The David Letterman Show

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The David Letterman Show
Developed byFred Silverman
Presented byDavid Letterman
Narrated byBob Sarlatte
Bill Wendell
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes90
Executive producersDavid Letterman
Jack Rollins
ProducerBarry Sand
Production locationsStudio 6-A, NBC Studios
New York, New York
Running time90 minutes
(June 23 – August 1)
60 minutes
(August 4 – October 24)
Production companiesSpace Age Meats
in association with NBC
Original release
ReleaseJune 23 (1980-06-23) –
October 24, 1980 (1980-10-24)
Late Night with David Letterman
Late Show with David Letterman

The David Letterman Show is an American morning talk show that was hosted by David Letterman on NBC. It originally aired from June 23 to October 24, 1980. Originally, the series lasted 90 minutes, then 60 minutes from August 4 onward.[1]


David Letterman's relationship with NBC began in 1978, when he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.[2] Over the next two years Letterman returned to the show several times, and occasionally served as guest host in Carson's absence.[3] NBC's president Fred Silverman was so impressed by Letterman's performance that he decided to offer him a morning talk show.[4]

In early 1980, NBC's daytime morning lineup consisted of six game shows. The David Letterman Show was made possible by the cancellation of three of them: High Rollers, Chain Reaction, and the long-running daytime version of Hollywood Squares.[5]

The series was a critical success (and won several Daytime Emmys including the 1981 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Writing)[6] but the edgy comedy did not go over well with morning television watchers, who were more accustomed at the time to talk shows, soap operas, game shows, and prime time reruns.


The original producer was Bob Stewart, a veteran quiz-show creator who had enlisted Letterman as a panelist on Pyramid from 1978 onward. However, due to creative differences, Stewart left the show four days before its premiere, and production of the first several shows fell to head writer Merrill Markoe, who acted as the show's de facto producer despite having absolutely no prior experience in the role. Much more comfortable as a writer than as producer, Markoe stayed aboard as the show's head writer for the entire run of the series, but was succeeded as producer by Barry Sand. Sand joined the show as of the July 15th episode, and remained at the helm for the rest of its run. (Sand later returned to Letterman as producer for the first five years of Late Night.) Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers wrote the opening theme of the show.

Behind the scenes were (after the first few weeks) Hal Gurnee directing, with Biff Henderson serving as stage manager, a role he served for the next 35 years of Letterman's career. The writing staff initially consisted of Merrill Markoe (head writer), Valri Bromfield, Rich Hall, Harold Kimmel, Edie McClurg, Gerard Mulligan, Paul Raley, Will Shriner, Bob Sarlatte and Ed Subitsky.[1] (Bromfield, McClurg, Kimmel, and Sarlatte left before the show's end; added to the staff through the run were Ron Richards, Gary Jacobs and Letterman himself, not credited as a writer on early episodes.)

All the writers appeared on camera, some fairly frequently. Seen most often, usually in character being interviewed by Dave, were:

  • Edie McClurg as regular correspondent Mrs. Marv Mendenhall, a housewife who shared various tips, advice and opinions with Dave and the audience. McClurg was also seen in the recurring roles of Dot; one of the Timkie sisters; and a 105-year-old version of herself.
  • Valri Bromfield as confused teen Debbie Smith; intense, no-nonsense Mrs. Bjorkman; one of The Timkie Sisters; and various other characters.
  • Paul Raley as performer "The Incredible Al", and as paranoid ex-FBI agent P.J. Rails.
  • Rich Hall, usually as himself, giving odd theatre and film reviews, or using plastic toys to present recreations of news events in the (fictional) town of Pitkinville, Montana.
  • Will Shriner, also as himself, usually presenting a short film.
  • Ed Subitzky as an unnamed character who would be announced as a well-known celebrity (e.g., Gary Coleman, Suzanne Somers, Donna Summer), but—after appearing on stage—would then almost immediately embarrassedly confess to NOT being that celebrity, but just a guy who wanted to get on TV. (this bit was reprised on early episodes of Late Night with David Letterman.)
  • Bob Sarlette was the announcer for the first six weeks, and also occasionally interacted with Dave in conversations and desk bits.

Early publicity photos for the show (issued prior to the first broadcast) showed the cast as a quartet of Letterman, Bromfield, McClurg and Sarlette, and in early episodes, only Bromfield, McClurg and Sarlette were identified as cast members. Ironically, Bromfield, McClug and Sarlette all left the show between six weeks and three months of its debut, while the other (initially uncredited) regulars stuck through to the end.

Familiar bits that became staples of Letterman's comedy on his later shows were originally introduced on this show. They include: "Small Town News", "Stupid Pet Tricks", and an ever-changing non-sequitur opening introduction immediately before Letterman is seen on camera. (e.g., "And now, a man whose recipe for triple fudge brownies includes two quarts of vodka, sauerkraut, and a heaping tablespoon of love...David Letterman!") Because Letterman owned the rights to The David Letterman Show, he was able to claim ownership of all the sketches that originally aired on it; this would prove valuable in 1993, when Letterman left NBC to launch the Late Show on CBS. NBC wanted to claim that much of the work he did on Late Night was the property of NBC, but because those sketches were carryovers from The David Letterman Show, he was allowed to take them to CBS.

The production staff consisted of George Callahan, Kim Carney, Lee B. Chernick, Barbara Gaines, Edd Hall, Tim Holton, Brian J. McAloon, Meg Mortimer, Dency Nelson, and David Reale.

The news producer was Alan Mohan, and the news writer was Nick Allen. Bill Kelley was the technical director. The musical director was Frank Owens who led the "David Letterman Symphony Orchestra" (actually a four-person combo) and traded jokes with Letterman. Longtime NBC newsman Edwin Newman provided live news updates in the studio during each broadcast; studio audience members often interrupted his reporting with laughter or groans, as if Newman were an anchor on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update".

The program was produced by Space Age Meats, a precursor to Letterman's later production company, Worldwide Pants Incorporated.


Valri Bromfield, Edie McClurg, Rich Hall, Gerard Mulligan, Ed Subitzky, Merrill Markoe and Paul Raley all appeared on the show and served as writers. Edd Hall (later the announcer on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Late Show producer Barbara Gaines were both production assistants, while stage manager Biff Henderson and director Hal Gurnee followed Dave to his next two shows. Announcer/comedian Bob Sarlatte was replaced partway through the run by Bill Wendell, who also announced on Dave's next two shows until his retirement in 1995.

Among guests who appeared were Steve Allen, Andy Kaufman, Wil Shriner, Dinah Shore, Tom Snyder, photojournalists Jon & Keiko Alpert, keyboardist Suzanne Ciani, Dr. Isaac Asimov and Jeff Greenfield, who reviewed the first show while it was on the air.

The show's musical guests included Loudon Wainwright III, The Drifters, Janis Ian, Irene Cara, Maria Muldaur, Nell Carter, Judy Collins, John Sebastian, Tom Rush, Lionel Hampton, Charles Aznavour, Tracy Nelson, Linda Hopkins, Esther Satterfield, Lacy J. Dalton, Michael Franks, Gerard Kenny, John Hartford, and Harve Mann.

In one of his earliest television appearances, a young Bill Maher was an audience member on the show's first episode, and Conan O'Brien claims he hitchhiked to New York just to see a broadcast in Studio 6A (which has also been home to some of Jack Paar's NBC programs, and then eventually Letterman and O'Brien's versions of the network's Late Night franchise).

Show timeline[edit]

  • June 23: First show. In addition to host Letterman, regulars introduced on the show include announcer Bob Sarlette, writer/performers Edie McClurg and Valri Bromfield, newsreader Edwin Newman, and bandleader Frank Owens. (Writer/performers Rich Hall, Paul Raley, Will Shriner and Gerard Mulligan will debut later in the week.) Head writer Merrill Markoe produces the show, without credit—the show has no official producer. Bruce Burmester directs.
  • June 27: On the fourth show, the very first edition of Stupid Pet Tricks is presented. This is a segment that Letterman continued for the next 35 years.
  • July 10: This episode marked the debut of "Small Town News", which became another recurring segment on Letterman's shows throughout his TV career.
  • July 11: The first "Viewer Mail" segment is performed. This developed into another long-running Letterman bit.
  • July 15: Barry Sand succeeds Markoe as producer. Markoe remains head writer.
  • July 28: Hal Gurnee succeeds Burmester as director.
  • August 4: The show is reduced from 90 minutes to 60 minutes as of this episode. Sarlette is no longer with the show as of this episode; Edie McClurg is the announcer for the week of August 4–8.
  • August 11: Bill Wendell succeeds Bob Sarlatte as the show's permanent announcer. Wendell remained with Letterman for the next 15 years.
  • August 21: Valri Bromfield's last on-air appearance on the show. (She is still credited as a writer for the next two weeks.)
  • September 10: Initial announcement of the "have The David Letterman Show in your own home" contest.
  • September 19: Edie McClurg's last on-air appearance on the show. This is also her last show as a writer.
  • September 26: The David Letterman Show ran for four more weeks after its cancellation was announced.
  • October 10: The entire episode is devoted to a Missouri farmer named Floyd Stiles, who along with his wife, Zola Mae Stiles, is flown in from Collins, Missouri specifically for the show's "Floyd Stiles Day" broadcast.
  • October 22: Winners of the "have The David Letterman Show in your own home" contest are featured in a special episode taped in Cresco, Iowa.
  • October 24: The final show. Crew members' resumes are shown as bumpers leading into and out of commercials.

The final weeks of the show received particular acclaim. Esquire noted, "He cut loose with his own jokes until they had a 2:00 a.m. comedy-club edge. He reached for his emergency weapons. Let go, he let go. By the beginning of October, audiences were packing themselves into the studio." College boys hitched cross-country with petitions to save him. Some Long Island housewives threatened to block Manhattan traffic until the network relented.[7][8]

For the next year, NBC paid him $1,000,000 ($20,000 a week) to do nothing except not work for someone else without their permission, which included guest-hosting The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on multiple occasions. Letterman's next program, Late Night premiered on February 1, 1982, replacing Tom Snyder's Tomorrow program.[9][7]

Episode status[edit]

Approximately 83 episodes (of the 90 produced) are held in the archives of Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants; a brief clip from the finale was shown on Letterman's 15th anniversary show in 1997, and similarly brief clips from several episodes were featured as interstitials on the Late Show's final episode in 2015. Some episodes are available for on-site viewing at the Paley Center for Media in New York.[10] In 2022, Letterman started releasing interviews from this program (in addition to his later shows) on his official YouTube channel, after longtime Letterman-archivist Don Giller did this on his own fan channel.[11]


  1. ^ a b "Let's Not Forget David Letterman's Hilarious, Innovative Morning Show". Esquire. 2015-05-12. Retrieved 2017-10-13.
  2. ^ "David Letterman, celebrated late-night TV host, receives U.S. humor prize". Reuters. October 23, 2017. Retrieved November 4, 2021.
  3. ^ Du Brow, Rick (June 4, 1994). "Good Night to Late-Night Guest Hosts : Television: In the Carson era, substitutes regularly sat in. Although 'Nightline' sometimes goes without Ted Koppel, the fight between David Letterman and Jay Leno is head-to-head". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 4, 2021.
  4. ^ Moyer, Justin (May 20, 2015). "Why David Letterman is among television history's biggest losers". The Washington Post. Nash Holdings. Retrieved November 5, 2021.
  5. ^ Poniewozik, James. "David Letterman, Infinite Jester". Time. Retrieved November 4, 2021.
  6. ^ "Daytime Emmy Awards (1981)". IMDb. Retrieved 28 Dec 2023.
  7. ^ a b Kaplan, Peter W. (December 1981). "David Letterman, the Vicepresident of Comedy". Esquire.
  8. ^ The David Letterman Show (NBC), October 20, 1980, archived from the original on 2021-12-21
  9. ^ Schwartz, Tony (10 November 1981). "Letterman Replacing Snyder". The New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved 24 September 2021.
  10. ^ "The Paley Center for Media". Retrieved 2013-10-09.
  11. ^ Tapp, Tom (2 February 2022). "Watch David Letterman's Return to 'Late Night' For Show's 40th Anniversary As Trove Of Classic Clips Drops On YouTube".

External links[edit]