23 Things David Letterman Invented for Our Amusement

Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

This week, nearly three years after bidding farewell to Late Night, David Letterman is making his triumphant return to the small screen via Netflix with My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman (where he'll interview two people who need no introduction: Barack Obama and George Clooney). If the series is anything like Letterman's career thus far, you can expect plenty of innovation.

Here are 23 recurring bits, features, and moments that the former Indiana weatherman (and his writers) invented for our amusement.

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. So instead, Letterman opened his show by 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 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, who "remembered how in college my friends and I would be hanging around in the evenings, talking, and drinking. One form of constant entertainment was to put socks on this one dog. Everyone I knew did some version of a silly thing like that with their pets, so we ran an ad to see if we could pull a segment together like that."

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 described as a “longish” segment, the vase was brought into the studio and displayed on Late Night from May 30 through June 2, 1983. 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, 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 1000-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 reportedly “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 claimed 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 remain 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’s mother, Mary, to appear on the January 30, 2009 episode to apologize face-to-face for not airing Hicks’s controversial October 1, 1993, stand-up performance. In February of 1994, Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 32. 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.

The 15 Best TV Series Finales of All Time

Ursula Coyote, AMC
Ursula Coyote, AMC

What makes a great TV series finale? It depends on the show, of course. But no matter what series you may be watching, you want a finale that ties up loose ends without being annoyingly completist, gives you heart without seeming overly sentimental, and of course makes you feel just as happy, sad, thrilled, or compelled as you did with each previous episode. It’s a very tricky needle to thread, and some series have undoubtedly done it better than others.

In celebration of what it takes to deliver a great final episode, here are (some of) the greatest series finales of all time.

1. The Sopranos // “Made In America”

“Made In America” is, infamously, the episode of television that made millions of viewers briefly think that their cable had just gone out at some crucial moment, when in reality what happened was creator David Chase simply decided one seemingly random moment was the exact second where Tony Soprano’s journey would end. The series finale of The Sopranos spent the better part of its runtime wrapping up a mob war that crippled the family, and then devoted its final minutes to a family dinner set to Journey. Fans still debate the meaning and merits of the final scene, but the sense of palpable unease Chase built up in those last moments—signifying Tony’s perpetual state of watching his back—were a brilliant way to end a show that began as a meditation on existential dread in the first place.

2. Six Feet Under // “Everyone’s Waiting”

The final minutes of “Everyone’s Waiting” are among the most famous in the history of television, and even if the rest of the episode had been a disappointment, they would still rank among the greatest farewells in the medium. As it is, Six Feet Under's final episode with the Fisher family is a gripping, heartfelt, and bitterly funny gem, all building to that last montage. As Sia’s "Breathe Me" plays, we see the deaths of every member of the main cast, which reminds us that death takes many forms beyond mere tragedy, all culminating in the last breaths of Claire. Just thinking about it is enough to make fans of the show burst into tears.

3. Breaking Bad // “Felina”

Few series finales have ever faced such high expectations and managed to rise to meet them so powerfully as Breaking Bad did with its final episode in 2013. “Felina” has everything you could ever want from a Breaking Bad send-off: Walt’s final conversation with Skyler, that incredible revenge shoot-out featuring the rigged machine gun, Jesse’s defiant cry of freedom as he drives away, Walt’s collapse, and that little smile of victory on his face. Some series finales deliver what you want; others deliver what you need. “Felina” somehow manages to do both.

4. M*A*S*H // “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”

M*A*S*H was on longer than the Korean War was actually fought, and was more than 250 episodes into its run by the time “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired and became one of the most-watched television events in the history of the medium. You’d think the staff of the 4077th might have run out of things to say after such a run, but the series finale manages to be absolutely jam-packed, featuring everything from Hawkeye’s dark repressed memories to Klinger’s wedding. It all builds to that final shot of “GOODBYE” written in stones, which still ranks as one of the most iconic moments in TV history.

5. The Americans // “START”

The Americans quietly became one of the best shows on TV before finally winning a bunch of awards for its final season, and with good reason. The final adventures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as they contemplated a return to Russia and an end to their double lives in America were among the best the series ever delivered, all building to a final episode that stuck the landing in every possible way, from the thrills of their final escape to the emotional payoff of their daughter Paige’s big decision.

6. The Wire // "-30-"

The Wire was never going to end anything in a clean, cut-and-dried way, but its series finale did mange to wield the various talents at play in the series to end everything on an ambitious and fairly comprehensive note. The finale reckoned with many of the same questions the entire series did—from the nature of justice to the fragility of power systems and how far people will go to keep them in place—as it worked to resolve the homeless serial killer hoax, illegal wiretapping, and the all-important future of Tommy Carcetti. One last montage reminds us that life goes on in Baltimore, whether the show’s characters have reshaped it for the better or not.

7. Seinfeld // “The Finale”

The series finale of Seinfeld is also among the most divisive in the history of television, and it all begins with an amusing swerve. The show leads off by making us think Jerry and George are about to embark on a typical sitcom sendoff, bidding New York City farewell as they head to California to make a television series, but then the real plot kicks in as the show’s quartet of main characters is arrested for literally doing nothing as a man is carjacked.

The brilliance of the show’s protagonists getting in trouble for the very same thing they’d been doing for nine seasons in a “show about nothing” then pivots to a trial that does play by the sitcom rule of allowing old fan-favorite characters to come back as witnesses, then launches into a wrap-up that mocks the characters, the show’s fans, and the show’s own place of seeming importance in the pop culture landscape. Sitcom finales are usually more like curtain calls; "The Finale" was a provocative final joke.

8. Battlestar Galactica // “Daybreak Parts 1-3”

The finale of Battlestar Galactica might be a little too metaphysical in nature for some viewers, but there’s something about the sense of totality running through it that makes it a perfect sendoff for a series that always placed everything on the line with every single story it told. As the surviving humans of the fleet finally defeat their Cylon enemies, Starbuck sends them to a new home, and they agree to abandon all of their old technology and live among the primitive humans already present on what turns out to be our Earth. It’s a beautiful blending of victory, bittersweet goodbyes, seismic changes to everyone’s lives, angels, the future, and—believe it or not—“All Along the Watchtower.”

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation // “All Good Things…”

“Encounter at Farpoint,” the series premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a famously slow, bloated affair that was a sign of things to come for the relatively weak first season. “All Good Things…” brilliantly repurposes that story as a time travel saga in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) learns that Q, the alien being who put humanity on trial back in the premiere, is continuing his test of the human race by placing Picard in three different eras of his life. It’s a brilliant conceit that makes an elegant circle out of the series while also allowing Picard to give viewers a grand tour of the series’ entire history, including his own future.

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer // “Chosen”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer spent weeks setting up its series finale, laying out a last stand that would either end Buffy and her gang of allies forever or wipe Sunnydale off the face of the Earth—or both. The final battle itself has since been dwarfed by more epic series like Game of Thrones, but what makes “Chosen” so magical isn’t its fight scenes, but its heart. With her own army of potential Slayers at her back, Buffy asks Willow to perform a spell that will give them all the powers of a Slayer, leading to one of the most empowering montages in the history of television. Then, even while mourning absent friends, Buffy is able to look toward tomorrow.

11. Newhart // “The Last Newhart”

So many sitcom series finales are all about final goodbyes. Very often characters leave their longtime TV homes for somewhere new, leading to tearful farewells or at least a final moment for everyone to spend one last day together. Newhart absolutely blew that premise up with a twisty, joke-filled finale that includes the entire town being turned into a resort, a five-year time jump, and that brilliant final scene which reveals all of Newhart to have been the dream of Dr. Bob Hartley, Newhart’s character from The Bob Newhart Show. The level of ambition is admirable. That the ambition translated to genuine laughs is wonderful.

12. Twin Peaks: The Return // “Part 17 and Part 18”

Twin Peaks famously ended its early ’90s run with a cliffhanger, which then led to the joyous reception that accompanied The Return, an 18-hour monument to creative freedom which everyone hoped would finally provide some answers. In true David Lynch fashion, though, the answers we got were often difficult to parse. And by the time it was all over, we were left with even more questions. The final two hours of The Return are among the most mind-meltingly intense episodes of television ever devised, all building to a daring and stunning final scene that still has fans talking.

13. The West Wing // “Tomorrow”

The West Wing played the long game with its series finale thanks to a year-long election storyline, which meant that its final episode was always going to be the combination of both an end and a beginning. The intense election story—which included a live debate episode—culminated in the inauguration of a new president, and a farewell to Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, but the sense of transition inherent in the plot managed to imbue the series with a new sense of potential energy as it made the turn toward home. Watching “Tomorrow,” you can’t help but fantasize about what it will be like for Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to be together in the White House again, changing the world in all new ways. That emotional weight meant that, after seven years, we actually all felt like we could use a little more of The West Wing.

14. Halt and Catch Fire // “Ten of Swords”

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire
Bob Mahoney, AMC

Halt and Catch Fire never got the audience it deserved when it was airing, which means many people likely don’t know just how brilliant and daring the show got in its final seasons, which included a time jump, a shocking death, and the dawn of the internet age. “Ten of Swords” is all about closing old chapters and starting new ones, and sends the show’s trinity of remaining major characters in promising new directions, even as they all come to terms with the fact that they can never again recapture what they once had.

15. 30 Rock // “Last Lunch”

30 Rock was one of the most acclaimed comedies of its era in part because of its outright refusal to ever be straightforward about anything. Every plot was jokes on top of jokes and references on top of references, creating a show that rewards viewers who can’t get enough of rapid fire wit (and deserves rewatching). “Last Lunch” continued that tradition while also managing to inject some genuine emotion into the affair, as Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) reconcile their friendship in a half hour packed with so many gags and callbacks you could watch it half a dozen times and still not catch everything.

10 Surprising Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about The Lord of the Rings author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th), here are 10 of them.

1. Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. Tolkien felt many of his fans were "lunatics."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. Tolkien loved his day job.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. He was quite romantic.

At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. Tolkien's relationship with C.S. Lewis was complicated.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. Tolkien enjoyed clubbing.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. He wasn't blowing smoke about those war scenes.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. Tolkien invented languages for fun.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. Tolkien been published almost as prolifically posthumously as he was when he was alive.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. Tolkien called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus."

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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