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David Letterman

David Letterman

Birth name: David Michael Letterman

Born April 12, 1947 (1947-04-12) (age 61), Indianapolis, Indiana

Medium: stand-up, television

Nationality: American Years active: 1974 - present

Genres: Observational comedy, Surreal humor

Subject(s): self-deprecation, everyday life

Influences: Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, Paul Dixon

Influenced: Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Gaffigan, Jon Stewart, Rove McManus

Spouse Michelle Cook (19691977)

Notable works and roles Host of Late Night with David Letterman (NBC)

Host of The Late Show (CBS)

Emmy Awards

Outstanding Host or Hostess in a Variety Series 1981 The David Letterman Show

Outstanding Individual Achievement - Writers 1981 The David Letterman Show

Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program 1984 Late Night with David Letterman 1985 Late Night with David Letterman 1986 Late Night with David Letterman 1987 Late Night with David Letterman

Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series 1994 Late Show with David Letterman

American Comedy Awards

Funniest Male Performer in a TV Special (Leading or Supporting) Network, Cable or Syndication 1989 Late Night with David Letterman 1995 Late Show with David Letterman: Video Special

Funniest Male Performer in a TV Series (Leading Role) Network, Cable or Syndication 1994 Late Show with David Letterman 2001 Late Show with David Letterman

David Michael Letterman (born April 12, 1947) is an American Emmy Award-winning television host and comedian. His first major success occurred on the long-running NBC television program, Late Night with David Letterman, before moving to CBS in 1993 to his current place on the Late Show. Letterman's ironic, often absurd comedy is heavily influenced by former Tonight Show hosts Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and Jack Paar.

Letterman has been hosting late night television for over 26 years, the longest of anyone outside of Johnny Carson who retired after 30 years.


Early career

David Letterman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father, Harry Joe Letterman, was a florist who died in 1973; his mother Dorothy Letterman (ne 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. One of his early comic influences was the Cincinnati talk show host Paul Dixon, but the person who influenced his career most was Tonight Show host Johnny Carson.

Letterman seems to have had a typical middle class childhood. He lived near the Speedway where the Indianapolis 500 is held, and while he didn't race, he did enjoy collecting model cars, including racers. (Gary Graves. "Letterman Gets Moment in Hot Seat." USA Today, 23 May 2005, p. 1C.) He would also 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. Unfortunately, Dave was also deeply affected by his father's health problems. Joe Letterman had two heart attacks-- the one that killed him at the young age of 57, and a much earlier attack, when he was only 36 and Dave was just a young boy. The fear of losing his dad was constantly with him as he grew up.

Letterman attended Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis. 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. (Gail Koch. "After Two Decades, Letterman Wit Shows No Signs of Stopping." Ball State Daily News, 23 February 2002.) He graduated from what was then called the Department of Radio and Television in 1969. He is also a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. The Ball State University website says that Letterman began his broadcasting career at the college's student-run radio station, WBST, a 10-watt campus station that is today part of Indiana Public Radio. The station played classical music. Letterman was briefly an announcer and also did some news. He was fired, according to the campus website, for treating classical music with irreverence.

Letterman then went on to become involved with the founding of another campus station, WAGO-AM 570 (now known as WCRD, 91.3). A rare 1969 aircheck of Letterman on WAGO can be heard here (paid registration required). (The voice of Letterman's first wife Michelle Cook can be heard on the clip, playing a character in a sketch).


Letterman began his career as a radio talk show host on WXLW (AM), and on Indianapolis television station WLWI (now called WTHR) as a local anchor and weatherman. He received recognition for his unpredictable on-air behavior, which included jokingly calling attention to state borders missing from the weather map, and predicting hail stones "the size of canned hams". (Because this upset his bosses, to this day he occasionally gives out canned hams on his show.) One night he reportedly upset his bosses when he congratulated a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane. He also hosted a talk show which aired early on Saturday mornings called "Clover Power" in which he interviewed 4-H members about their projects.

Move to Los Angeles

In 1975, encouraged by his then-wife Michelle and several of his fraternity brothers, Letterman moved to Los Angeles, California with hopes of becoming a comedy writer. (Gail Koch. "Letterman Evolved from Struggling Radio Host to Star." Ball State Daily News, 1 February 2002.) He started off by writing material for the sitcom Good Times. He also began performing stand-up comedy at The Comedy Store, a famed Los Angeles comedy club and proving ground for young comics.

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, 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.


Morning show

In late June 1980, Letterman was given his own morning comedy show on NBC, The David Letterman Show. It was originally 90 minutes long, but was shortened to 60 minutes in August. (Peter Kerr. "David Letterman's Off-Center Humor Finds a Home." New York Times, 19 February 1984, p. H27) The show was a critical success, winning two Emmy Awards, but was a ratings disappointment and was canceled in October 1980.

Late Night with David Letterman

NBC kept Letterman under contract to try him in a different time slot, after which Late Night with David Letterman debuted in 1982. Letterman's show, which ran weeknights at 12:30 a.m. eastern time, immediately following The Tonight Show, quickly established a reputation as being edgy and unpredictable, and soon developed a cult following (particularly among college students). Letterman's reputation as an acerbic interviewer was borne out of moments such as his verbal sparring matches with Cher and Shirley MacLaine. The show also featured inventive comedy segments and running characters, in a style heavily influenced by the 1950s and 60s programs of Steve Allen.

The show often included quirky, genre-mocking regular features, including "Stupid Pet Tricks," dropping various objects off the roof of a five story building, a recurring Top 10 list, and a facetious letter-answering segment.

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.)

Late Show with David Letterman David Letterman with an Emmy in 1987.Main article: Late Show with David Letterman

Letterman remained with NBC for eleven years. Letterman had ironically become a victim of his own success NBCs confirming Letterman's high ratings in the 12:30 (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 eleven-thirty, 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).


The Late Show competes in the same time slot as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. For its first 18 months, The Late Show consistently gained higher ratings than Tonight. But in 1995, ratings dipped and Leno's show has consistently beat Letterman's in the ratings ever since. At one point Leno's lead was as large as two million viewers, but narrowed, as of February 2005, to fewer than a million viewers (5.8 vs. 4.9 million).

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 twenty years in late night television.

Heart surgery hiatus

On January 14, 2000, a routine check-up revealed that an artery in Letterman's heart was severely constricted. He was rushed to emergency surgery for a quintuple bypass.

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, 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.

Contract renewed

In March 2002, as Letterman's contract with CBS neared expiration, ABC expressed the intention to offer Letterman the time slot for long-running news program Nightline with Ted Koppel, citing more desirable viewer demographics. This caused a minor flap that ended when Letterman re-signed with CBS. Letterman addressed his decision to re-sign on the air, stating that he was content at CBS and that he had great respect for Koppel.

On December 4, 2006, CBS revealed that David Letterman signed a new contract to host The Late Show with David Letterman through the fall of 2010.

"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.

Letterman, who marked his fourteenth anniversary as host of the Late Show on August 30, 2007, celebrated 25 years in late-night television on February 1, 2007.

"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.

2007/2008 Writer's Strike

The Late Show went off air for 8 weeks during the months of November and December due to the Writer's Guild of America strike. David Letterman's production company World Wide Pants was the first company to make an individual agreement with WGA, thus allowing his show to come back on air on January 2, 2008. On his first episode since being off air, he surprised the viewing audience with his newly grown beard. His beard was shaved off during the show on January 7, 2008.

Personal life

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. Letterman has a son, Harry Joseph, (born November 3, 2003) with longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko. Harry is the namesake of Letterman's father, Harry Joe Letterman, who died at age 57 . The family resides in North Salem, New York.

Political Views

On October 27, 2006, Letterman had Bill O'Reilly as a guest in what became a widely-commented-on and contentious interview. Letterman was asked by O'Reilly, "Do you want the United States to win in Iraq? It's an easy question", to which Letterman sardonically replied, "It's not easy for me because I'm thoughtful".

In a high-profile interview with Presidential candidate Barack Obama on April 11, 2007, Letterman said, referring to the Iraq war, "It's horrible, it's just horrible, the whole thing is just a horrible mess...but what happens when we leave and we still have a horrible mess? And then we find that there is trouble from other countries, do we then just go back into other countries?" In the same segment, Letterman said, "Whether you believe we should have gone in there [Iraq] or not, it's still our mess, our war, and we need to do something.."

On April 2, 2008, presidential candidate John McCain was on the Late Show. Letterman asked, "Now, we know that maybe that [Iraq war] wasn't the proper course. What the hell are we left with? You say we're going to have troops there for a long, long time..."

Academy Awards hosting

In early 1995, it was announced Letterman would host that year's 67th Academy Awards ceremony on March 27. Critics blasted Letterman for what they deemed a poor hosting of the Oscars, noting that his irreverent style undermined the importance and glamor of the event. In a joke about their unusual names, he started off by introducing Uma Thurman to Oprah Winfrey, and then the both of them to Keanu Reeves: "Uma...Oprah! Oprah...Uma! Oprah, Uma...Keanu!" This and many of his other jokes fell flat. Although Letterman attracted the highest ratings to the annual telecast since 1983, many felt that the bad publicity garnered by Letterman's hosting caused a decline in the Late Show's ratings.

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.

Letterman and Carson

In early 2005, it was revealed that retired King of Late Night Johnny Carson still kept up with current events and late-night TV right up to his death that year, and that he occasionally sent jokes to Letterman, who used these jokes in his monologue; according to CBS senior vice president Peter Lassally (a onetime producer for both men), Carson got "a big kick out of it." Letterman would do a characteristic Johnny Carson golf swing after delivering one of Carson's jokes. In a tribute to Carson, all of the opening monologue jokes during the first show following Carson's death were written by Carson.

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."

Letterman and Conan O'Brien

After Letterman left Late Night on NBC, his hosting duties were passed to Conan O'Brien. During O'Brien's first rocky year as host of Late Night, Letterman was very supportive, making an amicable appearance as one of O'Brien's first guests and later filling O'Brien's audience with the stand-by audience from his own show. Letterman also invited O'Brien as a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. In 1996, when O'Brien celebrated his third year on the air, Letterman showed up again in a bit involving a "stray" hairpiece that once belonged to him. Years later, when NBC announced that O'Brien would take over The Tonight Show, Letterman congratulated O'Brien.

Letterman and Oprah

On September 10, 2007, Letterman made his first appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show at Madison Square Garden in New York. He shared pictures of his son and live-in girlfriend. The so called "feud" between Letterman and Winfrey ended in 2005 when Winfrey appeared on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman on December 2." Oprah had previously appeared on Letterman's show when he was hosting NBC's Late Night on May 2, 1989.


Beginning in May 1988, Letterman was stalked by Margaret Mary Ray, a woman suffering from schizophrenia. Letterman occasionally referenced her in his show, although not by name.

Appearances in other media

David Letterman officially appeared in issue 239 of the Marvel comic book The Avengers, in which the title characters are guests on Late Night. This issue is often quoted as an example of how a Floating timeline works in fiction.

A parody of David Letterman, called "David Endocrine", is gassed to death along with his audience and bandleader named "Paul" by the Joker in Frank Miller's seminal re-invention of the Batman, The Dark Knight Returns. Provided vocals for the Warren Zevon song "Hit Somebody"

Other projects

Worldwide Pants

Letterman started his own production company, Worldwide Pants Incorporated, which produces his show and several others, including Everybody Loves Raymond, The Late Late Show, and several critically acclaimed, but short-lived television series for Bonnie Hunt. Worldwide Pants also produced the dramedy program Ed, starring Tom Cavanagh, which aired on NBC from 20002004. It was Letterman's first association with NBC since he left the network in 1993. During Ed's run, Cavanagh appeared as a guest on The Late Show several times.

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.

Letterman also played as a Mtley Cre roadie a.k.a Butt-head's father in the 1996 film, Beavis and Butt-head Do America.

He also had a cameo in the feature film Cabin Boy, with Chris Elliot, who has been a guest on Late Night several times. In this and other appearances, Letterman is listed in the credits as Earl Hofert, the name of Letterman's maternal grandfather.

Rahal Letterman Racing

Rahal Letterman Racing (RLR) is an auto racing team that currently races in the Indy Racing League. It is co-owned by 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal and Letterman himself, and is based in Hilliard, Ohio. The team won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with driver Buddy Rice.

David Letterman Communication and Media Building David Letterman Communication and Media BuildingOn 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 also received a Sagamore of the Wabash from Governor Mitch Daniels. Letterman joked that it would mean so much more had the governor actually been there to present it.


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