David Letterman has been a fixture of American television for 33 years, beginning his career on Late Night with David Letterman on NBC in 1982. (He moved to CBS and Late Show in 1993.) He’s been hosting late night shows for several decades and more than 6,000 episodes—which may be why it’s easy to forget how innovative the comedian was when he was just starting out.
Look back on that very first episode of Late Night, featuring guests Bill Murray and Don Herbert (better known to fans as Mr. Wizard), and you’ll see out-of-the-box segments and improvised moments that helped kick-off what would be his longtime network run—as well as his reputation for trail-blazing.
Here are a few standout (colorful, bizarre, and just plain fun) moments from the debut of Late Night, in honor of Letterman’s last late night show: the finale of Late Show, airing May 20 on CBS. The full episode is available below.
The (weird) opening monologue:
Like something out of Unsolved Mysteries, or what the Disney employee says before pulling the lever on the Tower of Terror, the opening monologue is a little creepy.
“Good evening. Certain NBC executives feel it would be a little unkind to present you this show with just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman; a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image with reckoning upon God. It’s one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you; it might even terrify you. So if any of you don’t feel like you care to subject your nerves to the strain, now’s your chance to…well, we’ve warned you.”
Everybody wants to know about welding:
The (essential) welding shot—Letterman started that trend, everybody.
Letterman guides the camera backstage, from the green room (which doubles as a greenhouse) to the lively control room where a massive Oktoberfest party is well under way. Lesson learned: no control room is complete without accordions and beer steins.
In the hot seat with Bill Murray:
Bill Murray completely takes hold of his interview, leaving Letterman to throw in the occasional one-liner or play with his pens. But he doesn’t seem that mad about it.
Bill Murray gets “Physical”:
The actor brings out a crew member for his own rendition of Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical,” complete with jumping jacks and full body convulsions. Will this be re-created for Letterman’s last show? Let’s hope so.
“Shame of the City” segment:
Letterman takes to the streets for a few interviews with a restaurant worker who pledges to correct a misspelling and a police officer who works in the world’s tiniest “police station.” Letterman in the wild is an unexpected treat.
Science with Mr. Wizard:
Proving that just about anything could happen on this show, Letterman does some science experiments with Mr. Wizard, one of which includes setting a row of matches on fire. Miraculously, no hair was singed in the making of this segment.