Over the course of 33 years in late-night television, David Letterman has become the most influential guy in the game, and one of the most beloved by both audiences and other celebrities (as the last few weeks of shows can attest). That doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps along the way. In 33 years, you’re bound to anger a few people, and Dave has pissed off his fair share.
With Letterman set to air his final show this week, let’s reflect on 12 of his biggest feuds over the years, many of which also represent some of the show’s best moments and most significant associations.
To call this an outright feud would give entirely too much substance to Letterman’s feelings on Donald Trump, who Letterman simply doesn’t appear to like and thinks very little of. Still, he did call Trump a racist in 2011, though he would later apologize. Kind of, saying, “Maybe he’s not a racist. He’s just a guy who periodically says stupid things… he’s not a racist. He’s just a dope.” Trump has taken a few shots at Dave since then, and for a while refused to appear on The Late Show. Trump, however, did appear again earlier this year, and Letterman continued to make fun of him in a subtle enough way for Trump not to really notice.
This one was fairly well publicized, but back in 2009, Letterman suggested that Sarah Palin looked like a “slutty flight attendant,” and also joked that Palin’s daughter had been knocked up by Alex Rodriguez. Letterman did apologize to Palin the next week, after the National Organization of Women also called Letterman out. Palin nevertheless declined to appear on Letterman’s show when invited.
Kathy Griffin was banned from Letterman’s show for several years during the 1990s for excessive use of profanity. When Dave finally lifted the ban, how did Griffin repay him? By stripping off her dress on the show. She was not, however, banned for that (in fact, Griffin appeared on the show earlier this year).
One of Dave’s most prolific guests back in his Late Night days (and she and Teri Garr were basically his best guests in the 1980s), Bernhard no longer appears on the show for unknown reasons. Bernhard characterizes it as a “feud,” and says she doesn’t understand why.
He totally turned off to me and didn’t have me on anymore. I don’t know. I have no idea why. Nothing happened. He moved to another network, and times changed. Maybe that was part of it. Maybe they didn’t want people to come on and use the place as an entertainment medium. It doesn’t make sense at all.
In an interview last month, however, Bernhard intimated that it might be because Dave thought that she had “trashed him,” though she denies that she ever had.
I wouldn’t quite categorize this as a feud, but it’s certainly a significant event in Letterman’s history, and an even more significant one in the life of stand-up comedian Bill Hicks (a fair portion of the documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, is devoted to the time that Letterman cut Hicks final appearance from the show. Hicks died a year later. Letterman would explain in 2009 — when he had the mother of Bill Hicks on his show — that cutting Hicks’ segment was an “error in judgement.” In that 2009 interview with Mary Hicks, Letterman also finally aired Hicks’ last stand-up segment.
I’m not sure if you’d characterize this as a “feud” exactly, either, but Letterman was certainly annoyed with Crispin Glover in a 1987 interview, in which Glover appeared in character as Rubin from an as-yet-unreleased movie (the movie wouldn’t be released for three more years). During the interview, Glover challenged Letterman to an arm-wrestling match and karate kicked for near Letterman’s face, coming “very close to denting my head.” Dave was so irritated that he cut short the interview and walked off, saying he had to “go check on the top 10.” Glover did appear again three years later, denying that he’d ever been on the show before, and deflecting questions about his prior appearance. He still hasn’t quite explained what was going on with that appearance, choosing instead to let it remain a mystery.
Though the rumor that Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine had been banned from Letterman’s show for showing up and giving a whacked out interview while he was high, the truth is that Korine was banned for a completely different reason, as Letterman revealed to James Franco back in 2013. It was because Letterman caught Harmony Korine rifling through Meryl Streep’s things in her green room and attempting to steal her wallet. The interview, however, was still wonderfully awkward.
Letterman’s feud with Bryan Gumbel dates back 30 years, to 1985 when — during a taping of a prime time episode of The Today Show back when Gumbel was hosting — Letterman decided to pull out a bullhorn and interrupt a live interview Gumbel and Jane Pauley were having with Don Johnson.
Gumbel was furious, and years later — though he admitted that he and Dave had buried the hatchet — Gumbel says that he was mad enough at the time to “hit him. If I could’ve gotten to him, I would’ve… I didn’t think it was funny, and I’m sure if I’d done it on his show, he wouldn’t have thought it was funny, either… I was livid.” Letterman never apologized, but several years later, Gumbel appeared on The Late Show to do a top 10 list, effectively ending the feud.
Though Letterman and Howard Stern are very close now — in fact, Stern has been one of Dave’s biggest fans and supporters over the years — there was a time when the relationship between the two was chilly. That’s because, early in both Letterman and Stern’s careers, he used to call Stern at home and have personal conversations. However, Letterman got upset with Stern because he betrayed his confidence and revealed the contents of those private conversations on air.
In 1986, after four years of coaxing, Cher finally agreed to appear on the show. During that interview, Letterman got into a verbal sparring match. Cher admitted that she didn’t want to do the show because she thought Dave was an “asshole.” Nevertheless, she reluctantly agreed to appear again two years later and reunite with Sonny Bono. Over the course of 30 years, Cher has continued to appear on the show, and the two have continued to snip at each other (hilariously). Dave often suggested that Cher got around, if you know what I mean. A couple of weeks ago, however, Cher appeared on the show and called Dave an asshole one last time.
No one quite understood for the longest time why Oprah Winfrey refused to appear on Letterman’s show, and why a “feud” existed between the two. The feud lasted 16 years — between 1989 and 2005 — when Oprah finally agreed to appear in a Super Bowl commercial with Dave. Many thought the feud stemmed from Dave making fun of Oprah’s name when he hosted to 1995 Oscars. As it turns out, the feud originated with a prank that Dave pulled on Oprah. As Dave revealed to Jon Stewart back in 2010, the reason why Oprah refused to talk to Dave is because he and his then girlfriend, Regina Lasko, ran into Oprah and her boyfriend Stedman, on vacation. Dave thought it would be funny to tell the waiter that Oprah had agreed to pick up his check. “So, the waiter comes over and asks for ‘l’addition s’il vous plait,’ and I say, ‘Oh, this woman right over there has been kind enough to take care of our check.” Then, as Dave left the restaurant, he waved at Oprah, and Oprah waved back, duping the waiter into believing Oprah had actually agreed to pick up the check. Oprah apparently didn’t find the prank to be very funny.
The Leno-Letterman feud doesn’t really need recounting, but here are the highlights: Leno and Dave used to be very close friends during their stand-up days and when Dave was host of Late Night, where Leno was a very frequent guest. However, despite the fact that Johnny Carson had picked Letterman to be his successor on The Tonight Show, Leno weaseled his way into the job, both by nudging Carson out the door and then coaxing the NBC brass to choose him over Letterman (in one incident, Leno hid out in a closet and eavesdropped on corporate conversations). Letterman was obviously angry by it, and he spent much of the last 22 years mocking Leno, although he would eventually see the feud as a kind of driving force for his Late Show career. Letterman and Leno kind of buried the hatchet with their 2010 Super Bowl spot. Dave also called Leno when he announced his retirement last year to wish him well.
I wouldn’t say that the two are great friends, however, or that the hatchet is completely buried. When Leno retired, Dave declined to do a 10-second pre-taped segment for Leno’s final show, and Leno has apparently declined an invitation to appear on Letterman’s final show. Here’s Dave in 2010 basically calling out Leno for dicking over Conan, saying that it was essentially Leno being Leno.