Last year, David Letterman “celebrated” 30 years as a late night talk show host. “Celebrated” gets quotation marks because he didn’t mark the occasion at all, really. Even this year, when Letterman entered his 20th year of hosting The Late Show on CBS, the milestone was barely noted at all. Bill Murray (first guest on Letterman’s NBC and CBS shows) made an appearance as Liberace for some reason, but that was Letterman’s only concession to the date. He apparently loathes anniversary specials and is now at a place, career-wise, where he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Like work on Fridays, or answer questions about not wanting to do an anniversary special. (This Times article on Letterman’s 30th year in late night features zero quotes from the man himself.)
That’s a shame, because it was an anniversary special that first exposed me to David Letterman as a young lad. I assume so, anyway. As a kid, I never would have been allowed to stay up late enough to see Late Night as it aired. I had no real chance to see any of Letterman’s genius until I caught a prime time anniversary special full of clips. When I saw Letterman crushing things with a pneumatic press and throwing things off a five-story building, I thought to myself, in my own little kid way, “This is what TV was made for.”
Whilst scouring my VHS archives recently, I found a tape containing the Late Night 10th Anniversary Special, which aired February 6, 1992. This is a unique artifact for many reasons. Johnny Carson’s retirement was imminent and Letterman had already been officially passed over as his replacement. This, plus a decade of accumulated slights by NBC and parent company GE, made it abundantly clear he would leave the network when his contract expired in 1993.
Previous anniversary specials were more befitting Late Night’s weird, almost community access sensibility. Take, for example, the fourth anniversary special from 1986, wherein Dave, Paul Shaffer’s band, and a crew of technicians conduct the show from the cabin of a 747 flying from Miami to New York. Not a flight they’ve chartered, but a scheduled flight, full of confused, oblivious passengers who find themselves the unwitting audience (and occasionally, victims) of this program.
Then, take a look at the 10th anniversary special below, filmed at Radio City Music Hall with Rockettes, an all-star band, and huge studio audience. It’s almost an audition for the spiffier, toned-down show he’d soon do at 11:30.
Letterman killed The Talk Show Host by creating a talk show in which the host very obviously thought the very idea of a talk show was bullshit. It is strange to see him in this 10th anniversary special, attempting to undo that killing, in his own way. He even seems genuine when thanking the audience for waiting on line to get inside.
For all of the Picture Day propriety, though, there is still plenty of weirdness on display. Observe the studio audience and note that it is packed to the gills with mooks. From the outfits worn and the reactions hooted, you’d think it was Howard Stern on stage. I swear I spotted at least three dudes in Boomer Esiason jerseys. This serves as a reminder that during their respective 1980s heydays, Letterman and Stern were often spoken of in the same breath, comedy-wise, as being (each in their own way) purveyors of edgy, take-no-prisoners laffs.
You will also see a brief appearance by Bill Murray, Letterman’s first ever guest and kindred spirit in practicing the fine art of fake sincerity. Live Stupid Pet Tricks make an appearance as well, but the real treat here is to see the clips from old shows and be reminded of just how strange Late Night was. Try not to think about how, because of Letterman’s acrimonious split from NBC, we’ll probably never see these clips outside of YouTube again. (And while you’re at it, try not to think about how we’ll never see Conan O’Brien’s greatest stuff for the same reason.)
In the final half hour, we receive another reminder of how many amazing bands Letterman had on his show, bands that never would have appeared on The Tonight Show, or anywhere else on TV at the time, for that matter.
This leads into a special live rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, backed by a band with an insane assemblage of musicians. I remember watching this as a kid and cringing because I hated Bob Dylan. Now I watch it and…I still kinda cringe. I’ve tried with Dylan, I really have, but me and him are never gonna happen. Since he’s the most influential songwriter of his age, I’m willing to concede the problem lies entirely with me, not him. I blame the abundance of harmonica in his tunes. I’ve reached the point in my life where I actually enjoy some of his songs, but once the harmonica kicks in, I check out. No harmonica here, but Dylan’s voice, ew boy…I think I’d take creepy Victoria’s Secret Dylan over this.
And as always, for you weirdos who like commercials, here’s a collection of ads that aired during this broadcast. Featuring: The hilariously failed Reebok “Dan & Dave” campaign, an NBC-4 News “special report” on “Sex & Sports,” a promo for a Matlock movie where he visits “a town that makes its money on murder!”, and a slew of rock-stupid Budweiser spots.