The world may not remember, but the faithful do. ”The David Letterman Show made everything seem funny,” says Bernie Flynn, a devoted fan from Morton, Pa. ”One time Dave said the band was really cookin’, then showed the band barbecuing on hibachis.”
Flynn isn’t referring to Letterman’s high-flying late-night success, however; he means the CBS star’s strange, seminal, uninhibited but ill-fated morning talk show, which debuted on NBC at 10 a.m. on June 23, 1980.
Letterman was new to the world of cooking tips and diaper commercials, but he was no stranger to television. After a stint as an Indiana weatherman, he had appeared on Mary Tyler Moore’s short-lived variety show, Mary, and on The Tonight Show — often filling in as guest host for his mentor, Johnny Carson. But with The David Letterman Show, he created a program like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Wacky, sardonic — it was, as NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff put it, ”irreverent with a capital R.” Letterman himself called the program, which would foreshadow his late-night antics, a combination of Donahue, Little House on the Prairie, The Dating Game, and pro wrestling.
In other words, the rules went out the window. One day, Dave sent a hapless victim from the audience out for coffee and OJ. Another time, he broadcast the show from a residence in Iowa. And Letterman’s idea of a hip ”celebrity” guest was Floyd Stiles, a farmer from Missouri.
While many critics proclaimed the program the most refreshing thing on TV, the ratings stunk. ”It was the real low point of my life,” Letterman later recalled, ”an awful period.”
As the end drew near, the host, true to his self-deprecating style, wanted to conduct a cancellation sweepstakes, getting viewers to predict the exact date NBC would pull the plug. The network vetoed the idea but still announced plans to can the program.
Ironically, once he knew his show was doomed, Letterman came into his own. He grew more relaxed, the sketches became more amusing, and critics said he was funnier than ever. Letterman would be honored with two Emmys for that season.
Nonetheless, after 18 weeks, The David Letterman Show breathed its last. Many pinned its failure on the ludicrous time slot. ”Maybe it was too early for sick humor,” says one fan, Ann Isely of Philadelphia. Dave, more pessimistic than normal, was convinced his career was over. What did he know?
June 23, 1980
In the theaters, The Shining made a killing at No. 2. Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife was atop the best-seller list. Paul McCartney & Wings had a rising hit in ”Coming Up (Live at Glasgow),” and House Calls was No. 2 on TV.