Back on the 1st of February 1982, David Letterman changed the talk show game forever with the first episode of Late Night with David Letterman. The show would run in its original NBC format for 11 years until its conclusion on the network on June 25th, 1993, with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks as his final guests.
Over the course of the series, Letterman laid down a new talk show style, engaging in verbal jousting with his guests, differing from the old school Dick Cavett approach of sincere questioning, or the classic set-up system of Johnny Carson. Letterman represented a new exciting iconoclastic wit for the American viewing public, evident from the very off as he offers up the following response to a tirade of humourous abuse and absurdity from his first guest, Bill Murray: “Now that you’re well known is it harder to be funny?” It was dry remarks like this that became somewhat of a trademark and leant the show a much more engaging style of interviewing, imitated by many who followed but never really matched.
Whilst most shows take a while to find their feet, it is clear from this first outing that Letterman, who was already an established stand-up comedian, comedy writer and even began broadcasting as a weatherman way back in 1969, hit the ground running. Evidently, he was helped to no end by the fired-up energy of lifelong friend Bill Murray, who appeared on various incarnations of the Letterman show over the years, even beating up a heckler in a famous 1991 skit. The wild and frantic whimsy of Murray, with weird quips like, “I had a chance to strangle Richard Nixon and I didn’t, and I regret it,” is perfectly contrasted by Letterman’s dry retorts, creating a collaboration that captivated audiences.
Forever a champion of stand-ups, among Letterman’s final guests was an unusually emotional Norm Macdonald who completed a teary-eyed set and to bring the whole thing full circle in the final episode Bill Murray burst out of a giant cake, covering Letterman in the frosting. Most notable of all, however, when viewing this very first outing is that barring a few grey hairs and a few thousand pixels, just how little has changed.
For all the lip-sync battles and Carpool Karaoke’s that have followed, there is still a void of the wonderfully weird waiting to be filled since Letterman departed the talk show scene. Fortunately, owing to the wonders of the internet, you can still relive the madness of an impromptu Bill Murray song and dance routine of Olivia Newton John’s then-recent release Physical. The Groundhog Day star proves to be the perfect first guest.
See the clip, below.