The David Letterman Show

I remember Letterman when he was THIS guy
I remember Letterman when he was THIS guy

Don’t be so smart. When I say “forgotten” I’m not talking about his current CBS night-time show, or even the long-running  NBC late-night show that preceded it. The squib below from my earlier David Letterman post will explain whereof we speak. Today is Letterman’s birthday.

(From the earlier post):

I am the only person I know who followed Letterman before he did late night television. I remember him when he was just a stand-up comic doing guest spots on The Tonight Show and other programs. I recall him winning a televised national contest of stand-ups somewhere around ’78 or ’79. And I was an avid follower — apparently one of the only audience members — for his first nationally televised program, The David Letterman Show, a morning program that ran from June through October, 1980. It was the most insane, misguided bit of tv scheduling, I believe, in the history of television. Mid-morning (10am or so) is sort of little-old-lady tv time. Who else would watch television at that hour? I remember it being the slot where in those days you would normally find things like Phil Donahue, Dinah Shore and game shows. Letterman’s show was satirical — a sort of parody of what you might find at that hour. The only precedent I can think of for something that subversive on daytime tv was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.  This ballsy, satirical approach filled a void at the time…it seems a legacy of what SNL had done just a few years before but had recently stopped doing, with the replacement of their entire cast and writing staff at just around the same time. (Later, Letterman even inherited SNL‘s Paul Shaffer). Regulars on the show included Rich Hall, Valri Bromfield, Edie McClurg, Wil Shriner, etc. For a few weeks his regular musical guest was Loudon Wainwright III.  Letterman’s biting sensibility was mixed with his own experience as a local broadcaster in his native Indiana in the early 70s, where he had been a weatherman, helmed a late night movie show, and done a children’s program. He and his cast played constantly with Americana and audience expectations about what would happen on television. What was radical for its time was the fact that they did so with a freedom that one associates with the early days of television. (I think it is for that reason a lot of people assumed Letterman was influenced by Ernie Kovacs, although he apparently insists he wasn’t. He usually cites Steve Allen, who was also regularly on his show. I also see a lot Bob & Ray in there…that dry, straight, deadpan, and the relentless parody of the broadcast medium itself.)

At any rate, this show was doomed to fail, although I was naive enough at the age of 14 to be bitterly disappointed.

For more on show business history, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville FamousAnd please stay tuned for Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Variety, coming November 2023.


  1. I’m eagerly awaiting your tribute to Larry “Bud” Melman! I vaguely remember him on daytime TV but I was rarely home at that time of day. Dave is the king of late night TV and there is some great competition, making his reign even more impressive. Even if Leno outdraws him in the ratings, Dave is still the best!


    • hear, hear! things are going to heat up a bit for him in a few months though when Jimmy Fallon takes over The Tonight Show


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