Sadly, YouTube is the only place you can find evidence of Letterman’s early dominance, but in celebration of the man, we sought out these 10 (of course it’s 10) original, wonderful, and bizarre bits to shine as a reminder of the 11-year period when Letterman anchored the most unpredictable hour on television.
The Hank Aaron Post-Interview Interview
In a clever play on cliche postgame interviews, former all-time home run champion Hank Aaron walked through the studio tunnel after wrapping an interview with Letterman and high-fived a crowd of NBC staffers before stopping to speak with WNBC’s Al Albert for a post-interview interview about Letterman’s interview prowess and the experience of having been on Late Night. This was the third episode of Late Night. So even at that early point, Letterman was working to deconstruct the late night talk show and present something unique.
The Mobile Late Night Monkey Cam
It may not seem that impressive in the era of GoPro cams, but back in the 80’s, Letterman was a trailblazer for strapping a camera to a stubborn monkey named Zippy who happened to be wearing roller skates. The end result was random and amazing as Letterman led Zippy by the hand through the hallways of NBC for a visit to the Live at 5 news cast and Al Roker.
Letterman often donned weird suits for stunts — the Alka Seltzer suit, for instance — but the Velcro Suit and the sight of Letterman stuck to a wall is probably the most iconic.
Alan Alda: A Man And His Chinese Food Mensa Members Get Dave A Soda
When this originally ran, we highlighted a little bit of hard-hitting journalism with one of Letterman’s famous remotes. In this one, Dave had gotten the scoop on actor Alan Alda’s Chinese food habits after noticing a picture of the MASH star in a local restaurant. But YouTube took down the clip, which means it has been erased from existence, protecting Alda’s secrets for time eternal.
In its place, here’s a clip of Letterman forcing MENSA members to fetch him a soda. It’s random silliness and it’s good for ya.
Dave Throws Stuff Off A Five Story Building
Pure, unbridled anarchy. It’s the height of stupid comedy, but I’ll be amazed if you comment that you don’t laugh as Letterman tosses all sorts of things off of a five-story building for the purposes of seeing the accompanying destruction. The best part? Dave holding a bag of peat-moss on the roof with a cigar in hand, but the flying turkey gives it a run for its money.
Disrupting The Today Show
I’m partial to Letterman’s bullhorn stunt when he tried to get random people on the street to buy him and the band hot dogs, but this clip with Letterman disrupting a live Today Show prime time broadcast is more well-known thanks to the ensuing feud between Letterman and former Today Show anchor Bryant Gumbel. Apparently, serious newsmen don’t like it when you use a bullhorn to tell them that you aren’t wearing pants while they’re talking to Crockett and Tubbs about Miami Vice.
Chris Elliott As Marlon Brando
Guy Under the Seats might be the better character, but Chris Elliott’s weird Brando running gag deserves a little credit too. Chris Elliott was such a vital part of the Late Night show’s weird charm.
Meg From Across The Street
Occasionally, Letterman thought it a good idea to bother a publicist from across the street by the name of Meg by calling her on the phone and having director Hal Gurnee put a camera on her. This time, Letterman upped the game and had a falcon fly between 30 Rock and Meg’s office. Seems reasonable.
Stupid Human Tricks
One of the few bits that carried over to CBS (it wasn’t like they could move Meg), Letterman’s showcase of oddly gifted people (as well as Stupid Pet Tricks) taps into the same can’t-look-away sensibility that has fueled the freak show industry and it’s offshoot, reality television, for years. In the above video, Letterman hosted a guy who could hold a bunch of pencils with his face, a guy who could drink a beer that was sat on his forehead, and a guy who could stop a high speed fan with the power of his tongue. Naturally, that’s the closer.
Not Your Average Late Night Show
Throughout the course of Letterman’s Late Night program, several full episodes were dedicated to his penchant for doing whatever the hell he wanted to shake up the form, including the “Custom Shows” where the shape of the show was decided by audience applause.
One of the other theme episodes occurred in 1987 when Letterman decided to have the camera rotate bit by bit during the show until it had gone a full 360 degrees. Another episode featured 13 cameras and a bunch of weird cuts, and my favorite concept — which I will one day track down a video of if the God’s decide to smile down upon me — is the episode where Letterman and company simply decided, “F*ck it, we’ll just do the show in our offices.”
Thankfully, Conan continued the idea of theme shows when he took over Late Night and it was nice to see James Corden surprise his audience with a show at a random strangers house. It really isn’t done anymore and that’s a shame.
This is an updated version of an article that originally ran in April 2015.