David Michael Letterman (born April 12, 1947) is an American late-night talk show host and comedian and the host, since 1993, of Late Show with David Letterman on CBS. Letterman's ironic, often absurd comedy is heavily influenced by former Tonight Show hosts Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and Jack Paar. Letterman has been a fixture of U.S. late night television since his 1982 debut on Late Night with David Letterman—only Johnny Carson, one of Letterman's idols, has had a longer late-night hosting career.
Letterman is also a television and film producer; his company Worldwide Pants produces his late-night show and the show that follows his on CBS. Worldwide Pants has also produced several prime-time comedies, the most successful of which was Everybody Loves Raymond, currently in syndication.
Letterman appeared in the summer of 1977 on the short-lived Starland Vocal Band Show. He has since joked about how fortunate he was that nobody would ever see his performance on the program (because of its low ratings).
Letterman had a stint as a cast member on Mary Tyler Moore's variety show Mary, a guest appearance on Mork & Mindy (as a parody of est leader Werner Erhard), and appearances on game shows such as The $20,000 Pyramid, The Gong Show, Password and The Liar's Club. He also hosted a 1977 pilot for a game show entitled The Riddlers that was never picked up. His dry, sarcastic humor caught the attention of scouts for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Letterman was soon a regular guest on the show. Letterman became a favorite of Carson's and was a regular guest host for the show beginning in 1978. Letterman personally names Carson as the person who influenced his career the most.
The show often included quirky, genre-mocking regular features, including "Stupid Pet Tricks," dropping various objects off the roof of a five story building, demonstrations of unorthodox clothing (such as a Velcro suit and a suit of suet), a recurring Top 10 list, the Monkey-Cam (and the Audience Cam), and a facetious letter-answering segment. The Top 10 list, Stupid Human Tricks, Small Town News, and Stupid Pet Tricks (the last one originating in the morning show) eventually moved with Letterman to CBS.
Other memorable moments included Letterman once using a bullhorn to interrupt a live interview on The Today Show, announcing that he was the NBC president and not wearing any pants; interrupting Al Roker on the Live at Five local news by walking into their studio which occupied the same building as Letterman's studio; and staging elevator races with commentary by NBC Sports' Bob Costas. In one highly publicized appearance, Andy Kaufman appeared to be slapped and knocked to the ground by professional wrestler Jerry Lawler. (Lawler and Kaufman's friend Bob Zmuda later revealed that the event was staged.)
Letterman remained with NBC for eleven years. Letterman had become a victim of his own success — NBC’s confirming Letterman's high ratings in the 12:30 a.m. (EST) time-slot signaled that the network preferred to hold on to Letterman in the 'Late Night' gig.
In 1993 Letterman departed NBC to host his own show opposite Tonight on CBS at 11:30 p.m., The Late Show with David Letterman. Three years later, HBO produced a made-for-television movie called The Late Shift, based on a book by New York Times reporter Bill Carter, chronicling the battle between Letterman and Jay Leno for the coveted Tonight Show hosting spot. Letterman would mock the film for months afterwards, specifically on how the actor playing him, John Michael Higgins, did not resemble him in the least. ("They took a guy who looked nothing like me and with make-up and special camera angles, turned him into a guy who looked nothing like me, with red hair.") Carson later made a few cameo appearances as a guest on Dave's show. Carson's final television appearance came on a Late Show episode taped in Los Angeles, when he made a surprise appearance during a 'Top 10 list' segment. The audience went wild as Letterman stood up and proudly invited Carson to sit at his desk. The overwhelming applause was so protracted that Carson was unable to say anything, and he finally returned backstage as the applause continued (it was later explained that Carson had laryngitis).
Letterman has nonetheless ranked consistently higher than Leno in the annual Harris Poll of Nation's Favorite TV Personality; as of 2004 Letterman ranked second in that poll, behind Oprah Winfrey. Letterman's shows have garnered both critical and industry praise, receiving 67 Emmy Award nominations, winning twelve times in his first 20 years in late night television.
During the initial weeks of his recovery, friends of Letterman introduced reruns of the Late Show, including Drew Barrymore, Ray Romano, Robin Williams, Megan Mullally, Bill Murray, Regis Philbin, Charles Grodin, Nathan Lane, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Short, Danny DeVito, Steve Martin, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Subsequently, while still recovering from surgery, Letterman revived the late night tradition that had virtually disappeared on network television during the 1990s of 'guest hosts' by allowing Bill Cosby, Kathie Lee Gifford (recommended by Regis, who was asked first but had no time in his schedule), Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, and others to host new episodes of The Late Show. Cosby, the show's first guest host, refused to sit at Letterman's desk out of respect, using the couch instead; Garofalo followed suit, utilizing a set of grade-school desks instead.
Upon his return to the show on February 21, 2000, a visibly thinner and weakened Letterman brought all of the doctors and nurses on stage who had participated in his surgery and recovery (with extra teasing of a nurse who had given him bed baths—"This woman has seen me naked!"), including Dr. O. Wayne Isom and physician Louis J. Aronne, who frequently appears on the show. In an unusual show of emotion, Letterman was nearly in tears as he thanked the health care team with the words "These are the people who saved my life!" The episode earned an Emmy nomination. For a number of episodes, Letterman continued to crack jokes about his bypass, including saying, "Bypass surgery - it's when doctors create new blood flow to your heart. A bypass is what happened to me when I didn't get The Tonight Show! It's a whole different thing." In a later running gag he lobbied his home state of Indiana to rename the freeway circling Indianapolis (I-465) "The David Letterman Bypass." He also featured a montage of faux news coverage of his bypass surgery, which included a clip of Dave's heart for sale on the Home Shopping Network. Additionally, Letterman invited the band Foo Fighters to play "Everlong," introducing them as "my favorite band, playing my favorite song." During a later Foo Fighters appearance, Letterman said that the Foo Fighters had been in the middle of a South American tour which they cancelled to come play on his comeback episode.
Letterman again handed over the reins of the show to several guest hosts (including Bill Cosby, Brad Garrett, Elvis Costello, John McEnroe, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Bonnie Hunt, Luke Wilson and bandleader Paul Shaffer) in February 2003, when he was diagnosed with a severe case of shingles. Later that year, Letterman made regular use of guest hosts, including Tom Arnold and Kelsey Grammer, for new shows broadcast on Fridays. In March 2007, Adam Sandler, who had been scheduled to be the lead guest, served as a guest host while Letterman was ill with a stomach virus.
"I'm thrilled to be continuing on at CBS," said Letterman. "At my age you really don't want to have to learn a new commute." Letterman further joked about the subject by pulling up his right pants leg, revealing a tattoo, presumably temporary, of the ABC logo.
"Thirteen years ago, David Letterman put CBS late night on the map and in the process became one of the defining icons of our network," said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation. "His presence on our air is an ongoing source of pride, and the creativity and imagination that the Late Show puts forth every night is an ongoing display of the highest quality entertainment. We are truly honored that one of the most revered and talented entertainers of our time will continue to call CBS 'home.' "
According to Forbes magazine, Letterman earns $40 million a year. Only sixteen entertainers earn more. Leno, with higher ratings, is #23 with $32 million, but Letterman owns a piece of his show. Letterman's "WorldWide Pants" also produced hits such as Everybody Loves Raymond.
Letterman recycled the apparent debacle into a long-running gag. On his first show after the Oscars, he joked, "Looking back, I had no idea that thing was being televised." For years afterwards, Letterman recounted his horrible hosting at the Oscars, although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still holds Letterman in high regard and has repeatedly asked Letterman to host the Oscars again.
Lassally also claimed that Carson had always believed Letterman, not Leno, to be his "rightful successor. Letterman also frequently employs some of Carson's trademark bits on his show, including "Carnac the Magnificent" (with Paul Shaffer as Carnac), "Stump the Band" and the "Week in Review."
This urged Letterman to say (about McCain), "What are you going to do if you're elected and things get tough? Suspend being president? We've got a guy like that now".
In 2005, Worldwide Pants produced its first feature film, Strangers with Candy, which was a prequel to the Comedy Central TV series, Strangers with Candy. In 2007, Worldwide Pants produced the ABC comedy series, The Knights Of Prosperity.
Worldwide Pants made significant news in December 2007 when it was announced that Letterman's company had independently negotiated its own contract with the Writers Guild of America, East, thus allowing Letterman, Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, and their writers to return to work, while the union continued its strike against production companies, networks and studios who had not reached an agreement.
On September 7, 2007, Letterman visited his alma mater, Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, for the dedication of a communications facility named in his honor. The $21 million, 75,000-square-foot David Letterman Communication and Media Building opened for the 2007 Fall semester. It features state-of-the-art recording equipment and facilities. Thousands of Ball State students, faculty, and local residents welcomed Letterman back to Indiana. Letterman's emotional speech touched on his struggles as a college student and his late father, and also included the "top ten good things about having your name on a building.
Letterman received the honor for his dedication to the university throughout his career as a comedian. Letterman finished with, "If reasonable people can put my name on a $21 million building, anything is possible."
Letterman provided vocals for the Warren Zevon song "Hit Somebody and provided the voice for Butt-head's father in the 1996 animated film, Beavis and Butt-head Do America. He also had a cameo in the feature film Cabin Boy, with Chris Elliot, who worked as a writer on Letterman's show. In this and other appearances, Letterman is listed in the credits as "Earl Hofert", the name of Letterman's maternal grandfather.
David Letterman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father, Harry Joe Letterman, was a florist who died in 1973; his mother Dorothy Letterman (née Hofert, now Dorothy Mengering) (born August 12, 1921), a Presbyterian church secretary of German descent, is an occasional figure on the show, usually at holidays and birthdays. He has an older sister Janice and a younger sister Gretchen.
Letterman lived near the Indianapolis Speedway and enjoyed collecting model cars, including racers. In 2000 he would tell an interviewer for Esquire magazine that while he was growing up he admired his father's ability to tell jokes and be the life of the party. David Letterman's father, Harry Joe Letterman had a heart attack when he was only 36 and Dave was just a young boy. The fear of losing his dad was constantly with Letterman as he grew up. Harry Joe Letterman died of a second heart attack at age 57.
Letterman attended his hometown's Broad Ripple High School. According to the Ball State Daily News, he originally had wanted to attend Indiana University, but his grades weren't good enough, so he decided to attend Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He graduated from what was then called the Department of Radio and Television in 1969. Letterman began his broadcasting career as an announcer and newscaster at the college's student-run radio station, WBST, a 10-watt campus station that is today part of Indiana Public Radio. He was fired for treating classical music with irreverence.
Letterman then became involved with the founding of another campus station, WAGO-AM 570 (now known as WCRD, 91.3).
In 1969, Letterman married Michelle Cook; the marriage ended by divorce in 1977. He also had a long-term relationship with former head writer and producer on Late Night, Merrill Markoe.
In 2005, police foiled a plot to kidnap Harry Letterman and ransom him for $5 million. Kelly Frank, a house painter who had worked for Letterman, was charged in the conspiracy.