A Look Back at David Letterman's 30 Years on Late-Night TV
David Letterman began his talk show career in the morning, where he was an immediate ratings flop.
Although in the 1980's The David Letterman Show won two daytime Emmys, the live show was off the air in less than five months. Then-NBC president Fred Silverman blames himself for its failure ("It was a mismatch; it was not geared toward a daytime women's audience"), but it led to NBC spending more than$1 million to keep Letterman, a former TV weatherman, under contract so he could take over the post-Tonight Show 12:30 a.m. slot 16 months later.
Late Night With David Letterman debuted Feb. 1, 1982, with head writer Merrill Markoe (Letterman's then-girlfriend) and director Hal Gurnee coming with him from the daytime show. Paul Shaffer led The World's Most Dangerous Band, as he still does on Letterman's CBS show.
Robert Morton, who began as a segment producer and later became Late Night's producer, says Letterman, then 34, and Markoe knew what they wanted, "and everybody else kind of fell in line with that vision." He says part of the show's quirky approach came from restraints put on it by Carson Productions, which controlled the time slot. There would be no Ed McMahon-like sidekick, as Tonight Show had, nor Doc Severinsen-style horns in the band. And some regular Carson guests were off-limits.
"In hindsight, most of the guests we couldn't have didn't fit the vision," says Morton. "It was, like, Steve [Lawrence] & Eydie Gorme and Alan King. We were forced to make the alternate decisions that made it an alternative show."
Letterman famously left Late Night in 1993 after NBC gave Carson's Tonight Show job to Jay Leno. CBS then signed him to a three-year, $14 million annual contract that doubled his salary to start Late Show With David Letterman.