I suppose David Letterman is to most of you what Johnny Carson was to me: the talk show host who’s always been there. But for those of us of a certain age, Letterman will always be the new thing, the breath of fresh air, the guy who changed television.

You can find antecedents for everything he did, just as you can with the Beatles. But as with the Beatles, it’s what Letterman did with his influences that made his work magical. If you weren’t there at the time, it’s hard to explain what made Late Night so different. Bits like Stupid Pet/Human Tricks, Viewer Mail, The Fugitive Guy, the Velcro/Alka-Seltzer/Sponge/Magnet/Potato Chip Suit, and Larry “Bud” Melman probably don’t seem revolutionary to you because your whole life has been spent watching Dave and his many imitators rework and refine the ironic viewpoint that led to them.

I was in college when Late Night debuted, so it shouldn’t surprise you how taken I was with it. That’s the time of life when irony is king. In the early days, Letterman was hugely popular on campuses and with recent graduates. Unfortunately, that popularity didn’t stop the NBC affiliate that served Champaign-Urbana from replacing Late Night with the execrable Thicke of the Night for one season. To this day, I hate Alan Thicke because of that lost year.1

Much of what was good about those early years of Late Night can be traced to the wonderful Merrill Markoe. There were great fully produced pieces, of course, but she understood better than anyone how to put Dave in an unexpected or uncomfortable situation and let him struggle for our entertainment.

It’s hard to get a sense of it from a single clip like this, but Dave’s interviews in those early years were famously bad. Much is made these days of Carson’s smooth ability to put his guests at ease. Dave was precisely the opposite; he seemed to enjoy nothing more than seeing things go off the rails, and you can see that in any number of clips on YouTube.

It’s funny how certain things stay with you. In 1984, Bob Dylan appeared on the show (playing, if I remember correctly, a Stratocaster borrowed from Keith Richards). It was a Thursday, so there was a Viewer Mail segment after the monologue. One of the letters was from a guy named Eric Anderson. When Paul Shaffer heard the name, he butted in. “Eric Anderson? Wow, it’s a big night for The Bitter End.” The joke died because no one in the audience understood the reference.2 But Dave did, and he delighted in how Paul’s joke fell flat. “Too hip for the room, Paul.”

I tell that story not merely to let you know that I was hip enough to get it, but also to lead into one last topic: how great the music on the show has always been. Obviously, most of the credit for that goes to Paul and the rest of the band, but you could tell Dave always loved having outside musicians on the show. Apart from Cher and Madonna—both of whom were there as “stars” rather than singers—I can’t remember him having a uncomfortable, Oliver Reed-like interview with a musician or a singer.

Some of my favorite episodes were when someone like Warren Zevon, Todd Rundgren, or Peter Frampton would just sit in with the band. You can’t, however, get the flavor of those shows from a short clip, so I’ll leave you with an unusually animated Dylan from the aforementioned show.

It looks like Dylan also borrowed some bandannas from Keith Richards and attached them to his lead guitarist.

  1. I’d probably hate Robin Thicke for it, too, just by association, if there weren’t plenty of independent reasons to hate Robin Thicke. 

  2. You probably don’t either, but don’t feel bad. The reference was 20 years old then, and it’s 50 years old now.