David Letterman will air his last show tonight, and with it, he'll retire the Top Ten List forever. When it first aired on September 18, 1985, the list wasn't just a collection of halfhearted zingers — it was far more conceptually bizarre than what we see on the show today.
But for a dumb skit, it has a surprisingly confusing origin story.
How the Top Ten List was born
Due to the fog of history, the trolling of Letterman writers, or a bit of both, we have surprisingly little idea of who came up with the idea for the Top Ten List. Brian Abrams tells the story of the Top Ten List in his Kindle Single AND NOW...An Oral History of "Late Night with David Letterman," 1982-1993, and it turns out nobody can agree on how the recurring bit began.
We do know that the first list was a delightfully random bit of comedy that would have been far too weird for any other show:
Letterman had hosted Late Night since 1982, so the bit came after he had a little experience honing his voice. You can see Dave present the list in an appropriately sketchy video.
The first Top Ten Lists were just as amazingly bizarre as the original:
- September 18: "Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme with ‘Peas’"
- September 19: "Top Ten Dance Fever Judges"
- September 24: "Top Ten Heaviest Kennedys"
- September 25: "Top Ten Baseball Players With Funny Names"
- September 26: "Top Ten Furniture Favorites"
- September 30: "Top Ten Liquids"
- October 1: "Top Ten Cartoon Squirrels"
- October 2: "Top Ten Wiper Blades"
- October 3: "Top Ten Commercial Processes"
- October 8: "Top Ten Pharaohs or Tile Caulkings"
From there, things get a lot more confusing.
The list of theories about the origin of Letterman's Top Ten List is extensive:
- Merrill Markoe says Randy Cohen (familiar to many as the New York Times columnist behind The Ethicist from 1999 to 2011) created the gag, and Cohen says he was inspired by a Cosmopolitan article about the "Ten Sexiest Men Over Sixty."
- However, Cohen also says that writer Bob Morton ran with the idea, while Matt Wickline wrote the actual first list.
- But the story's more complicated than that — Kevin Curran, a writer and later a Simpsons executive producer, says he wrote the first list.
- Steve O'Donnell, who worked on the show and later on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, says he came up with the idea from a Daily News list, not a Cosmo article, though he agrees that Curran wrote it.
- Meanwhile, Bob Morton, a writer and executive producer, says he suggested the idea to O'Donnell after seeing a list in People.
- Jim Downey, a famous Saturday Night Live writer, claims that an earlier Top Five skit he was involved with was the true inspiration.
But beyond all the squabbling, O'Donnell notes the most important distinction between the first Lists and what the List became: "Whatever it was, you can at least see that the first lists were not a bunch of jokes about John Boehner and Harry Reid. They were supposed to be conceptual, this weird mixture."
That may be why the first list is still pretty funny, even today.