The year is 1982. A gap-toothed comedian named David Letterman has just been given the 12:30 a.m. slot on NBC, following Johnny Carson. As his first guest, he brings out a post-Stripes, pre-Ghostbusters Bill Murray, who proceeds to run amok and perform the song “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John, which was probably related to the thing where he brought six, half-gallon bottles of tequila to the set and spent all day getting the writers hammered. As one does.
Despite this (or possibly because of it) (OK, probably because of it), Letterman went on to have Murray back dozens of times over his 33-year late-night career, including as his first guest again when he moved to CBS. With that in mind, it only makes sense Murray will be Dave’s last official, scheduled guest tonight. (Wednesday’s swan song has no listed guests, and will instead be a surprise-filled goodbye.) A perfect ending.
Time TV critic James Poniewozik has a nice write-up of their history and shared sensibilities. The whole thing is worth a read, but here’s the thing that jumps out.
But to see Murray and Letterman as mere smirkers sold them both short. Murray’s comedy had a well of emotion; Letterman’s “irony” was in fact a passionate response against phoniness. And as their careers went on, they each became that rare kind of performer: the comic who matures and learns to express a kind of wisdom without overturning the schmaltz barrel.
So before Letterman and Murray say their final on-camera goodbye after midnight tonight (although I suppose we shouldn’t rule out another pop-in tomorrow, especially knowing Bill Murray’s flair for chaos), let’s take a few minutes and watch them play some of their greatest hits.