David Letterman reinvented late night back in the '80s and went on to break Johnny Carson's record as the longest-running after-hours talk show host in TV history. These days Letterman has a lighter (and earlier) schedule, though Netflix recently coaxed him out of retirement to host the in-depth interview series "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction." Here, as Dave turns 71, are 20 of his most memorable moments.
Bill Murray and the Premiere of "Late Night"
Dave's's inaugural guest on "Late Night"—which premiered February 1, 1982—was Bill Murray, who discussed the lint balls on his sweater before launching into rant against the host for playing his little talk show "mind games." As a bonus, Murray offered up a spastic jumping-jack dance routine set to Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." Not surprisingly, Murray was asked to return as a guest some 40 times over the years.
Bizarro Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre February 2009 guest spot on "Late Show" lasted an excruciating nine minutes, as the bearded and unkempt actor answered Letterman's questions with monosyllables—if at all—and at times seemed to fall asleep in his chair. Phoenix, who later claimed it was all a bit of "performance art," wasn't funny. But Dave was—especially when he cheerfully asked Phoenix: "Can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?"
Drew Flashes Dave
Drew Barrymore gave Dave a gift for the ages on his 48th birthday—April 12, 1995—when she surprised the host by climbing atop his desk and showing off her best striptease moves, ending with a private flash as she briefly lifted her pullover. Said a stunned Letterman to the 20-year-old actress, "I can't thank you enough for that."
The Very First Top Ten List
Letterman's "Top Ten List" made its debut on September 18, 1985, with a ranking of "Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas." There were thousands of funnier ones to come, but Dave rightly defended that seminal list as "solid network programming material" and continued offering up his nightly Top Ten until the final "Late Show" 30 years later.
Honoring Warren Zevon
When Warren Zevon made his last "Late Show" appearance on October 30, 2002, he knew he was dying, having been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. A frequent Letterman guest, Zevon was also one of Dave's few celebrity friends. It was a poignant night as the two pals riffed, joked and laughed. When Letterman asked Zevon how the diagnosis had shaped his outlook, Zevon said, "You're reminded to enjoy every sandwich." Just before the singer-songwriter left Dave's set for the last time, he handed the host his guitar. "Take care of this for me," he said.
Cher Has Choice Words for Dave
After four years of trying, Letterman finally got Cher to appear on "Late Night" on May 22, 1986. But the visibly star-struck host was thrown when Cher deadpanned that the reason she'd turned down the show for so long was that she thought Dave was an "a--hole." The interview never fully recoverer, as Letterman kept wondering aloud if people really think he's a "creep." But there were no hard feelings: Cher returned the next year—with Sonny. For the first time in a decade, she and her ex sang their signature duet, "I Got You Babe."
Moonlighting at Taco Bell
Back in the day, Letterman delighted in escaping the studio, interviewing people on the street, conducting Chinese restaurant delivery races, driving around in a convertible with Zsa Zsa Gabor. But it was Dave's June 1996 gig at a Taco Bell drive-through window—where he screwed up orders, told one customer about losing his toes in a mower accident, and invited another to "come in and stick your head under the Pepsi machine"—that became a comedy classic.
The Late Night Money Cam
In March 1986, long before the days of GoPro, Letterman introduced the "Monkey Cam," a chimpanzee named Zippy with a small camera mounted on his back. Although Zippy's first effort produced nothing but jittery, out-of-focus footage, Dave brought Zippy back once again with the "Late Night Monkey Cam Mobile Unit"—aka Zippy on roller-skates. This time the bit worked perfectly. Letterman even accompanied Zippy and his camera down the hall to an adjoining studio to interrupt weatherman Al Roker on the air.
Madonna Swears Like a Sailor
When Madonna made her "Late Show" debut in March 1994, she dropped 14 F-bombs. The show achieved high ratings and set a new record as the most censored episode in TV talk show history. Letterman handled the Material Girl with aplomb, even when she offered him her panties. Later Madonna said, "Can't this go on and on?" To which Letterman replied, "It already has."
Richard Simmons and the Giant Turkey
A "go-to" guest for Letterman, on November 22, 2000, Richard Simmons went a bit too far when he tried to kiss Dave while dressed as a giant turkey. Having none of it, Letterman proceeded to hose down the flamboyant fitness personality with a fire extinguisher. Not shown on the air was Simmons' subsequent asthma attack and call to paramedics.
The Suit of Velcro
He's a man of many ridiculous suits (marshmallows, Rice Krispies), but the first and most iconic of them was Dave's "Suit of Velcro," which he donned on February 28, 1984. The premise was simple: Wearing a suit made entirely of Velcro, Letterman jumps on a trampoline, attaches himself to a Velcro wall and tosses around a Velcro basketball.
The Farrah Fiasco
Farrah Fawcett had tongues wagging after her loopy first-time visit with Letterman in June 1997. All spacey giggles and half-remembered stories, she actually mistook Dave's Manhattan skyline backdrop for the real thing. Fawcett later claimed she was just "having fun" with the host, but the morning-after consensus was that she was high. Still, the former "Charlie's Angels" star (seen here on a subsequent visit) flashed considerable charm Dave's way, and he was clearly having the time of his life.
Justin Bieber on Renaissance Art
Letterman wasn't exactly mean to Justin Bieber in this June 2012 interview, but the teen idol, then 18, pretty much offered himself up to Dave's ridicule—and the audience's laughter—when he referred to Michelangelo's "Sixteenth Chapel." And you can imagine the reaction when Bieber coyly revealed that the secret ingredient in his latest fragrance is "Bieber sweat."
John Malkovich and the Top Ten
Letterman was the master of the throwaway bit, and this was never more evident than on October 15, 1999, when his Top Ten list featured the "Things That Sound Creepy When Said by John Malkovich"—read by the actor himself. Hearing Malkovich say, "I put my jammies on all by myself, Mommy" was both hilarious and actually kind of creepy.
Dave's Heart Surgery
Letterman briefly shelved his smart-aleck persona for his February 2000 return to the "Late Show" after a month-long absence during which he recovered from quintuple-bypass surgery. The host had plenty of jokes ready ("A bypass is what happened to me when I didn't get 'The Tonight Show'"), and Robin Williams showed up in surgical scrubs. But when Dave brought out the entire medical team that had operated on him, he got teary-eyed, telling viewers, "It was five weeks ago that these men and women saved my life."
Dave Returns After 9/11
On September 17, 2001, Letterman was the first late night host to return to television after 9/11. All jokes were cast aside, with a somber Dave struggling forword as he paid tribute to the firemen and policemen and the thousands who died in the terrorist attacks of that day. For one night, Letterman became a sort of national spokesperson in what may have been his finest hour.
Dave Loses His Cool
Underground comic book author Harvey Pekar (seen here with Paul Giamatti, who played him in 2003's "American Splendor") prompted one of the rare instances when Letterman lost his cool with a guest. On this August 1988 episode, a belligerent and garrulous Pekar accused Dave of being a "shill" for NBC's corporate parent, General Electric. A visibly angry Letterman tore into his guest and his "little Mickey Mouse magazine," vowing that Pekar would never be welcomed back to the show again. He wasn't.
The Dubbed Rerun
When an earlier episode featuring Raquel Welch was aired for a second time on September 25, 1986, Letterman and his guests' voices were all dubbed using other performers' voices. There was no explanation. Viewers were left either amused or confused—several hundred called the network to complain. Dave never tried the stunt again, making it a memorable one-off in the Letterman canon.
The Morning Show That Started It All
Letterman's reinvention of late night TV can be traced back to 1980, when he got his big break as host of a morning talk show on NBC. Though critically acclaimed, the show flopped in the ratings and was cancelled after 19 weeks. Still, "The David Letterman Show" introduced the host's off-center humor. A particularly memorable segment featured comedian Andy Kaufman coming apart at the seams in the guest chair before heading into the studio audience to beg for spare change.
Some 13.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the final episode of "Late Show with David Letterman" on May 20, 2015. Packed with cameo appearances by the likes of Barack Obama, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Tina Fey and old standby Bill Murray, it was an emotional but never mawkish farewell. At the end, Dave took a moment to thank his viewers, the show's staff, Paul Shaffer and the band, his mother and, finally, his wife Regina and son Harry, saying: "Thank you for being my family. I love you both and really nothing else matters, does it?" And with that, a late night friend of 33 years left the stage.
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