Everyone’s favorite wise-ass began his career as a weekend weathercaster at an Indianapolis TV station; he eventually lost his job after several on-air stunts (including congratulating a tropical storm when it was upgraded to a hurricane.) Moving to L.A. in 1975, Letterman worked the stand-up comedy circuit and wrote material for sitcoms such as Good Times and The Paul Lynde Comedy Hour.
Stints as a regular on The Starland Vocal Band and Mary Tyler Moore’s variety series, Mary, did not help his career, but appearances on the Tonight show did. Johnny Carson made him a regular guest host, and in 1980, Letterman was given his own daytime show, which–although it lasted only three months–convinced the executives at NBC to let him try with a different audience with a show at 12:30 a.m.
Late Night With David Letterman, with its Stupid Pet and Human Tricks, Top Ten lists, canned hams, and visits from Chris Elliott and Larry “Bud” Melman, became a favorite of the college crowd. Letterman’s sometimes cutting humor doesn’t work with all guests–he almost reduced guest Nastassja Kinski to tears when he made fun of her hair, and Cher called him an asshole on the show–but has proved a saving grace with some guests–a psychotic Crispin Glover or a foul-mouthed Madonna.
When Carson announced his retirement, in 1992, Letterman hoped to assume his 11:30 p.m. slot, but in a late night war that inspired a book and a movie, Jay Leno was chosen instead. Letterman, feeling the network underappreciated his contribution, grabbed a $14 million dollar offer from rival CBS (a deal negotiated by Mike Ovitz). It was not a smooth transition, with NBC claiming that many of Letterman’s most popular routines were their “intellectual property” and could not be used on a different network. Letterman used them anyway, and his Late Show was a huge success when it debuted opposite Leno, consistently winning in the ratings.
Letterman officially called it a day on Late Night hosting duties on May 20, 2015. He is in semi-retirement, making the odd appearance on documentary Years of Living Dangerously.
Number one: Don’t frisk me. Don’t hurt me physically. Don’t get anywhere near my neck. And don’t call me Regis.
– David Letterman’s advice to guests