The clip above is from David Letterman's ninth-ever show as a late-night talk show host. It aired February 15, 1982, and showcases everything that's brilliant about the man as a TV host in just over five minutes.
Letterman, who hosts his final Late Show on CBS Wednesday, May 20, 2015, took some time to become the TV fixture he is today. His early TV career involved a role in the ensemble cast on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived variety series Mary, as well as a guest spot on Mork & Mindy. In the early '80s, NBC gave him a morning show, but his restless creativity was all wrong for an audience that largely consisted of housewives and retirees. The show was quickly canceled, but NBC clearly recognized it had a major talent on its hands.
Late night was the perfect place for Letterman's subversive genius
Letterman's hour finally arrived — literally — when the network shifted him to an after-midnight time slot, where he'd follow Johnny Carson's Tonight Show as part of a complicated deal to keep Carson on the air. (Carson had long wanted control of the time slot immediately after his, and his production company would produce Letterman's new show.)
Late Night With David Letterman would hit the air February 1, 1982, and television would never be the same. Even in that first outing, Letterman's talent was evident.
The most notable thing about Letterman is the way he simply assumed his audience had grown up with television and knew it backward and forward. For the most part, television in the pre-Letterman era was built on the idea of showbiz glamour. There were the big-time stars, there were the TV personalities who brought them to us, and there was everybody else. That hierarchy maintained its sway from TV's infancy until the 1980s.
Letterman, however, was fascinated with the idea that simply putting something on television made it part of pop culture, and he loved the notion of demystifying the medium for his viewers. The whole of his NBC morning show — and the finer moments of his CBS late-night show — were about deconstructing television itself.
Letterman made TV for a generation that grew up with TV
There's ample evidence of this in that first clip above, from his ninth episode of Late Night on NBC.
Seeing things from Letterman's point of view, we get the sense that we're going "behind the scenes," even if it's mostly an excuse for some high-concept jokes (like the idea that he would make Brazilian viewers more comfortable by saying "Arriba"). When his "guest," a man named "Bert, the human caboose" (played by longtime Letterman fellow Calvert DeForest), arrives, the whole joke is that this man's tragic story — he was dragged behind a train — is flattened into pap by the all-consuming power of TV.
Except the joke is ultimately on Letterman, whose perspective we're watching through. He's clearly unprepared for what's happening, his mind occupied with all of the other distractions his staffers threw at him.
There's also the fascination with the way TV is made and consumed. Yes, the segment is filled with jokes, but we're really seeing the way TV is made, the way the cameras move, almost dance-like, to new positions, or the way cue cards sit off to the side of the host's eyeline. Letterman was producing a show for a young audience that had never lived in a time without television — one of the first audiences that could honestly say that. As such, he delighted in stretching the template to its breaking point while, nevertheless, revealing how the magic happened.
Letterman wasn't without antecedents, particularly the similarly experimental Ernie Kovacs. But because of when his show aired and because of the audience he attracted, he was able to build on that foundation to create a TV show that was simultaneously in awe of and slightly amused by the very idea of having a TV show in the first place.