Late Show with David Letterman
Logo for the series.
Also known asLate Show (franchise brand)
Created byDavid Letterman
Written by
Presented byDavid Letterman
StarringPaul Shaffer
and the CBS Orchestra (house band)
Narrated by
Theme music composerPaul Shaffer
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of seasons23
No. of episodes4,214[1] (list of episodes)
Executive producers
Production locations
Camera setupMulti-camera
Running time62 minutes (with commercials)
Production companies
Original release
ReleaseAugust 30, 1993 (1993-08-30) –
May 20, 2015 (2015-05-20)

The Late Show with David Letterman is an American late-night talk show hosted by David Letterman on CBS, the first iteration of the Late Show franchise. The show debuted on August 30, 1993,[2] and was produced by Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, and CBS Television Studios. The show's music director and leader of the house band, the CBS Orchestra, was Paul Shaffer. The head writer was Matt Roberts and the announcer was originally Bill Wendell, then Alan Kalter. In most U.S. markets the show aired from 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 a.m. Eastern and Pacific Time, and recorded Monday to Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m., and Thursdays at 3:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The second Thursday episode usually aired on Friday of that week.[3]

In 2002, Late Show with David Letterman was ranked No. 7 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.[4] As host of both Late Night and Late Show for more than 30 years, Letterman surpassed Johnny Carson as the longest running late-night talk show host in 2013.[5] That same year, Late Night and Late Show were ranked at No. 41 on TV Guide's 60 Best Series of All Time.[6] The show was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Series 16 times, winning 6. It was also nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series 15 times, and was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series 16 times during its run.

Title card used from April 22, 2013, to May 20, 2015, based on the marquee outside of CBS Studio 50 at the time

In 2014, Letterman announced his retirement and the final episode of Late Show aired on May 20, 2015.[7] After Letterman's final Late Show, instead of airing reruns of the show or having guest host episodes of Late Show, CBS opted to air reruns of scripted dramas in the 11:35 pm time slot over the summer with the branding CBS Summer Showcase.[8] The show was then succeeded by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, hosted by Stephen Colbert, which premiered on September 8, 2015.[9]


CBS had previously attempted late-night talk shows with The Merv Griffin Show (1969–1972) and The Pat Sajak Show (1989–1990), but Griffin clashed with network censors and moved to syndication while Sajak was unable to compete with NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and was canceled due to poor ratings. For most of the 20 years preceding Late Show, CBS's late night fare consisted of movies, reruns and specialty programming packaged under the name CBS Late Night and broadcast to middling ratings. When David Letterman became available following a conflict with NBC, CBS was eager to lure him and offered him a three-year, $14 million per year contract,[10] doubling his Late Night salary. According to their agreement, the show would spend a month in Hollywood at least once a year.[11]

CBS purchased the Ed Sullivan Theater for $4 million, spending "several million" to renovate it.[11] The renovation was supervised by architect James Polshek.[11] CBS' total cost for acquiring the show including renovations, negotiation rights paid to NBC, signing Letterman, announcer Bill Wendell, Shaffer, the writers and the band was over $140 million.[12]

A significant issue regarding Letterman's move to CBS was the ownership of long-running comedy bits used on Late Night, as well as the name of the CBS show itself. NBC claimed that much of what he did on Late Night was intellectual property of the network. Letterman and his attorneys countered that some segments ("Stupid Pet Tricks", for example) pre-dated Late Night and had first aired on The David Letterman Show, which was owned by Letterman's production company rather than NBC, and others, such as the Top Ten List and Viewer Mail, were common property and not owned by either Letterman or NBC.[13] Ultimately a compromise was reached in key areas: the "Viewer Mail" segment would be called the "CBS Mailbag"; the actor portraying Larry "Bud" Melman on Late Night would use his real name, Calvert DeForest, on the CBS show; and Paul Shaffer's "World's Most Dangerous Band" would become the "CBS Orchestra".

NBC gave Letterman the choice of at least two options to name his new show, Late Show with David Letterman or Nightly with David Letterman. On this matter CBS executives stepped in, rejecting Nightly in part because of potential confusion with Nightline on ABC, along with the NBC Nightly News. Thus, Late Show with David Letterman quickly became the official name.

After Letterman was introduced on Late Show's very first episode, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw accompanied him on stage and wished him "reasonably well".[14] As part of a pre-arranged act, Brokaw then proceeded to retrieve a pair of cue cards while stating that "These last two jokes are the intellectual property of NBC!" After he carried them off stage, Letterman responded, "Who would have thought you would ever hear the words 'intellectual property' and 'NBC' in the same sentence?" In his opening monologue, Letterman said "Legally, I can continue to call myself Dave"[15] but joked that he woke up that morning and next to him in bed was the head of a peacock (while the orchestra played the theme from The Godfather).[16]

In ratings, Letterman's Late Show dominated Jay Leno's Tonight Show for its first two years. Leno pulled ahead on July 10, 1995, starting with a Hugh Grant interview, after Grant's much-publicized arrest for picking up a Los Angeles prostitute.[17] Leno also benefited from the lead-in provided by NBC's popular Must See TV prime time programs of the mid-to-late 1990s. Likewise, the CBS network was hindered by a weak prime time lineup, along with several large- and major-market network affiliation switches in late 1994 relating to Fox's acquisition of CBS's National Football League rights, stunting the Late Show just as it was beginning to gain traction.

Announcer Bill Wendell retired in 1995,[18] with Alan Kalter taking his place.

At times Late Show even came in third in its time slot (behind Nightline, most recently in November 2008), once prompting Letterman to arrange for a Manhattan billboard proudly declaring himself and his show to be No. 3 in Late Night, aping an older, nearby billboard which promoted Leno and The Tonight Show as No. 1. Letterman attempted to respond by making his show more political, aping the approach taken by The Daily Show under Jon Stewart.[19]

On June 1, 2009, Conan O'Brien (who had succeeded Letterman as host of Late Night in 1993) took over as host of The Tonight Show—an event Letterman referenced in his own show's Top Ten List on that night—and Letterman's "feud" with Leno temporarily ceased. In 2008 Letterman told Rolling Stone that he would welcome Leno on his show once Leno's tenure ended.[20] Letterman said on competing with O'Brien, "I still find it hard to believe that Jay won't be there."[20] The interview was held prior to Leno announcing his return to NBC for The Jay Leno Show.[20] In the second week after Letterman and O'Brien began their opposing broadcasts, viewer ratings for Tonight began to slip and Late Show was poised to beat Tonight for the first time in over ten years,[20][21] a fact pointed out by Letterman's guests on air (Howard Stern and Julia Roberts).[21][22] Letterman quickly tried to change the subject in the interviews and tried to avert a new rivalry.[21][22] In fact, the June 9, 2009 episode of Late Show featuring Roberts rated better than Tonight with a 3.4 household rating nationally to O'Brien's 2.9.[21][23] The Letterman/Leno feud was revived in the wake of the 2010 Tonight Show conflict, which saw Letterman side with O'Brien.[24] Despite the rivalry, Leno appeared in a Late Show promo with Letterman and Oprah Winfrey which aired on CBS during Super Bowl XLIV; it was Leno and Letterman's first joint appearance since Leno took over the Tonight Show in 1992. The feud between the hosts ended for good on February 6, 2014, with Leno's second and final retirement and Late Night host Jimmy Fallon, who succeeded Conan O'Brien in 2009, becoming the current host of the Tonight Show on February 17, with its subsequent return to New York for the first time since 1972.

On April 3, 2012, CBS reached an agreement with Worldwide Pants and CBS Television Studios to continue the show through 2014. The parties reached another agreement in October 2013 to extend the show an additional year, continuing the series into 2015.[25] Including his 11 years on NBC, Letterman is the longest tenured late-night talk show host, having surpassed Johnny Carson.[5]

On April 10, 2014, one week after Letterman announced that he would retire as host of Late Show in 2015, CBS announced that his successor as the host of the program would be Stephen Colbert, then host of competing late-night series The Colbert Report on Comedy Central.[26] Letterman's last Late Show aired May 20, 2015. In February 2022, David Letterman's official YouTube channel opened, and contains clips from Letterman's Late Show and his previous morning and late night shows on NBC.[27]


Announcer Bill Wendell retired and left the show on August 18, 1995.[28] He was replaced by Alan Kalter on the show's next episode, September 5, 1995, which came after a two-week hiatus.

In 1996, long-time producer Robert Morton left, and head writer Rob Burnett was promoted to executive producer.

In 1997, Justin Stangel and Eric Stangel were hired as writers;[29] by March 2000, the Stangel brothers became the show's head writers, taking over the job held by Rodney Rothman.[29][30]

Director Hal Gurnee and producer Peter Lassally left the show soon after to pursue other interests. Gurnee was replaced by Jerry Foley. Burnett was absent from the day-to-day operations from 2000 to 2004, and was replaced by Barbara Gaines and Maria Pope, both of whom served as executive producers, with Gaines acting as on-air producer.[citation needed] In 2003, producer Jude Brennan was added to the team of executive producers.[31]

Lassally, who had served as an executive producer for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, was invited back to Late Show in January 2005 as a guest to discuss the recent death of Carson. Lassally served as executive producer for Worldwide Pants' The Late Late Show from late 1994 to February 2015, encompassing the tenures of hosts Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson. Lassally also served as Executive Producer of the Tony Mendez Show, an online webcast featuring Late Show's "cue card boy", Tony Mendez (c.1945–July 29, 2021).[32] Mendez served in that capacity until 2014, when after a long-running dispute with writer Bill Scheft over Scheft micromanaging Mendez's job, he attacked Scheft and was fired.[33]

Matt Roberts, a long-time writer and producer for the show, became the show's head writer in January 2013, replacing brothers and co-head writers Justin Stangel and Eric Stangel.[30][34]

Sheila Rogers, the producer responsible for booking guests on the show, worked for Letterman since his Late Night days.[35]

Biff Henderson served as the show's stage manager, carrying over from Late Night. Henderson had a prominent on-camera role with the show.[36]


Studio and set design

Letterman interviewing Michelle Obama in 2012

The show was taped at the Ed Sullivan Theater at the corner of Broadway and 53rd Street in midtown Manhattan during its entire run. Formerly called CBS Studio 50, it had been home to several TV programs over the years, most notably The Ed Sullivan Show. Letterman made use of the immediate neighborhood surrounding the theater for his show on occasion, closing off the portion of 53rd Street that goes past his studio for various stunts. Nearby merchants gained fame after making frequent appearances on the program, including Rupert Jee, owner of the Hello Deli at 213 W. 53rd St., and Mujibur and Sirajul, Bengali immigrants who worked at a souvenir shop close to the studio.

The stage layout followed the same basic structure Letterman employed on Late Night: the house band appeared on the far left, followed by the performance area and then the interview set.

In May 2015, days before Letterman retired, Seth Stevenson described what it was like to attend a taping of Late Show:

It felt almost regal to enter the Ed Sullivan Theater beneath a lit marquee on 53rd and Broadway instead of through some unmarked, dented metal door on an industrial block of Hell's Kitchen. The theater for Late Show with David Letterman seats 450 people instead of 100, and its rococo balcony offers a glorious vista over the sprawling stage where the Beatles first performed in America. Instead of bathing us in washed-out, piped-in music, or a half-hearted pop quintet, Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra rocked us with a wall of sound, including a horn section that blasted riffs clear to the theater rafters ... It was hard not to sit in that Late Show studio audience and feel—for the first time—indispensable. Letterman puts on a show. He presents fully-rounded entertainment, and he feeds off the energy in the room. This is a big, brassy venue with a live orchestra, instead of a cramped black-box studio with somebody's iPod plugged into ceiling speakers. And Letterman needed us there.[37]

Pieces of the set were later acquired for use on The Chris Gethard Show.[38][39]

Same-day tapings

When Letterman was not on vacation (which he took roughly ten weeks per year[40]), he and his crew worked four days per week, taping Friday's show earlier in the week.[3] From October 2001 until May 2004, Friday's show was taped on Thursdays. From 2004 to 2010, Friday's show was taped on Mondays.[3] During this time, the Friday's show's monologue topics, sketches, and other segments were chosen for their lack of topicality, with few if any references to current events or any subject which would run the risk of seeming dated. However, in late 2011 Late Show reverted to the practice of taping the Friday show on Thursdays, helping the Friday shows become more topical and relevant.

Episode structure

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The show's opening credits featured a series of shots of New York City as the CBS Orchestra performed the Late Show theme (a livelier variation of the more jazzy Late Night theme). The announcer presented the names of that night's guests, as well as Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, then introduced Letterman. On rare episodes, the show began with a cold open as Letterman, dressed casually, briefly interacted with a celebrity or performed a short sketch backstage before the traditional opening sequence began.

In the last few years, Alan Kalter included himself in the introduction. In addition, Letterman took to dashing across the stage either just before, while, or just after Kalter introduced him. In years prior, Letterman would be greeted by two female models, sometimes in costume. For an extended stretch of episodes, one of the models would be performing with several hula hoops, while the other would be wearing a metal suit and operating a grinding machine against her abdomen, a carry-over from their first appearance on the sketch, "Is This Anything?"

Letterman would then walk out on the show stage to perform his stand-up monologue, which occasionally began with a reference to something an audience member said to him during the pre-show question-and-answer session. The jokes were based on pop culture, current events, and politics. He then introduced one or two video jokes such as a running gag or fake commercial/public service announcement. The monologue was followed by Letterman's introduction of Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra. Beginning in 2009, a commercial break replaced Letterman's trademark 'crossing to the desk', which he had done since the early years. Letterman then chatted with the audience and Shaffer, sometimes relating an anecdote from his personal life, sometimes discussing his anticipation of a particular guest; a running gag may have been featured.

In 2005, after the death of Johnny Carson, it was revealed that Carson had made a habit of sometimes sending jokes to Letterman which Letterman would then incorporate into his monologues. The January 31, 2005, episode of the Late Show, which featured a tribute to Carson, began with a monologue made up entirely of jokes written by Carson since his retirement.[41][42]

Letterman read the Top Ten List at this point before turning to guest interviews with a celebrity, politician, or other public figure. On most episodes, the first guest stayed on through the commercial break and continued the interview.

Following the first guest was a short segment to bridge two commercial breaks sequentially. In earlier episodes, Letterman would return to his running gag during this break, or retry a failed stunt from earlier in the show. Later episodes included a brief comedy announcement from announcer Alan Kalter while showing the audience cheering.

The final segment consisted of a live musical performance, a comedian performing a stand-up routine, or another guest interview. Musical guests included artists from David Bowie, U2, Neil Young, Coldplay to indie bands like Grizzly Bear, Gorillaz, MENEW, and Animal Collective. The CBS Orchestra frequently accompanied musical guests in performing their songs. Episodes occasionally concluded with Letterman recommending viewers stay tuned for Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson (James Corden in 2015), but usually he simply waved to the camera, saying, "Good night everybody!" In the latter part of the run, the admonishment to watch Craig Ferguson and James Corden was delivered by Alan Kalter, via voiceover.

Regular sketches

Main article: List of David Letterman sketches

Late Show had various repeated absurdist segments, including those involving cast members' and audience participation. The show will also take a camera crew into the Hello Deli to show games such as "What's on the iPod?" and "Beat the Clock", or onto 53rd Street or the roof to record various stunts there.

High-definition broadcasts

The show began broadcasting in high-definition television (HDTV) on August 29, 2005.[43] About two weeks later, Tim Kennedy, the show's Technical Director, commented on the transition in the show's official newsletter:

The biggest challenge in the HD conversion was to renovate and upgrade our old control room, audio room, videotape room, and edit room while still doing five shows a week. ... This entailed putting a remote production truck on 53rd Street running somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 feet of video and audio cable just to tie the truck to the existing technical plant ... The coolest piece of equipment is our new control room Virtual Wall. We have done away with the conventional monitor for every video source and replaced it with four 70-inch rear projection screens and within those screens we can "virtually" place as many video images as we want, anywhere we want them, and when we want it.[citation needed]

Kennedy and his crew won an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video for a Series" during the nearly four-month-long transition to HDTV.

Notable episodes

Main article: List of The Late Show with David Letterman episodes

See also: Madonna on Late Show with David Letterman in 1994 and Warren Zevon on Late Show with David Letterman in 2002

The guests with the most appearances were Regis Philbin (150 appearances), Marv Albert (126 appearances, 73 from Late Night[44]), and Jack Hanna (102).

Among the show's highlights:[45]

Most Late Show appearances

The person who appeared the most on the Late Show was media personality Regis Philbin, with 150 total appearances over the show's 22-season run. Jack Hanna was in second place with 103 appearances, followed by Tony Randall with 70, Marv Albert with 52, and Tom Brokaw with 49.

Darlene Love appeared with a musical number 21 times, most notably for a 19-year-long annual tradition of her performing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" (18 live plus one video clip) on the show's last episode before Christmas. This continued a tradition that started in 1986 on Letterman's NBC show Late Night with David Letterman, performing the song as Letterman's Christmas finale 28 times across his Late Show and Late Night run.[58] Love's final Christmas appearance was on December 19, 2014, nine days after the announcement that the show's finale would be in May 2015.[59] Letterman has stated that the annual performance is his favorite part of Christmas. Due to the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, Love was unable to perform on the Letterman show in 2007;[60] instead, a repeat of her 2006 performance was shown. Love was also the musical guest on May 7, 2007, performing "River Deep – Mountain High", while also appearing as a background choral singer on October 15, 2008. Love had a 22nd appearance, appearing as an interview guest on June 12, 2013, to talk about the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.

Guest hosts

In 2000, after Letterman had quintuple bypass surgery, the Late Show Backstage was aired. This featured many celebrities reminiscing about their experiences as guests on his show. Charles Grodin (February 7), Regis Philbin (February 8 and 10), Bandleader Paul Shaffer (February 9 and 11), Drew Barrymore (February 14), David Brenner (February 15), Tom Snyder (February 16 and 17) (Snyder hosted The Late Late Show from 1995 to 1999), and Tom Arnold (February 18) were among those who hosted. These interviews were interspersed with past footage. Previously, only reruns without any special introductions had been aired since Letterman's temporary leave from the show began on January 15.[61]

Letterman returned on a limited basis on February 18, in a show which premiered three days later. To ease his transition back to air, temporary guest hosts carried the show. Bill Cosby (February 22), Kathie Lee Gifford (February 24), David Brenner (February 29), Nathan Lane (March 2), Janeane Garofalo (March 7).[62][63] filled in on the first week.[64]

In February and March 2003, Letterman missed 14 shows due to shingles. Letterman had various guest hosts during his illness-inflicted absence: Bruce Willis (February 26), John McEnroe (February 27), Regis Philbin (February 28), Whoopi Goldberg (March 10), Vince Vaughn (March 11), Elvis Costello (March 12), Will Ferrell (March 13), Megan Mullally (March 14), Brad Garrett (March 17), Tom Dreesen (March 18), Bonnie Hunt (March 19), Paul Shaffer (March 24), Bill Cosby (March 25), and Luke Wilson (March 26).[65]

In June 2003, Letterman had guest hosts on Fridays. They included Tom Arnold (June 6), Tom Green (June 13), Kelsey Grammer (June 20), and Jimmy Fallon (June 27).[66][67] Letterman's weekly absence caused the ratings deficit between his show and Leno's to increase, so Letterman ended this experiment a month after it began.[66]

Paul Shaffer hosted January 19, 2005, when Letterman went to receive an award for his racing team's victory in the 2004 Indianapolis 500.[68][circular reference]

On March 20, 2007, Letterman fell ill less than an hour before the show started, and scheduled guest Adam Sandler took his place as host. Actor Don Cheadle, Sandler's co-star in the film Reign Over Me, appeared as a guest on a moment's notice.[69]


Primetime Emmy

Late Show with David Letterman was nominated as Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series for 16 seasons in a row, from the 1993–94 season through the 2008–09 season. Including the nominations for its NBC Late Night predecessor, the Letterman cast and crew had been nominated 26 consecutive times in this category.[70]

Late Show with David Letterman won the award six times:

Ratings and revenue

The show's highest rated episode was on February 23, 1994, after the 1994 Winter Olympics (78.8 million) with 15 million viewers. Its second-highest-rated show aired two days later with 11.1 million viewers. Both were preceded by the ladies' figure skating competition which had high interest due to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 United States Figure Skating Championships by Tonya Harding's ex-husband and due to both women competing in the event.

In February 2013, TV by the Numbers reported that Late Show averaged about 3.1 million per show in season-to-date live-plus-seven-day ratings (i.e., from February 4).[71] A year later, average viewership was down to 2.8 million.[72]

In 2009, the show led other late night shows in ad revenue with $271 million.[73] In February 2014, Advertising Age cited Kantar Media and Nielsen in reporting that for January to October 2013, Late Show attracted $179.6 million in advertising for CBS, higher than its seven late-night competitors on NBC, ABC, Comedy Central, and E!.[72] Late Show also had the oldest median audience among those same peer broadcasts,[72] at 58.9.

The final episode of Late Show with David Letterman on May 20, 2015, was watched by 13.76 million viewers with an audience share of 9.3/24, earning the show its second-highest ratings (following the 1994 Olympics on February 25, 1994); further, it saw the show's highest demo numbers (4.1 in adults 25-54 and 3.1 in adults 18–49) since Oprah Winfrey's first Late Show appearance following the ending of her feud with Letterman on December 1, 2005. In a rarity for a late-night show, it was also the highest-rated program across all network television that night, beating out all prime time shows.[74] In Canada, the final episode was watched by 784,000 viewers, representing 516,000 more viewers than the show's closest competitor.[75]

International broadcast

In the UK the show was aired on Sky One, The Paramount Comedy Channel, ITV2, ITV4 and Diva TV. In Australia the show aired on Network 10 only hours after US broadcast. It was also shown for a week on BBC2 during Letterman's London shows in 1995.

In Italy the show aired on Rai5, in English with Italian subtitles.

See also


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Media offices Preceded byFirst Late Show era by host August 30, 1993 – May 20, 2015 Succeeded byThe Late Show with Stephen Colbert