The Brief Story Behind Letterman’s Infamous ‘No. 3 In Late Night’ Billboard Mocking Jay Leno

Many of you may have caught a quick glance of the infamous “We’re No. 3” billboard in last night’s final Late Show with David Letterman, and though it’s mostly self-explanatory, it’s been 18 years since that billboard first went up, and I thought I’d offer a quick refresher to those who were watching back in 1997, and a primer for late comers. Why? Because it’s one of my all-time favorite Letterman gags, and it was completely and totally vintage Dave.

Let’s back up briefly to 1993, when Jay Leno ascended to The Tonight Show (despite the fact that Letterman was Johnny Carson’s handpicked successor), and Letterman left NBC to take over Late Show. For two years, actually, Dave bested Leno in the ratings. It looked like NBC had made a huge mistake in passing over Letterman for Leno because, in doing so, not only had NBC fractured the late night audience into two (until then, The Tonight Show was basically the only real game in town), but they were also coming in second place.

Then, in 1995, Hugh Grant happened. In June of that year, Grant had been arrested in Hollywood after he was caught receiving oral sex from a prostitute. That blow job turned everything around for Jay Leno because, a couple of weeks after the arrest, Grant appeared on The Tonight Show, and Leno infamously asked him, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Leno beat Letterman in the ratings that night for the first time since the two had gone head to head. Leno held on to that lead until 2010 (and even in Leno’s waning years, he’d get beat occasionally by Letterman, but Leno held the overall lead until he retired).

For whatever reason, audiences who tuned into The Tonight Show to see Hugh Grant discuss his sex scandal stuck around. By 1997, Letterman — who could be prickly and abrasive, and who wasn’t always the warm, friendly host that middle America wanted to fall asleep to — had actually fallen into third place, behind not only The Tonight Show but Ted Koppel’s Nightline.

Leno, because he was kind of a dick, had a billboard erected right outside Letterman’s Ed Sullivan Theater touting, “We’re No. 1 in late night,” as though to stick the knife into Letterman’s back. What do you do if you’re Dave in that situation? He was already feeling pretty miserable about falling behind in the ratings, but instead of cowering, Dave decided to own it. To make a joke of it.

So, he put up a billboard, twice as big as Leno’s, featuring a huge goofy Letterman grin, touting “We’re No. 3 in late night.” That’s mastery, folks. Because not only did Letterman’s billboard suggest that he didn’t care about ratings (though, privately, he very much did), he made Leno look like a buffoon for erecting a billboard in his backyard.

It truly was late night history’s best ever “go f*ck yourself” moment.