23 Things That David Letterman Invented
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All of the fawning pieces praising David Letterman’s storied career as a late night television innovator are well deserved; he is, as cliché as it has become, the Johnny Carson of a generation. But Late Night in particular was funny and innovative because of its passionate irreverence for show business and television itself, which makes all of the current fuss about the end of Letterman's 33-year run as ironic as the legendary host's sense of humor.
That being said, here are 23 recurring bits, features, and moments that the former Indiana weatherman and his writers invented for our amusement that will linger long after his final night in the Late Show chair.
1. THE SHORT, NON-TOPICAL MONOLOGUE
Carson Productions, as in Johnny Carson’s production company, co-produced Late Night with David Letterman, and as the upcoming lead-out programming for The Tonight Show, it was important to Carson’s people that Letterman not copy Carson. Letterman’s people were told that among other things, they couldn’t have a sidekick sitting next to the host like Ed McMahon, a band with horns like Doc Severinsen’s, or a monologue. Instead, Letterman opened the show standing in front of the audience and viewers at home with “opening remarks,” a monologue consisting of just one or two jokes with weird imagery, like tattoos melting in warm weather.
2. POST-INTERVIEW INTERVIEWS
On February 3, 1982—his third-ever broadcast—Late Night conducted two interviews with baseball hall-of-famer Hank Aaron: One was a standard talk show back-and-forth between host and guest. The other occurred after that conversation ended, where NBC Sports reporter Al Albert (son of Marv Albert) asked Aaron how he felt his last few minutes with Letterman went, with the idea that it was the equivalent of a post-game interview.
3. STUPID PET TRICKS
“Stupid Pet Tricks” began on David Letterman’s short-lived but Emmy-winning morning show, and was a consistently popular segment on both Late Night and The Late Show. The idea came from original head writer Merrill Markoe’s college nights of hanging out with friends, a few adult beverages, and putting socks on a dog.
4. WORLD’S LARGEST VASE CONTESTS
After questioning people who claimed to have the “world’s largest vase” over the phone in what New York Magazine estimated as a “longish” segment, the vase was brought into the studio and displayed on Late Night from May 30-June 2, 1983 (SCTV and Friday Night Videos usually aired during Late Night’s 12:30 a.m. time slot on Fridays until 1986). On its third night, a 35-inch radio transmitting tower was added to the case when it was discovered that it was shorter than one in Canada. On its final night of national exhibition, Letterman read alleged letters from children addressed to the Vase, and the vase “spoke” to wish for peace for mankind.
5. CATCHPHRASE CONTESTS
Two on-air catchphrase contests, which aired a little over a month apart in the summer of 1984, gave lucky studio audiences the power to make “They pelted us with rocks and garbage” the first rallying cry, before it was displaced by, "I do and do and do for you kids, and this is the thanks I get!"
6. A CAMERA FROM THE HOST'S P.O.V.
The February 15, 1982 installment of Late Night began with one continuous five minute and 17 second take through Letterman’s P.O.V. called “Dave Cam.” Cameos included that night’s guest Andy Rooney, Merrill Markoe, and Calvert DeForest, who played Larry “Bud” Melman on Late Night, as “Bert the Human Caboose.”
7. A CAMERA FROM THE GUEST’S P.O.V.
Letterman favorite Tom Hanks was the first wearer of the “Late Night Guest-Cam.” Hanks was on the show the night of December 12, 1985 to promote The Money Pit, which was initially supposed to debut the next day, but would be delayed until the following March. “The Late Night Sky-Cam” makes a cameo.
8. A CAMERA FROM A MONKEY’S P.O.V.
After a false start with a 30-year-old chimp named Bo who was too small to handle the camera, “Monkey Cam” got its start on March 19, 1986. Zippy, who was on the cover of The Ramones' Animal Boy album, would return on roller skates with the “Late Night Monkey Cam Mobile Unit.”
9. PURPOSELY FUNNY TOP 10 LISTS
The very first Top Ten—“The Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas"—aired on September 18, 1985, set up as a satire of the random lists publications like Good Housekeeping were starting to produce at the time. Credit for who thought up the idea for Late Night is disputed; over the years, head writer Steve O’Donnell, former head writer and longtime SNL scribe Jim Downey, Late Night writer Randy Cohen, and producer Robert Morton have all gotten some or all of the credit. Top Ten made it to the end of Late Show’s run, even though the writers were already tiring of it by the February 6, 1986 show, which had the Top Ten list “Top Ten Reasons to Continue the Top Ten Lists Just a Little Longer.”
10. WEARING SUITS OF VELCRO, ALKA-SELTZER, MAGNETS, SPONGES, SUET, AND FOODS
On February 28, 1984, Letterman slipped into a “Suit of Velcro” and ushered in an era of strange outfits including a magnet get-up, which Letterman wore to attach himself to a huge GE fridge. Lowering himself into a 1,000-gallon tank of water, Letterman’s suit of Alka-Seltzer fizzed and vaporized. There were also suits of suet, marshmallows, chips, and Rice Krispies, the latter of which made David “snap, crackle, and pop” in a large tub of milk. An influence was Steve Allen, the original host of The Tonight Show, who threw himself into Jell-O vats on television. Allen’s “Man on the Street” interviews were also something Letterman took to new levels of absurdity.
11. HOSTING A SHOW ABOARD AN AIRPLANE
Late Night’s fourth anniversary was celebrated onboard a flight from New York City to Miami.
12. AN EPISODE THAT ROTATES 360 DEGREES
Writers Randy Cohen and Kevin Curran came up with the unique way to celebrate the 800th episode of Late Night. NBC received “several hundred” phone calls about the December 9, 1986 show from viewers complaining that it was giving them headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Carson Productions executives were apparently not informed of the stunt beforehand and were “furious.”
13. FEUDING WITH BRYANT GUMBEL
After Letterman interrupted an August 19, 1985 broadcast of Today co-hosted by Bryant Gumbel, Gumbel called out the Late Night host for being “unprofessional” and didn’t publicly forgive him for four years. (Letterman claims it was a Today producer who invited him to pull the stunt.)
14. FEUDING WITH OPRAH WINFREY
In the 16 years between Oprah's 1989 appearance on Late Night and her December 1, 2005 Late Show interview, rumors swirled about a feud between Winfrey and Letterman. The reasons why—and even if—there was a “feud” at all are unclear.
15. CO-HOSTING AN EPISODE WITH A CORNY MORNING SHOW THEME
On February 27, 1985, Letterman shared hosting duties with “Tawny Harper Reynolds,” with guests Michael Palin, a Pet Psychic, and an exercise segment with Carol Channing.
16. AN HOUR-LONG PARODY OF 1970s PRIMETIME VARIETY SHOWS
“Dave Letterman's Summertime Sunshine Happy Hour” graced the NBC airwaves on the night of August 29, 1985. Early in his TV career, Letterman wrote and was a part of the cast of The Starland Vocal Band Show.
17. AN HOUR-LONG PARODY OF CHRISTMAS SPECIALS
December 19, 1984’s "Christmas With the Lettermans," featuring Pat Boone, won Late Night a 1985 Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Program.
18. ‘CUSTOM-MADE’ SHOWS
On November 15, 1983, Late Night relinquished control of the show to the audience, giving them a choice on everything from the furniture to the theme song. On March 27, 1984’s version, the show opened with the theme to Bonanza, the announcer was the New York Lieutenant Governor, and Jane Pauley was interviewed in a dentist's chair.
19. DUBBING A RERUN FROM ENGLISH TO ENGLISH
When the February 17, 1986 episode re-aired on September 25th of that year, 250 confused viewers called the network. After 60 hours and four professional dubbers, everyone on the episode (Raquel Welch was the main guest) magically had different voices. Even Letterman's voice was dubbed (by Speed Racer's Peter Fernandez).
20. 4 A.M. SHOWS
May 14, 2004’s Late Show was taped at four in the morning, on purpose. Amy Sedaris, rat expert Robert Sullivan, and Modest Mouse were the guests. Letterman rode a horse, Sedaris gave an unsafe late night tour of her neighborhood, and Modest Mouse played in their pajamas.
21. DEDICATING MOST OF AN EPISODE TO A DECEASED COMEDIAN AND HIS FAMILY
Letterman invited Bill Hicks’ mother, Mary, to appear on the January 30, 2009 episode to apologize face-to-face for not airing Hicks’ controversial October 1, 1993 stand-up performance. In February of 1994, Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer at 32 years old. After talking to Mary, Letterman finally presented Bill’s set.
22. DEDICATING AN ENTIRE EPISODE TO A COMEDY HERO
On the first new Late Show after Johnny Carson's passing, Letterman's monologue was filled with jokes that the retired Carson had anonymously submitted to David over the years. Long-time The Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen were that night's only guests.
23. THE ‘WILL IT FLOAT?’ GAME
The first installment of “Will It Float?” was on February 6, 2002. A brick of Velveeta cheese sank. Dave got it right, whereas Paul got it wrong.