When David Letterman became the inaugural host of NBC’s Late Night on Feb. 1, 1982, audiences didn’t quite know what to expect. Like a folksier version of Saturday Night Live’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players, Dave took mainstream entertainment—in this case, the genial comedic style of late night king (and lead-in host) Johnny Carson—and painted a mustache on it. He refused to brown-nose celebrities on the promo circuit and delighted in highlighting average absurdity that allowed his successors—Conan O’Brien, Seth Meyers and an unusual amount of men named James—to get away with being funny little freaks on national television.
To mark 40 years since Letterman’s late-night debut, he’s opened the vault for the first time with an official YouTube channel, showcasing clips from Late Night as well as Late Show, his successor show on CBS after being snubbed for Carson’s seat in favor of denim-clad car obsessive Jay Leno. (This belated move comes years after superfan Don Giller digitized hundreds of episodes for an adoring public—here’s hoping he’s involved in some way.)
It seems only appropriate to borrow one of Dave’s greatest bits and present a Top Ten List of the best of the dozens of official clips you can watch right now.
- “They Took My Show Away” (Late Night, 1983) Dave’s pre-recorded take on after-school specials – in which he guides a young boy through the trauma of a canceled TV show – is the work of a host who wasn’t afraid to thumb his nose at the network – a hint at not only the rest of Letterman’s career, but all Late Night hosts to come.
- Norm MacDonald’s Final Stand-Up Performance (Late Show, 2015) The late comic got it right toward the end of a seven-minute stand-up send-off toward the end of Late Show’s run: Letterman was “not for the mawkish or sentimental.” But Norm fighting back tears as he praises his friend hits hard even if we didn’t miss him as well.
- Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler Brawl on Set (Late Night, 1982) One of Kaufman’s most immortal on-air stunts: the late comedian arrived in a neck brace to trade barbs with Jerry “The King” Lawler following a loss to Lawler in a devastating (and, of course, staged) brawl in Memphis. After the wrestler struck him on camera Kaufman launched into a profane rant. “I think you can use some of those words on TV,” Dave deadpanned.
- Alex Trebek Presents Top Ten Rejected Jeopardy! Categories (Late Show, 1995) Letterman’s Top Ten lists were the height of one-liner absurdity, and as he got more popular, he wasn’t afraid to have celebrity guests add to the joke. Case in point: getting beloved game show host Alex Trebek to spout nonsense like “Things That Smell Like Eggs.”
- Regis Philbin Talks About His “Live” Show (Late Night, 1983) Five years before his morning talk show went national, the excitable Regis had one of his first host-to-host summits with Letterman. The pair would trade good-natured barbs with each other for the rest of Dave’s career.
- Larry “Bud” Melman at NYC’s Port Authority (Late Night, 1983) Dave didn’t have an Ed McMahon (bandleader Paul Shaffer isn’t quite a 1:1 comparison) but he did have Calvert DeForrest, whose turn as Late Night mascot Larry “Bud” Melman poked incredible fun at the tropes of a talk show. Even Dave can barely keep it together watching Melman hand out hot towels to tourists at the Port Authority bus terminal.
- Drew Barrymore’s Birthday Present (Late Show, 1995) Dave’s at-times flirtatious repartee with his female guests was taken to a whole new level when a 20-year-old Drew Barrymore spontaneously climbed on the desk and gave him an unforgottable birthday moment.
- The First “Stupid Pet Tricks” (Late Night, 1982) Only days into Late Night’s run, Dave established himself as a comedy icon of the people by bringing on not animal trainers but average folks to showcase the silliest in animal behavior. Long before YouTube, where else could you see a bunny ride a skateboard?
- Joaquin Phoenix’s Infamous Interview (Late Show, 2009) It can’t hold a candle to Crispin Glover’s surreal 1986 appearance, but Joaquin’s infamous, bearded, halting, guest spot—later revealed to be part of a mockumentary—is elevated cringe. Dave, of course, is barely having any of it, which only makes it funner.
- Dave at Taco Bell (Late Show, 1996) Perhaps nothing encapsulates the silliness of Letterman’s career quite like his memorable guest spot as “Kenny,” the Taco Bell drive-thru manager. From absurd digressions about stomach flu to customers drinking from the Pepsi fountain, it’s these kinds of gags that made Letterman a prototype for so many to follow.