David Letterman ~ Star of Late NightTalk Shows

By (Photo/Sarah E. Freeman/Grady College, freemans@uga.edu in New York City, Georgia, on Saturday, May 21, 2016) - https://www.flickr.com/photos/peabodyawards/27465744322/in/album-72157669446300666/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54381907David Michael Letterman (born April 12, 1947) is an American television host, comedian, writer and producer. He hosted late night television talk shows for 33 years, beginning with the February 1, 1982, debut of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC and ending with the May 20, 2015, broadcast of Late Show with David Letterman on CBS. In total, Letterman hosted 6,080 episodes of Late Night and Late Show,[1] surpassing his friend and mentor Johnny Carson as the longest-serving late-night talk show host in American television history.

He is also a television and film producer. His company, Worldwide Pants, produced his shows as well as The Late Late Show and several primetime comedies, the most successful of which was the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Several late-night hosts have cited Letterman’s influence, including Conan O’Brien (his successor on Late Night), Stephen Colbert (his successor on The Late Show), Jimmy FallonJimmy KimmelJon Stewart, and Seth Meyers. Since 2018 he has hosted the Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.

Early life and career

Letterman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1947, and has two sisters, one older and one younger. His father, Harry Joseph Letterman (April 15, 1915 – February 13, 1973), was a florist. His mother, Dorothy Marie Letterman Mengering (née Hofert; July 18, 1921 – April 11, 2017), a church secretary for the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, was an occasional figure on Letterman’s show, usually at holidays and birthdays.

Letterman grew up on the north side of Indianapolis, in the Broad Ripple area, about 12 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He enjoyed collecting model cars, including racers. In 2000, he told an interviewer for Esquire that, while growing up, he admired his father’s ability to tell jokes and be the life of the party. Harry Joseph Letterman survived a heart attack at the age of 36 when David was a young boy. The fear of losing his father was constantly with Letterman as he grew up. The elder Letterman died of a second heart attack in 1973 at the age of 57.

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 now part of Indiana Public Radio. He was fired for treating classical music with irreverence. He then became involved with the founding of another campus station—WAGO-AM 570 (now WCRD, 91.3).

He credits Paul Dixon, host of the Paul Dixon Show, a Cincinnati-based talk show also shown in Indianapolis while he was growing up, for inspiring his choice of career:

I was just out of college [in 1969], and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. And then all of a sudden I saw him doing it [on TV]. And I thought: That’s really what I want to do!


Move to Los Angeles

Letterman’s comedic career took hold at Los Angeles’s Comedy Store

In 1975, encouraged by his then-wife Michelle and several of his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers, Letterman moved to Los Angeles, California, with the hope of becoming a comedy writer. He and Michelle packed their belongings in his pickup truck and headed west. As of 2012, he still owned the truck. By the summer of 1977, Letterman was a writer and had a variety of small roles in well known shows.  Letterman’s brand of dry, sarcastic humor caught the attention of scouts for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and he was soon a regular guest on the show. He became a favorite of Carson and was a regular guest host for the show beginning in 1978. Letterman credits Carson as the person who influenced his career the most.

Late Night with David Letterman

Main article: Late Night with David Letterman

Letterman interviewing comedian Jerry Lewis in 1982

NBC kept Letterman on its payroll to try him in a different time slot. Late Night with David Letterman debuted February 1, 1982; the first guest was Bill Murray. Murray went on to become one of Letterman’s most recurrent guests, guesting on his later CBS show’s celebration of his 30th anniversary in late-night television, which aired January 31, 2012, and on the final CBS show, which aired May 20, 2015. The show ran Monday through Thursday nights at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time, immediately following The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (a Friday night broadcast was added in June 1987). It was seen as edgy and unpredictable, and soon developed a cult following (particularly among college students). Letterman’s reputation as an acerbic interviewer was borne out in verbal sparring matches with Cher[ (who even called him an “asshole” on the show), Shirley MacLaine, Charles Grodin, and Madonna. The show also featured comedy segments and running characters, in a style heavily influenced by the 1950s and 1960s programs of Steve Allen.


In 1992, Johnny Carson retired and many fans believed that Letterman would become host of The Tonight Show. When NBC instead gave the job to Jay Leno, Letterman departed NBC to host his own late-night show on CBS, opposite The Tonight Show at 11:30 p.m., called the Late Show with David Letterman. The new show debuted on August 30, 1993, and was taped at the historic Ed Sullivan Theater, where Ed Sullivan broadcast his eponymous variety series from 1948 to 1971. For Letterman’s arrival, CBS spent $8 million in renovations. CBS also signed Letterman to a three-year, $14 million/year contract, doubling his Late Night salary.

On March 27, 1995, Letterman hosted the 67th Academy Awards ceremony. Critics blasted what they deemed his poor performance, 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.”

Heart surgery hiatus

On January 14, 2000, a routine check-up revealed that an artery in Letterman’s heart was severely obstructed. He was rushed to emergency surgery for a quintuple bypass at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Upon his return to the show on February 21, 2000, Letterman brought all but one 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 gave me a bath!”), including Dr. O. Wayne Isom and physician Louis Aronne, who frequently appeared on the show.

Additionally, Letterman invited the band Foo Fighters to play “Everlong“, introducing them as “my favorite band, playing my favorite song.” During Letterman’s last show, on which Foo Fighters appeared, Letterman said that Foo Fighters had been in the middle of a South American tour which they canceled to come play on his comeback episode.

Retirement from Late Show

The final episode of Late Show with David Letterman was watched by 13.76 million viewers in the United States with an audience share of 9.3/24, earning the show its highest ratings since following the 1994 Winter Olympics on February 25, 1994, and the show’s highest demo numbers (4.1 in adults 25–54 and 3.1 in adults 18–49) since Oprah Winfrey‘s first Late Show appearance following the ending of her feud with Letterman on December 1, 2005. Bill Murray, who had been his first guest on Late Night, was his final guest on Late Show. In a rarity for a late-night show, it was also the highest-rated program on network television that night, beating out all prime-time shows. In total, Letterman hosted 6,080 episodes of Late Night and Late Show, surpassing friend and mentor Johnny Carson as the longest-serving late-night talk show host in U.S. television history.

In 2018, Letterman began hosting a six-episode monthly series of hour-long programs on Netflix consisting of long-form interviews and field segments. The show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman, premiered January 12, 2018 with Barack Obama as its first guest. The second season premiered on May 31, 2019. Season 3 premiered on October 21, 2020, and includes Kim Kardashian WestRobert Downey Jr.Dave Chappelle and Lizzo as guests. Season 4 premiered on May 20, 2022, with Billie Eilish as the first guest. In October 2022, Letterman traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine, to film a special standalone episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman, interviewing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Notable exchanges and incidents

In early 2005, it was revealed that Carson occasionally sent jokes to Letterman, who used them 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 Carson golf swing after delivering one of his jokes. In a tribute to Carson, all the opening monologue jokes during the first show after Carson’s death were by Carson.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey appeared on Letterman’s show when he was hosting NBC’s Late Night on May 2, 1989. After that appearance, the two had a 16-year feud that arose, as Winfrey explained to Letterman after it had been resolved, as a result of the acerbic tone of their 1989 interview, of which she said that it “felt so uncomfortable to me that I didn’t want to have that experience again”. The feud apparently ended on December 2, 2005, when Winfrey appeared on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman in an event Letterman jokingly called “the Super Bowl of Love”.

Winfrey interviewed Letterman in January 2013 on Oprah’s Next Chapter. They discussed their feud and Winfrey revealed that she had had a “terrible experience” while appearing on Letterman’s show years earlier. Letterman could not recall the incident but apologized.

Appearances in other media

Letterman receiving the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors Medallion, December 2012

On November 5, 2013, he and Bruce McCall published a fiction satire book, This Land Was Made for You and Me (But Mostly Me)ISBN 0-399-16368-9.

In Week 13 of the 2021 NFL season, Letterman joined Peyton and Eli Manning on their Manningcast feed of the Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills. Letterman mocked Bill Belichick after he was caught on camera wiping his nose with his shirt and was in the middle of recalling being with Roger Goodell when Goodell was booed at the unveiling of Peyton Manning‘s statue in Indianapolis when ESPN suddenly cut to commercials.

On February 1, 2022, Letterman was the guest on Late Night with Seth Meyers, marking the 40th anniversary of the franchise’s debut.

Business ventures

Letterman started his production company, Worldwide Pants Incorporated, which produced his show and several others, in 1991. The company also produces feature films and documentaries and founded its own record label, Clear Entertainment.

Letterman, Bobby Rahal, and Mike Lanigan co-own Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, an auto racing team competing in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and NTT IndyCar series. The team has twice won the Indianapolis 500: in 2004 with driver Buddy Rice, and in 2020 with Takuma Sato.

The Letterman Foundation for Courtesy and Grooming is a private foundation through which Letterman has donated millions of dollars to charities and other nonprofit organizations in Indiana and Montana,

Personal life

Letterman has tinnitus, a symptom of hearing loss. On the Late Show in 1996, he talked about his experience with tinnitus during an interview with William Shatner, who has severe tinnitus caused by an on-set explosion. Letterman has said that he was initially unable to pinpoint the noise inside his head and that he hears a constant ringing in his ears.

Letterman no longer drinks alcohol. On more than one occasion, he said that he had once been a “horrible alcoholic” and had begun drinking around the age of 13 and continued until 1981 when he was 34. He has said that in 1981, “I was drunk 80% of the time … I loved it. I was one of those guys, I looked around, and everyone else had stopped drinking and I couldn’t understand why.” When he was shown drinking what appears to be alcohol on Late Night or the Late Show, it was actually apple juice.

In 2015, Letterman said of his anxiety: “For years and years and years—30, 40 years—I was anxious and hypochondriacal and an alcoholic, and many, many other things that made me different from other people.” He became calmer through a combination of Transcendental Meditation and low doses of medication. Letterman is a Presbyterian, a religious tradition he was originally brought up in by his mother, though he once said he was motivated by “Lutheran, Midwestern guilt”.

In August 2021, Letterman was hospitalized in Providence, Rhode Island, after hitting his head on the sidewalk and falling unconscious. He favorably recalled the care he received at Rhode Island Hospital in a video released by the hospital’s owner.

Marriages, relationships, and family

On July 2, 1968, Letterman married his college sweetheart, Michelle Cook, in Muncie, Indiana; they divorced by October 1977. He also had a long-term cohabiting relationship with the former head writer and producer on Late NightMerrill Markoe, from 1978 to 1988. Markoe created several Late Night staples, such as “Stupid Pet/Human Tricks”. Time magazine wrote that theirs was the defining relationship of Letterman’s career, with Markoe also acting as his writing partner. She “put the surrealism in Letterman’s comedy.”

Letterman and Regina Lasko started dating in February 1986, while he was still living with Markoe. Lasko gave birth to their son, Harry Joseph Letterman, on November 3, 2003. Harry is named after Letterman’s father. In 2005, police discovered a plot to kidnap Letterman’s son and demand a $5 million ransom. Kelly Frank, a house painter who had worked for Letterman, was charged in the conspiracy.

Letterman and Lasko wed on March 19, 2009, in a quiet courthouse civil ceremony in Choteau, Montana, where he had purchased a ranch in 1999. Letterman announced the marriage during the taping of his show of March 23, shortly after congratulating Bruce Willis on his marriage the week before. Letterman told the audience he nearly missed the ceremony because his truck became stuck in mud two miles from their house. The family resides in North Salem, New York, on a 108-acre (44-hectare) estate.

Extortion attempt and revelation of affairs

On October 1, 2009, Letterman announced on his show that he had been the victim of a blackmail attempt by a person threatening to reveal his sexual relationships with several of his female employees—a fact Letterman immediately thereafter confirmed. Joe Halderman, a producer of the CBS news magazine television series 48 Hours, was arrested around noon (EST) on October 1, 2009, after trying to deposit the check. Halderman pleaded guilty in March 2010 and was sentenced to six months in prison, followed by probation and community service.

Stalking incidents

Beginning in May 1988, Letterman was stalked by Margaret Mary Ray, a woman with schizophrenia. She stole his Porsche, camped out on his tennis court, and repeatedly broke into his house. Her exploits drew national attention, with Letterman occasionally joking about her on his show, though he never named her. After she died by suicide at age 46 in October 1998, Letterman told The New York Times that he had great compassion for her. A spokesperson for Letterman said: “This is a sad ending to a confused life.”


Letterman is a car enthusiast and owns an extensive collection. In 2012, it was reported that the collection consisted of ten Ferraris, eight Porsches, four Austin-Healeys, two Honda motorcycles, a Chevy pickup, and one car each from automakers Mercedes-BenzJaguarMGVolvo, and Pontiac.

In his 2013 appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, part of Jerry Seinfeld‘s conversation with Letterman was filmed in Letterman’s 1995 Volvo 960 station wagon, which is powered by a 380-horsepower racing engine. Paul Newman had the car built for Letterman.

Letterman shares a close relationship with the rock and roll band Foo Fighters since its appearance on his first show upon his return from heart surgery. The band appeared many times on the Late Show, including a week-long stint in October 2014. While introducing the band’s performance of “Miracle” on the show of October 17, 2014, Letterman told the story of how a souvenir video of himself and his four-year-old son learning to ski used the song as background music, unbeknownst to Letterman until he saw it. He stated: “This is the second song of theirs that will always have great, great meaning for me for the rest of my life”. This was the first time the band had heard this story.


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