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David Letterman Recalls How He Felt His First Night On Air As Part Of Late Night’s 40th Anniversary

Screenshot of Dave Letterman in Netflix's My Next Guest Needs No Introduction
(Image credit: Netflix)

David Letterman has been living his life under the radar since retiring from CBS’s The Late Show in 2015. Outside of his Netflix series My Next Guest Need No Introduction, the iconic TV host doesn’t do much press or interviews. But the usually reclusive comedian came out of hibernation for a special occasion. He made a rare appearance to celebrate Late Night’s four decades on NBC. With this, the former host  reflected on his first night on the air.

To celebrate Late Night’s 40th anniversary, Seth Meyers invited the beloved host to honor the flagship series he started. As the show’s current host, Meyers wondered about what the late-night staple’s series premiere was like in 1982. Never one to shy away from a question Letterman was honest about his feelings after suffering a previous television failure:

What was I consumed by? Paralytic fear. Because we had blown up the NBC daytime schedule a year previously. We had a show, a lot of us had a show that we thought was just great. It was on for 90 minutes live, like 9-10:30 on NBC and it replaced two or three game shows. It turned out, America didn’t want them replaced. Certainly didn’t want them replaced by me. But when you’re young one of the nice complementary features of being young is being dumb… so we were on the air for maybe six weeks. Six weeks, maybe two months, and then I had to go to the end of the line. It seemed like an eternity because in show business if you do something to screw up, like blow up a network’s daytime schedule, it could be a while before they call your number again. Eventually, we came back, but I was still living with this trepidation: ‘Well, this can’t possibly go any better than the other one.’

David Letterman always appeared calm, cool and collected while on the air but, back then, he wasn’t above worrying about his future in entertainment. Thankfully, he got a second chance and excelled beyond measure. In the same Late Night interview, he recalled the strange dichotomy playing in his head with Bill Murray as his first guest:

So, you have that on the one side. On the other you have [first guest] Bill Murray and you think, ‘Oh my God, who can’t love Bill Murray?’ So, I had mixed emotions. Then, the night of the show I just felt fantastic And then that lasted until my feet hit the floor in the morning And then the paralytic fear starts all over again.

Despite having been off the air for seven years now, seeing the TV staple provided his trademark delivery and timing. Those are two major reasons why viewers miss his nightly presence. It's amazing to think about what he's accomplished over the course of his career and how he established Late Night as a small-screen institution.

Over the course of his talk show career, the TV personality facilitated some major pop culture moments like Drew Barrymore flashing him on live television, which she admitted crossed the line in retrospect. Of course, there were off-screen moments like “the worst moment of his television career” (his words, not mine). Let's just say the incident involved a foul baseball and shards of glass. Despite how eventful his work was, it appears Letterman doesn’t miss the grind, as he's said that he should’ve left his CBS gig earlier to focus his energy on more goodwill for humanity.

Well, David Letterman certainly seems happy in this phase of his life, and he's had some interesting experiences. One of which even led him to change his position on Kim Kardashian. He's certainly come a long way, but he'll likely never forget that it all started in earnest with that first Late Night broadcast in 1982.

Late Night with Seth Meyers airs weeknights 12:37 a.m. ET on NBC. And if you want to check out David Letterman's My Guest Needs No Introduction or other great Netflix shows, you can subscribe to the streamer.

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