A few weeks ago, Conan O’Brien sat in front of his computer (or he could have been standing; we weren’t there) and summed up with great eloquence and humor the impact that David Letterman has had on late-night TV over the last 33 years, and we printed that essay in the pages of EW.
Tonight, on this Day of Dave—the final installment of Late Show with David Letterman—O’Brien used the opening monologue of his TBS late-night talk show, Conan, to further express his deepest gratitude to the comedic revolutionary—and to get a little personal. In explaining that Letterman “has been the North Star for me and for every comic of my generation,” O’Brien recounted the story of how poorly he was doing after inheriting Letterman’s Late Night program in 1993 when Letterman bolted from NBC to CBS: “I got the s— kicked out of me, okay? Critics despised me. The ratings were bad. My skin broke out… And my network started to make it clear that I probably wouldn’t be around very long.”
While he was hanging from the cusp of cancelation, though, “something miraculous happened,” O’Brien said. “After four really dreary months, out of the blue, we got a message at the show that David Letterman wanted to come on the program as a guest. Now understand: Dave wasn’t just the biggest late-night star at that time, he was the biggest thing on television. He didn’t go on other people’s shows. It was like the Beatles asking Maury Povich if they could stop by and sing a couple of tunes. It was that absurd. And at the time, I was convinced it was a prank—I didn’t think it couldn’t be real. But, on February 28, 1994, David Letterman walked onto my set and he blew the doors off the place. It’s easily one of the happiest nights of my professional life.”
After showing a clip of Letterman appearance on his show, O’Brien explained that Letterman’s appearance proved a critical and immediate turning point for the show. “My producer, my writers, Andy [Richter], we all thought that if David Letterman can come on our show and say a few kind words, maybe, just maybe, we can earn the right to be here. And we survived. “
He added emotionally: “And so I’d like to point out, tonight, that if you have ever liked any silly or stupid thing I’ve done on television over 20 years, you must know, you must know that it probably never, never would have happened if it weren’t for Dave… At one of the lowest points of my life, when I was a 30-year-old national punchline, Dave, for reasons I still don’t really understand, completely rescued me. I truly believe that simple act of kindness turned everything around and made all the difference.”
O’Brien finished his heartfelt speech by telling the home audience that when Letterman’s final Late Show begins, he will ask them to switch over to watch the landmark farewell. Summed up O’Brien: “I promise you we will not see a man of his talents and comedic integrity again in our lifetime—you can not miss out.”
Click on the video to watch the tribute in full.