All this week, Uproxx‘s Late Night Week will take a look at late-night past, present, and future, from talk shows to late-night comedy, and beyond. Here’s an argument that the streaming age should do better by late night and talk show history.
It wouldn’t be fair to call February 21, 1983 a slow news day. Sectarian violence erupted in the rural Indian state of Assam. OPEC appeared on the verge of breaking up. And Patti Austin and James Ingram’s “Baby, Come to Me” continued its rocket ride to the top of the charts. But it wasn’t exactly a day filled with historical landmarks. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth revisiting. After all, in the middle of the night, after making some jokes about U.S. Presidents and just missing the chance to interrupt a Culture Club performance on Live at Five, David Letterman welcomed as his first guest the reclusive music genius Sly Stone, an icon who hadn’t been seen in years.
This isn’t just a matter of historical record. You can watch the whole episode right now. (And if you’ve got a spare 44 minutes, please, be our guest. We can wait until you’re done.)
That installment of Late Night With David Letterman is accessible in its entirety for two reasons: 1) Someone took the trouble to record it (in this case off a rebroadcast on the much-missed cable network trio, which regularly ran Late Night reruns in the early ‘00s) and upload it to YouTube. And 2) neither NBC nor Carson Productions has asked for it to be taken down.
Consequently, we have the whole episode of Late Night. And it’s a pretty fascinating episode. Stone is, for the most part, relaxed and charismatic. He’d barely made a public appearance in nine years, but anyone expecting a burned out casualty of fame instead got an easygoing music legend in a tracksuit. Even Letterman’s tough questions about missing shows and run-ins with the police — this was from a period when the host would go places others would not — don’t phase Stone. Mostly. When talk turns to the widely reported rumor that he once dated Doris Day, Stone gets a little nervous. (“I wouldn’t date that lady. I’d be too afraid. [Long pause.] Black folks gotta be cool…”)
He’s followed by Sandra Bernhard, making the first of many Late Night appearances and already making Letterman uncomfortable with her flirting, and, as part of segment called “Know Your Staff,” writer George Meyer, sporting a wispy Abraham Lincoln beard at the beginning of a career that would take him from Letterman to SNL to The Simpsons.