Happy Birthday David Letterman: The Late Night Host Icon’s Timeline to Success

by Evan Reier

When one thinks of the wacky, engaging and sometimes controversial entertainment of “late-night” tv hosts, David Letterman has to come to mind.

As the legendary entertainer turns 74, it only seems right to take a stroll through his legacy. For over 40 years, Letterman has dazzled audiences with an otherworldly knack of finding the sweet spot of comedy.

Even in 2021, after the end of his long-running program Late Night with David Letterman, the man doesn’t quit. His Netflix program My Next Guest Needs No Introduction sees him cracking jokes and posing questions that bring out the best in those he interviews.

But before success onscreen, Letterman had quite the journey.

David Letterman’s Indiana Childhood

The TV icon was born in Indianapolis on April 12, 1947. Born to Harry Joseph Letterman and Dorothy Marie Letterman Mengering, Letterman grew up in Broad Ripple, a small subsect of Indianapolis.

It didn’t take long for Letterman to feel the pull of the screen. After graduating high school, the Indianan wanted to become a Hoosier at Indiana University but didn’t make the marks to do so. Instead, he became a Cardinal, attending Ball State where he studied Radio and Television.

Letterman was able to secure several different on-air and on-screen jobs. Whether it was with Ball State or working for local places in Indianapolis, he was working. Albeit, Biography.com and other sources detail issues he had with his employers and bosses.

For example, he was once in trouble for congratulating a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane. In retrospect, David Letterman’s comedy was seemingly there from the very beginning.

It was as his full-time job as a weatherman that he began to get noticed. But to truly ascend, he had to trade Indiana for California.

Letterman Gets Started in Los Angeles

People started recognizing his talent fairly quickly. In a matter of a couple years, David Letterman began getting writing credits on sitcoms and for comedians. But it was in 1978 that things truly changed for an aspiring star.

A huge factor was that Johnny Carson took a liking to him. After working his way into bigger and bigger contributions, he was made the regular guest host for The Tonight Show. He went on to host 51 times and was given his own morning show.

It’s this period that Letterman often references as being what skyrocketed him into being a TV icon. Learning from the original and magnificent Johnny Carson was the type of training that no one could replicate. He often references Carson and calls back to those days.

When Johnny Carson passed in 2005, Letterman famously delivered a tribute on Late Night. After an opening featuring jokes exclusively written by Carson, the host explained Carson’s importance.

“I moved to Los Angeles from Indianapolis in 1975 and the reason I moved,” Letterman said. “Is because of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. And I’m not the only one.”

“I would guess that maybe three generations of comedians,” Letterman continued. “Moved to be where Johnny was. Because if you thought you were funny, and you wanted to find out if you could hit major league pitching, you had to be on The Tonight Show.”

Late Night with David Letterman Begins

A year or so later after his morning show began, Letterman started his magnum opus. While Johnny Carson was still the king of late-night for the better part of the 1980s, it was clear the show was special.

A bit starker and having a knack for controversial moments, whether serious or funny, it quickly became must-watch TV. While Carson wasn’t scared of brash comedy, he didn’t live in it like Letterman did.

Whether stars wanted it or not, entertainment and memorable moments were going to be drawn out. For over 33 years, Letterman delivered high-quality comedy that never seemed to underwhelm.

Post “Retirement”

As stated above, Letterman is still going strong. Since the end of Late Night, the icon has stayed busy.

For a few years, he took it “easy,” by appearing on other programs and receiving a Mark Twain Prize. You know, basic retirement stuff.

But in 2018, he made his return. Letterman and Netflix came together for My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Starting with a bang, 44th President of the United States Barack Obama was his first guest. In the time since the TV legend has added two more seasons. Names from Dave Chapelle to Robert Downey Jr. are part of the line-up.