David Letterman revisited his old stomping grounds at Late Night to celebrate the show’s 40th anniversary. The 74-year-old comedian had pioneered the NBC show from 1982 to 1993, before leaving to go to host The Late Show on CBS. David chatted with the current-host Seth Meyers, 48, about some of his memories from the original series during the latest episode of Late Night on Tuesday February 1.
After Seth welcomed David back to “his show,” the original host reflected on his days before the show first aired (with Bill Murray as the first guest). He hilariously admitted to being nervous due to his morning show The David Letterman Show’s failure. “First of all, what was I consumed by? Paralytic fear, because we had blown up the NBC daytime schedule a year previously. We had a show — a lot of us had a show— that we thought was just great, and it was on for 90 minutes live, like 9:00 to 10:30 on NBC, and it replaced two or three game shows, and it turned out America didn’t want them replaced. Certainly didn’t want them replaced by me,” he recalled.
Despite feeling like an “eternity” to come back with Late Night, David said he still proceeded with “trepidation,” and he had “mixed” feelings, because he thought people would be excited about Bill Murray appearing, but he was still unsure if the show would go the same way as the morning show. “The night of the show, I just felt fantastic, and then that lasted until my feet hit the floor in the morning, and then the paralytic fear starts all over again,” he explained, before getting into the show’s philosophy during his tenure. “We tried to be as unusual as possible.”
Before turning to other topics, Dave explained that short contracts were part of why he was so nervous.”We knew: ‘How many people are possibly watching?'” he said. “Through the first year, we were never certain beyond a month and a half or two months if we had a future, and then things started to—the cement started to harden a bit.”
After Tonight Show host Johnny Carson retired in 1992, Dave was passed over for the job, which went to Jay Leno, who hosted from 1992 to 2009 (and then again from 2010 to 2014). The host started The Late Show on CBS, which he hosted until 2015, and is currently starring Stephen Colbert. After his time on late night, he retired and started a long-form talk series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction on Netflix.
Overall, David was incredibly supportive of Seth and had nothing but good things to say about the current iteration of Late Night. “Honest to goodness, if it weren’t for your kind invitation, I would not have known that this is the 40th anniversary of what you now do as the show,” he said. “You’re in good shape!”
Before wrapping up their conversation, the two hosts showed a clip from Dave’s run as host, which David described as “Not funny,” but he felt showed the essence of his time on Late Night. The clip was back when he got three contestants to do “elevator races” in the NBC office. “It’s representational of the nonsense that we pursued each and every night, when I first started the show, which, by the way, is so much better now. Thanks to you,” David said.