David Letterman made his NBC debut -- Seventeen years ago ''Late Night'' changed the face of talk shows

Right before the debut of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman, the gap-toothed host told a reporter to lower his expectations. ”We’re not changing history,” demurred Letterman. ”Though we’ve got that scheduled for the second night.”

We beg to differ: On that very first night of Feb. 2, 1982, Letterman did change history — at least TV history. Viewers who tuned in (all 4.5 million of them) were treated to a curious mix of postmodern showmanship, self-referential mockery, and weird instructions on metallurgy. It was a genre-busting 60 minutes, a big-city mile from Johnny Carson’s cornball sketches and Merv Griffin’s buttery interviews. That night the anti-talk show was born. The age of irony had officially begun.

Letterman kicked off the program with an overproduced dance number featuring prancing, peacock-feather-bedecked showgirls. (The subtext: We know showbiz is tacky; we’re in on the joke.) Then out came the first guest, Bill Murray, who set the tone for many a future bizarre non-interview. The SNL alum rambled on in a parody of talk-show blather, then broke into a peppy version of Olivia Newton-John’s ”Physical.”

Though no Top Ten list was in sight, Letterman launched other trademark gags. He led viewers on a jokey behind-the-scenes tour (we saw a green room transformed into a greenhouse). He needled cancellation-happy network execs. (”I’m very excited about this new show,” he said. ”And it’s a big three or four days for NBC.”) And he dug up comedy on New York’s streets. In a segment called ”The Shame of the City,” he discovered a deli sign that read ”Planing a Party? Try One of Theese!” and extracted a promise from a befuddled employee to correct the misspellings.

The show, as current executive producer Rob Burnett says, felt like someone had ”broken into the studio and gotten control of the equipment.” As with the daring, low-rated 1980 morning program, The David Letterman Show, the critics lapped it up. But this time, Letterman also found a cult of appreciative viewers: dorm dwellers and edgy insomniacs.

Eleven years later, after losing a hyped showdown with Jay Leno to take over NBC’s post-Carson Tonight Show, Letterman jumped to CBS. Though he now trails Leno in the ratings, Letterman’s New York-based irony undoubtedly has had a bigger impact on pop culture, spawning such talk-show snarksters as Craig Kilborn, Jon Stewart, and Dennis Miller. All that from a former weatherman from Indiana with bad hair who had no intention of changing history.

Time Capsule
Feb. 2, 1982
At the movie, Mariel Hemingway portrays a track star who has a lesbian relationship in Personal Best. The movie stumbles at the box office ($6.6 million domestic gross), sending mainstream Hollywood running from gay subject matter for a few years. In music, America goes for Daryl Hall and John Oates’ ”I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” propelling it to the top of the singles chart. Meanwhile, Olivia Newton-John’s suggestive workout anthem ”Physical” bounces down to No. 4. In bookstores, A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney, a series of ostensibly humorous essays by the 60 Minutes codger, grabs the No. 1 non-fiction spot. And in the news, 170 protesters are arrested during an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in Livermore, Calif. Sample sign: ”You can’t hug your children with nuclear arms.”

Late Night with David Letterman
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