As a lifelong comedy fan, David Letterman has always sat at the top of my list of favorite late night television hosts. His ironic humor and unconventional style made him a true original. Here’s my in-depth profile of the legendary Dave, with little-known details on his early life, career, and unique legacy.
David Letterman: The Profile Overview
Full Name: David Michael Letterman
Birthday: April 12, 1947
Hometown: Indianapolis, Indiana
Alma Mater: Ball State University
Relationship Status: Married to Regina Lasko since 2009
Humble Midwestern Beginnings
David Letterman spent his early years in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father owned a flower shop while his mother was a church secretary. As a child, he grew up admiring beloved Hoosier TV personalities like Paul Dixon.
In high school, Letterman landed a job as a stock boy at the local Atlas Supermarket. His flair for dry wit made him popular with coworkers. After graduating from Broad Ripple High School in 1965, Letterman went on to study radio and television broadcasting at Ball State University.
At Ball State, Letterman got his first taste of performing comedy on air at the campus radio station. He drew early inspiration from late night legends like Johnny Carson and Jack Paar. Letterman graduated in 1969 and set his sights on breaking into show business.
Moving to LA and Struggling as a Comedian
Post-college, Letterman packed up his things and drove west to try his luck in Los Angeles. He started performing stand-up comedy at legendary clubs like The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip. To pay the bills, he wrote jokes and appeared on game shows.
Success didn‘t come easy at first. In fact, Letterman bombed during his first Tonight Show appearance doing stand-up in 1975. But he slowly gained traction as a reliable comedic voice, landing a writing job on the sitcom Good Times in 1978.
Big Breaks in Morning Television
Morning audiences in Indiana appreciated Letterman‘s brand of sarcasm and offbeat humor. Indianapolis ABC affiliate WLWI (now WTHR) tapped him to host a new morning talk show in 1978 called Clover Power Play.
The laidback Letterman eschewed traditional morning show conventions for more irreverent segments tailored to his style. The rebranded David Letterman Show became a hit locally and garnered NBC‘s attention.
In 1980, NBC gave Letterman his own morning show in New York airing at 10am. Called The David Letterman Show, it only ran for four months due to poor time slot ratings. But critics praised the unconventional program, cementing Letterman as an ingenious comedy voice worth investing in.
Late Night Begins on NBC
Impressed by his unique sensibilities, NBC offered Letterman the newly created Late Night show starting in 1982. Airing at 12:30am after The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman gave the host free rein to reinvent the late night format.
Letterman introduced new segments like “Viewer Mail” and facilities like the infamously distracting 360-degree "Monkey Cam." His sarcastic style during guest interviews became legendary. Late Night earned critical acclaim and introduced new generation of fans to Letterman‘s avant-garde comedy voice.
As a teenager, I distinctly remember staying up late to watch his ironic monologues and zany bits. While my parents liked Leno, I was firmly on Team Letterman.
Jumping to CBS and the Late Show
When NBC chose Jay Leno over Letterman to host The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson‘s retirement, it shocked the entertainment world. Letterman frequently guest hosted for Carson, making him the presumed heir apparent.
Letterman didn‘t stay unemployed for long. CBS offered him an 11:35pm show directly competing with Leno‘s Tonight Show. The Late Show with David Letterman premiered in 1993 with a new set and format but the same clever host.
It was appointment viewing in my dorm at the time. I loved how The Late Show skewered other program conventions but retained Letterman‘s signature comedy voice. The ratings juggernaut lasted until Letterman retired in 2015.
Analyzing Letterman‘s Hosting Brilliance
Having grown up watching him across multiple decades, here are some of the skills that made David Letterman an all-time great late night host in my book:
Dry Wit – Letterman‘s deadpan delivery made his punchlines unpredictable. His detached persona heightened the impact of one-liners.
Self-Deprecation – Unlike other hosts, he regularly poked fun at his own flaws, adding humility to balance his sarcasm.
Fearlessness – Letterman never shied from edgy or unconventional bits. He was willing to try ideas that might fail for the sake of humor.
Adaptability – As tastes changed, he evolved from the snarky young rebel to respected veteran without losing his creativity.
Interview Mastery – Letterman used observation and irony to interact uniquely with guests. He didn‘t fake fawn over celebrities.
Cultural Relevance – Whether satirizing pop culture or presidential politics, Letterman kept his commentary incisive and timely.
Lasting Legacy on Comedy
When Letterman retired in 2015 after 33 years in late night television, he left an indelible mark on comedy. Here are some of the key ways he influenced an entire genre:
- Made sarcasm and irony mainstream on television, paving the way for shows like The Daily Show.
- Set the template for merging offbeat concepts, segments, and characters into talk shows.
- Inspired hosts like Conan O‘Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon with his outside-the-box creativity.
- Proved that late night shows could move beyond canned celebrity interviews and trite segments.
- Showed versatility and evolution were keys to remaining relevant across eras from the 80s to 2010s.
- Cemented the idea that hosts‘ personalities like his own could attract loyal audiences.
- Transformed monologues by weaving in satire and continuing stories over weeks.
The comedic brilliance of David Letterman remains obvious to me every time I watch a current late night show. As a lifelong fan, I‘ll always appreciate Dave‘s wit lighting up so many of my nights.