David Letterman leaves behind legacy of comic gold

  • David Letterman at reception in NBC’s Studio 6A on Jan. 19, 1982 at the announcement of new NBC comedy show “Late Night With David Letterman.”
  • In this Feb. 1, 1982 file photo, host David Letterman, right, and guest Bill Murray appear at the taping of the debut of “Late Night with David Letterman” in New York. Murray’s 44th and final appearance Tuesday, May 19, 2015, will mark the end of late-night television’s most unique and enduring host-guest relationships. After 33 years in late night and 22 years hosting CBS’ “Late Show,” Letterman will retire on May 20.
  • Comedian and late night television host David Letterman warms up his NBC studio audience prior to the taping of his popular television show at Rockefeller Center in New York, N.Y., in 1982.
  • American comedian and television show host David Letterman.
  • Keyboard player Ray Manzarek (1939-2013) from the Doors posed (3rd from left) with Paul Shaffer backstage on the Late Night with David Letterman Show in New York, N.Y., on Jan. 25, 1984.
  • Comedian and talk show host David Letterman (L) sits with Tonight Show host Johnny Carson on Oct. 23, 1987.
  • Comedian Jay Leno (L) and host David Letterman (R) on Late Night with David Letterman, April 13, 1987.
  • Talk show host David Letterman applauds while announcing his move from NBC to CBS at press conference at CBS where his show will air against NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
  • Bill Murray spray paints Dave’s desk on the first taping of the Late Show with David Letterman, Aug. 30, 1993.
  • Ed Sullivan Theater which is owned by CBS has the Late Show with David Letterman.
  • Drew Barrymore turns to the audience after flashing host David Letterman during the April 12, 1995 taping of the Late Show with David Letterman in New York, N.Y. This show was taped on Dave’s Birthday. 
  • Late Show host David Letterman thanks the people of Schoharie, New York who made up the entire CBS Late Show audience during the Nov. 18, 2002 taping of the Late Show with David Letterman.
  • Stupid pet tricks with on the Late Show with David Letterman Feb. 24, 2011.
  • Actor Joaquin Phoenix, waves to the audience during his interview with Late Show host David Letterman during the Late Show with David Letterman, Feb. 11, 2009.
  • David Letterman talks to the audience during the opening of the Late Show with David Letterman on Sept. 17, 2001. This was the first broadcast of The Late Show with David Letterman following the tragedies of September 11, 2001.
  • Warren Zevon talks to David Letterman when he visits the Late Show with David Letterman, Oct. 30, 2002. On the Show, Zevon also performed three of his legendary songs. 
  • Oprah Winfrey returns to chat with David Letterman, 16 years after her previous visit on The Late Show with David Letterman, Dec. 1, 2005.
  • David Letterman added the sixth “Emmy” to the Late Show collection on the Late Show with David Letterman, Sept., 23, 2002.
  • Bill Murray jumps out of giant cake, when he makes his final appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, May 19, 2015.

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On Wednesday, America will say goodbye to one of the most iconic images in television history – the gap toothed grin of David Letterman. After over 30 years in late night comedy, the irascible talk show host is stepping aside, handing over the reins of his CBS time slot to another popular rabble rouser – Stephen Colbert.

Letterman leaves behind an incredible legacy, and it’s no accident that most of the late night hosts to come in his wake – Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmell and Jimmy Fallon, to name a few – cite him as one the biggest influences on their comedic perspectives and personas. His more sardonic brand of off-kilter comedy permanently shook up the traditional talk show format – bringing top ten lists and “stupid pet tricks” into people’s living rooms every night.

Early on Letterman’s style set him apart. On his NBC show, which debuted in 1982, he infamously sparred with his guests like comic book writer Harvey Pekar and character actor Crispin Glover. He provided a lab for legendary comic Andy Kaufman to test some of his most unconventional humor and he established a rapport with bandleader Paul Shaffer that audiences loved.

When Letterman took his act to CBS in 1993 the scale of his show got bigger than ever. Locked in a decades-long ratings war with his rival Jay Leno, Letterman struck gold with sometimes heated encounters with the likes of Madonna and Drew Barrymore. The more bizarre the guest – like a monosyllabic Joaquin Phoenix – the funnier Letterman would be, lacing his barbs with his trademark acerbic wit.

He also showed tremendous gravitas. As the one late night talk show based in New York City in 2001, Letterman gave voice to the city’s anguish and resilience during a critically acclaimed monologue in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also didn’t shy away from taking stronger political swipes than some of his peers – getting into high-profile scraps with both Sarah Palin and John McCain at the height of their power.

As Letterman matured from college kids’ favorite cut-up to the elder statesman of late night, America grew up with him. A whole generation of Americans hasn’t lived through a period where he wasn’t on TV. We’ve seen him come back from major health battles and an embarrassing extortion attempt. And through it all he has remained the clown prince of alternative comedy.

Now, all we’ll have left is the memories. Here are just a few of our favorites …

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