David Letterman's Top 10 Late-Night Memories (Well, Not Really)

David Letterman's Top 10 Late-Night Memories (Well, Not Really)

5:05pm May 14, 2015
David Letterman, seen here snapping a selfie with his replacement Stephen Colbert, will step down next week as host of the Late Show.
David Letterman, seen here snapping a selfie with his replacement Stephen Colbert, will step down next week as host of the Late Show.
Getty Images

What I first noticed about David Letterman was how quickly he ditched the suit.

During a taping of the Late Show on Monday at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan, he put off donning his suit jacket as long as possible, greeting the crowd in just a shirt and tie for a pre-show Q & A session before shrugging on the coat just as recording began.

Minutes after the show ended — the big highlight was seeing shock jock Howard Stern try to kiss Letterman on the lips — the host was completely out of his monkey suit. Clad in a long-sleeve shirt, khaki pants and hiking boots, he looked nothing like the big shot broadcasting legend who had held court with Don Rickles and Stern just moments earlier.

And perhaps that was the point. Because as Letterman answered questions posed by NPR about his impending departure, it was obvious he had settled into the idea that his historic run was finally coming to an end and his life was entering a new chapter.

"Up until this weekend I was feeling ... everything you might feel. Nervous. Uncomfortable. Out-of-sorts concern. And now I kinda feel like ... it is over now. I feel like these — these next two or three days are just cleanin' up paperwork. And, y'know, we're done."

Interview Highlights

On how Steve Allen influenced him

The "man on the street" stuff I think was a product of his prime time, which was on opposite Ed Sullivan. And then what I loved on another show, I think it was a syndicated show where they would — he used to broadcast from a theater, Hollywood and Vine. And they would just take the camera out on the street and Steve would just play the piano and you'd just see people walking by on the street. And Steve would make funny remarks about them. That was the "man on the street" that I was influenced by. ...

And then, they would occasionally run across the street to the farmer's market. ... And they would start the — they'd start in the produce section and start throwing fruit back and forth. And it was just like, how can you do this?!

On his first show after Sept. 11

I knew how I felt. I wasn't in the city when it happened. I remember flying back to the city ... my wife and I are coming back and, and we could see — this is like four days after the attack — we could see as, when we were landing, we could see these plumes of smoke rising. Y'know, everyone has a dramatic story. ...

I didn't know what my role was supposed to be. I knew that it was something that I wanted to respond to, but I knew whatever I said really wasn't gonna make a difference, y'know. Three thousand people were dead; I just got a talk show. ... So I dunno, I just, I tried to explain how I felt and ... that was it.

On his favorite guests

When Joaquin Phoenix came on [pretending he had quit acting to be a rapper] I just loved it. That was a bit reminiscent of Andy Kaufman. I loved it when Andy Kaufman would come on. It was just fantastic and unusual and the audience never knew whether he was serious ... Tina Fey last week, I thought that was great. That was a spur-of-the-moment, something that she was, y'know, she's put some time and effort into that. A lady doesn't take her dress off unless there's been some time and effort put into it.

And I love when Bill Murray comes on because ... he's one of these guys who, irrespective of what he's doing, he's funny. And he goes to great, elaborate lengths to do things. And it's always unnecessary. Because he's just funny. And for me it's very satisfying to see the big elaborate thing just kind of collapse on itself. And he still is tickled by it because ... all he is, is funny.

On ceding control of the show, including the final episode

When I get, had my heart surgery — this was 15 years ago — I said, "That's it, I'm not going to rehearsal anymore, I'm not going to meetings anymore." Because I have — the ADD, the HDAC or whatever you have — and I can't sit through another damn meeting.

So when it came time for the last show I said, "You guys" — speaking to the producers — "you start doing it." ... And I'll just do what I think I'm responsible for. So that's what happened. And from what I've seen they're doing a very nice job. And all I have to worry about is my one little segment.

So now I'm feeling pretty comfortable about it. ... It's so much fun now because it's so easy now. ... Everything is pre-prepared. All I do is show up in a suit. But for most of the time, it wasn't that — it was [ducking his head in his hands like a prizefighter]: "Are they gonna stop this fight? When are they gonna stop this fight?"

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We're going to hear the biggest voice in late-night on this early morning. David Letterman is preparing to leave his chair. His 33-year run on late-night TV is the longest in American television history. The final episode of the "Late Show With David Letterman" will air next Wednesday on CBS. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans sat down with him.


DAVID LETTERMAN: We got to go.


ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Minutes after David Letterman ended one of his last shows at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, I met him upstairs in his offices. He'd already changed out of his suit and into a long-sleeve T-shirt, khakis and hiking boots. He looked relaxed and at ease. He says he's finally at peace with the approaching end of his show.

LETTERMAN: It's all but over, so I kind of feel like it is over now. I feel like these next two or three days are just cleaning up paperwork, and we're done.

DEGGANS: This comes after years of indecision about when he might stop making his show. But when Jay Leno left NBC's "Tonight Show" last year, Letterman knew it was time for him to leave his CBS show as well.

LETTERMAN: You know, you just think, oh, jeez, do I want to go to work? Do I want to go to work? I wish I didn't have to go to work. But then when Jay left, I realized, oh, yeah, you got to be younger really to do this job. And so I thought I don't want to be the old man left out here, you know, fighting for scraps and crumbs. So that's when it became an inevitability.

DEGGANS: Letterman says he gets uncomfortable when other people say he re-invented late-night comedy. Most years, he says, he was just trying to keep the show on the air.

LETTERMAN: I was more concerned about it getting canceled. It was hard to believe that it ever went out of the building. You know what I mean? I don't know if others were, but I certainly was not aware that there was anything greater going on than just trying to hit a number that the network could live with.

DEGGANS: Funny thing is David Letterman never thought he'd be doing it this long anyway. Back in 1991, he'd already been hosting a different show, NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman," for nearly 10 years. Letterman's show aired after Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and he was considered Carson's likely successor. But when NBC named Jay Leno to take over "The Tonight Show" instead, Letterman went on Carson's show to answer a question about his future.


JOHNNY CARSON: Can you envision yourself 20 years from now doing the - your late night show?

LETTERMAN: (Laughter).

CARSON: I'll put down as a...

LETTERMAN: Good one, John.

CARSON: I'll put down - I'll put that down as a hardly no, right?

LETTERMAN: I don't how you've done it. I don't.


LETTERMAN: You know what, 10 years to me seems like - some nights it seems like it's been 10 years.


LETTERMAN: When you have a job, often you forget how lucky you are to have a job. When you don't have a job, every day is a reminder how unlucky you are not to have a job. And in those days, I was probably being smug about it because I used to say, oh, jeez, no, you can't do this show if you're over 40.

DEGGANS: Letterman stayed on the job long past age 40, moving to CBS, creating the "Late Show," and pushing his staff hard.

LETTERMAN: I think I just burned out, and people burned out. And some people left, and some people changed jobs. And so I think I went through a several-year period of, well, what exactly do I do now? I don't have the same tools, but I still have the same mentality about it. And I think that was hurtful to both the show and to myself.

DEGGANS: Then in 2000, Letterman had quintuple bypass surgery on his heart, and his priorities changed.

LETTERMAN: I said, that's it. I'm not going to rehearsal anymore. I'm not going to meetings anymore because I have the ADD or the HDAC or whatever you have, and I can't sit through another damn meeting. So when it came time for the last show, I said, you guys -speaking to the producers - you guys, just you start doing it, and I'll just do what I think I'm responsible for. So that's what's happened. And from what I've seen, they're doing a very nice job.

DEGGANS: We'll have to wait to see exactly what Letterman delivers in that last show. And after it's over, he says he'll spend more time with wife, Regina, and his 11-year-old son, Harry. Letterman doesn't seem like the kind of guy who will fade out of show business like his mentor Johnny Carson did, but he's not counting on a second career either.

LETTERMAN: I'm 68. Who the hell is going to say, let's get a really old guy in here and see what he can do?

DEGGANS: Maybe nobody, or maybe David Letterman is underestimating his legendary impact once again. I'm Eric Deggans.

INSKEEP: He's NPR's TV critic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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