David Letterman accepting his Peabody Award

Learn About the Iconic David Letterman

David Letterman was never shy about making an impact. He’s a comedian and host known for his irreverent sense of humor, and his groundbreaking shows Late Show and Late Night with David Letterman. Though he may have retired from his duties behind the desk, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to learn about him. Learn about David Letterman as you read.

Early Life

David Letterman was born on April 12, 1947, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the son of Harry Joseph, a florist, and Dorothy Marie, a church secretary. Letterman grew up in the Broad Ripple area just 12 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He loved collecting model cars, including racers.

When he was growing up, he was amused by his father’s ability to tell jokes and be the life of the party. His dad survived a heart attack at age 36, but the fear of losing him was constantly with Letterman as he grew up. His father eventually died at the age of 57 after a second heart attack.

Letterman began his broadcasting career as a newscaster and announcer at a college-run radio station at Ball State University while attending the school. He lost his position after he disregarded classical music. Then he worked the founding of another campus station instead.

When he was out of college, he did not really know what to do. When he saw Paul Dixon in the Paul Dixon Show on TV, he got inspired and decided that’s also what he wants to do.

Career

Soon after graduating college, he worked as a radio weatherman, and on Indianapolis television station as an anchor and weatherman. He gained attention for his unpredictable on-air behavior, where he tended to make jokes about the news he was reporting. One night he reportedly upset his bosses after congratulating a tropical storm on being upgraded into a hurricane.

In 1975, he moved to Los Angeles with his then-wife to become a comedy writer. By the summer of 1977, he became a writer and regular on the series The Starland Vocal Band Show. He went on to write material for popular sitcoms, including Good Times.

Letterman’s brand of dry and sarcastic humor caught the attention of talent scouts for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He soon became a regular guest on the show and then a regular guest host since 1978.

In 1980, he was offered his own daytime show, the David Letterman Show at NBC. It was a critical success – it won two Emmy Awards – but the ratings were a disappointment. The show was canceled only after four months. NBC gave the young comedian a late-night show instead, after Carson’s The Tonight Show.

The late-late timeslot for the Late Night with David Letterman show was well-suited to Letterman’s quirks and brash humor. It soon became popular with a young audience, as they mixed the usual talk-show ingredients of music and celebrity guests, with his zany comic stunts and irreverent manner. His show featured top-10 lists, sarcastic interplay, and parody sketches between Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer, nonsensical skits, and antagonizing guests. Late Night with David Letterman garnered five Emmy Awards and 35 nominations.

When Johnny Carson retired in 1992, NBC chose Jay Leno as a replacement. Letterman publicly desired that position, so he went on and moved to rival network CBS. He signed a lucrative deal to host the Late Show with David Letterman, which aired opposite The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Letterman’s show draws more viewers than Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, which had reigned for three decades as the leading late-night show in America under Carson. The years that followed his competition with NBC spawned a book and a cable movie documenting the late-night talk show wars.

In 2000, Letterman underwent emergency quintuple heart bypass surgery. During his recovery, various celebrities served as guest hosts, including Bill Cosby. His return was among the show’s highest-rated episodes. In 2012, Letterman celebrated his 30th anniversary as a late-night talk-show host – the longest tenure in American TV history.

Letterman retired in 2015 and named Stephen Colbert as his replacement. Although he avoided public appearances after retiring, he was chosen as a celebrity correspondent for the documentary series Years of Living Dangerously in 2016, which focused on the threats of climate change.

Letterman was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2017.

After retiring, the longtime host announced his return to television in a new Netflix talk show series entitled My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. His first guest was former President Barack Obama.

Facts about David Letterman

1. He likes tossing a pencil at the end of every show, but it got erasers on both ends.

Letterman liked to toss a pencil at his talk-show desk during every broadcast, so the producers got smart to ensure his and his guests’ safety. The pencils had erasers at both ends so that no one would get injured.

2. Letterman covered for Johnny Carson in The Tonight Show51 times before losing to Jay Leno.

Letterman had a close relationship with Johnny Carson, personally and professionally. Letterman hosted the show for 51 times to cover for Carson’s absences, only to lose out to a guy who didn’t have half the experience he did. After Carson retired, everyone expected that Letterman would be his replacement. Instead, NBC hired Jay Leno for the job.

3. He owns a production company, a charitable organization, and a record label.

Besides hosting The Late Show, Letterman was also busy running his own production company, Worldwide Pants, which produced his talk show and was also behind Everybody Loves Raymond and a few of Bonnie Hunt’s shows. In 2010, he established the Clear Entertainment record label. He also donates millions through The Letterman Foundation for Courtesy and Grooming to non-profits in Montana and Indiana.

4. He was a fan of the Foo Fighters.

After David Letterman returned to the show in 2000 following his open heart surgery, he requested that the Foo Fighters band play their son on the show, as he said the song was special to him and meaningful during his heart recovery. The band was on tour in South America at the time, so they canceled their tour on the spot and flew to the US to play on Letterman’s show.

5. Letterman faced a death threat from Al-Qaeda.

In 2011, it was reported that an Islamist militant posted a death threat against Letterman on a website visited by Al-Qaeda supporters. The threat called on American Muslims to kill Letterman, as the comedian made a joke about an Al-Qaeda leader who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan.

6. Jerry Seinfeld said the same thing on his first and last appearance on David Letterman’s show.

Seinfeld’s first and last appearance on Letterman’s talk show was 33 years apart, and he bookended his appearance by telling the exact same material.

7. Segments had to be renewed when he moved to CBS.

When Letterman moved from NBC to CBS to do a late-night talk show, he was prohibited from bringing his old segments to his new show due to intellectual property disagreements. What he did was to simply rename his segments. His famous Top Ten list became the Late Show Top Ten, and the Viewer Mail became the CBS Mailbag.

8. His hosting gig at the Oscars was a flop.

In 1995, Letterman was asked to host the Oscars. His performance as a host was lambasted by critics, who felt that his sarcastic mockery of Hollywood stars and figures diminished the glamour of the traditional gala. Letterman lampooned the critical response to his performance.

9. Letterman almost missed the ceremony at his wedding.

In 2009, Letterman married his second wife, Regina Lasko, in a quiet courthouse ceremony in Montana. He told on his show that he almost missed the ceremony as his truck got stuck in the mud a few miles from his ranch in Montana. Letterman and Lasko were together since 1986 when he was still living with his former long-term girlfriend, Merril Markoe.

10. Letterman faced cheating allegations publicly.

In the same year he was married to Lasko, Letterman announced on the show that he was under a blackmail attempt by a person who threatened to reveal that he had affairs with several female employees of the show. Letterman admitted that he had multiple affairs with different women, including his longtime personal assistant Stephanie Birkitt and his intern Holly Hester. He stated that someone left a package in his car with the material he said he could write in a book or a screenplay if Letterman did not pay him $2 million. Letterman said he immediately contacted the police and gave the blackmailer a phony check.

The man who tried to deposit the phony check was revealed to be Robert Halderman, a producer of the CBS show 48 Hours. Halderman was arrested and pleaded guilty in March 2010 and was sentenced to six months in prison.