion, Stupid Human Tricks), Viewer Mail and pencils tossed at the camera and at the set behind him, "breaking" the non-existent glass with a cued crash sound. He also became known for his parody sketches that targeted the obviously weak acting abilities of his bandleader, Paul Shaffer (and other members of The World's Most Dangerous Band), stagehand Biff Henderson and general oddball Larry "Bud" Melman.

Letterman's last episode aired on May 20, 2015, and opened with a presidential send-off featuring four of the five living American presidents, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, each mimicking the late president Gerald Ford's statement that "Our long national nightmare is over." It also featured cameos from The Simpsons and Wheel of Fortune (the latter with a puzzle saying "Good riddance to David Letterman"), a Top Ten List of "things I wish I could have said to David Letterman" performed by regular guests including Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray, and closed with a montage of scenes from both his CBS and NBC series set to a live performance of "Everlong" by Foo Fighters.

The final episode of Late Show with David Letterman was watched by 13.76 million viewers in the United States with an audience share of 9.3/24, earning the show its highest ratings since following the 1994 Winter Olympics on February 25, 1994, and the show's highest demo numbers (4.1 in adults 25–54 and 3.1 in adults 18–49) since Oprah Winfrey's first Late Show appearance following the ending of her feud with Letterman on December 1, 2005. Bill Murray, who had been his first guest on Late Night, was his final guest on Late Show.

In April 2014, David Letterman announced his plans to retire in 2015, and Stephen Colbert was named as his replacement. “I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all of the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much,” Letterman announced on-air to his studio audience.

In October 2017, Letterman was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor which "recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain."

Two years after his retirement, the longtime host announced his return to television in a new talk show series on Netflix, titled My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. "I feel excited and lucky to be working on this project for Netflix," he said in a statement. "Here's what I have learned, if you retire to spend more time with your family, check with your family first. Thanks for watching, drive safely." With musical contributions from his old bandleader, Shaffer, and sporting a massive gray beard, Letterman debuted My Next Guest Needs No Introduction on January 12, 2018, with former President Barack Obama as his first guest. The show ran for two seasons in 2018 and 2019.

Letterman is known for keeping his romantic and private life under tight wraps from the media. He was married to Michele Cook from 1969-'77, after which he was romantically linked to comedienne/writer Merrill Markoe. He then began a relationship with production manager Regina Lasko in the mid '80s. Letterman and Lasko celebrated the birth of their son in 2003, and named him after the TV host's father, Harry Joseph Letterman. On March 19, 2009, the couple wed in a private courthouse ceremony in Choteau, Montana. The couple reconciled and now resides with their son on a 108-acre estate in North Salem, New York, located in NE Westchester County.

Letterman’s foundation has supported Doctors Without Borders and the American Cancer Society, as well as Letterman’s alma mater, Ball State University. In fact, Letterman has been a major supporter of Ball State, donating much of his Late Showarchive to the university after retirement. The university also named the David Letterman Communication and Media Building after him.

21 views0 comments


bottom of page