The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
In this, the final “From the Archives” of November, we present the final installment of our arbitrary theme looking at some of the more rare finales in television history. This week we watch as David Letterman switches networks and moves from 12:30am to 11:30pm in the final episode of Late Night with David Letterman.
I write this article pre-assuming two things about the readers right off the bat. The first is that you already know an awful lot about the reasons why David Letterman moved from NBC to CBS in 1993. The feuding and (literal) backroom shenanigans have been thoroughly documented and dramatized in Bill Carter’s book The Late Shift. If I’ve assumed wrong, here’s the short version: Johnny Carson, king of late night, retires. He wants Letterman to take over The Tonight Show, NBC wants Leno. All kinds of crazy dealings occur, including some folks at NBC pushing hard for Letterman to push Jay out a year or so later, but ultimately Letterman decides to move into the 11:30pm time slot in direct competition with Leno where the two remain to this day.
The second thing that I am assuming in this article is that you’re on Dave’s side for all of this.
On June 25, 1993, David Letterman’s final show on NBC was broadcast. Sure, it was a sad occasion, it being the end of an era and all of that, but overall the tone is hopeful. Dave’s saying goodbye to the folks who promised him the show he wanted more than anything else, only to yank it away. The program begins with a cold open featuring the cast of one of the most popular shows on TV, Cheers, which had just ended it’s run a month earlier on NBC. Sam, Norm, Woody, Frasier and Cliff sit in Cheers, watching the television when suddenly Dave’s show comes on. Sam hits the back of the remote, only to find that it’s stuck. The gang promptly files out of the bar, with Sam close behind. The opening theme plays and Dave enters to an extended applause break.
In his monologue Dave references the occasion a few times, but spends an awful lot of time to make fun of his corporate overlords, NBC and General Electric. When asked what he’ll miss most about working at NBC he says it’s the “vague nonspecific sexual tension” between himself and Garrett Utley, the long-time NBC News anchor. He tells us that to help newcomer Conan O’Brien out, he’s given Conan’s home address to the woman who keeps breaking into his home. And making reference to the long tradition of Dave’s show of naming GE Pinheads of the month, Dave tells us he’s finally been named Employee of the Month.
As Dave makes his way to the desk, he promises us surprises (and “free balloons for the kids”) and we are given our first surprise of the night in a guest appearance from Larry “Bud” Melman who emerges from the curtains in a fine tuxedo. Larry, who when he appears on the CBS show will legally have to be referred to by his given name of Calvert DeForest, exclaims in his stilted way, “I love you for loving me! Goodnight, everybody!” before waving to the crowd, and walking off stage, leaving Letterman hanging as he neglects to shake his hand as he exits.
Then we get a few trips down memory lane in the form of some favorite clips. These begin with Dave reminiscing with Paul about how much he’ll miss the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. We see footage of Dave and Paul walking to the rink, and then a wide shot in which two professional skaters dressed as the pair do an elaborate ice dancing routine. We also see a few examples of Dave being dressed up in a variety of strange suits, in a bit that Letterman acknowledges that he and the writers stole from Steve Allen, as mentioned in the last installment of “From the Archives.” We see Dave in a suit of sponges, being lowered into a tank of water, an Alka-Seltzer suit, a shredded wheat suit inside a giant cereal bowl being doused with milk, a velcro suit, and a supremely cool, velcro suit with bungee cord. Later as the show returns from commercial we see an early clip from the first episode of the show in which Bill Murray does an impromptu rendition (both song and calisthenics) of Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical.”
Dave then introduces what he refers to as “the last” Top Ten list, though ultimately this was one of the few ideas that he was able to carry over to CBS. The category is “the top ten things I need to do before I leave NBC” and includes such gems as “vacuum out our announcer Bill Wendell and write down his mileage,” “let my plastic surgeon step out and take a bow - this has been his show as much as mine,” and “get one more cheap laugh by saying the word ‘Buttafuoco.’”
Then comes Tom Hanks. Tom is promoting “Sleepless in Seattle” this evening, but looking at a much wider scale, he holds the interesting distinction of being the final guest on David Letterman’s Late Night show as well as Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show. Either he has a very interesting clause in some contract or booking him on your talk show spells certain doom. Tom launches into a funny bit in which he pretends to not understand Letterman’s future and insists that with Dave moving into the Ed Sullivan Theater, he’ll also move into Ed Sullivan’s time slot at Sundays at 8, and he “does not want to lead into Murder She Wrote.” Tom and Dave talk a bit about Elvis movies, Meg Ryan, working with Cher (Tom clarifies, it was more like he worked “for Cher,” to which Dave quickly replies, “well, a lot of people have worked on Cher.”)
Later still, Dave introduces a clip in which he delivers the lovely gift of a giant fruit basket to the GE headquarters just after they purchased NBC. (He doesn’t make it too far into the building.) Dave finally forces his way inside at which point security immediately shuts his operation down. When we return to the studio, the audience is loudly booing the treatment Dave received in the clip (and the treatment he was receiving at the time from GE) and Letterman does very little to quiet them, and instead simply enjoys the cathartic moment.
In a New York Times interview that was published the night before Letterman’s last show, Dave jokes a bit about the format of the momentous show. He says, “maybe we’ll just have one solo spotlight on a stool downstage and I’ll just sit there and sob for an hour.” But what may have been most exciting to readers of the newspaper was the fact that Dave was teasing the fact that there would be a secret surprise guest, one who has never been booked on the show before, and who would not agree to come on if the name was revealed in advance. On the show, as Dave introduces the guest, there’s genuine emotion in his voice as he talks about how important it was to have this particular person on the show. “One person in eleven and a half years…who I really, really wanted on the show. So, better late than never: Bruce Springsteen.”
There’s a little bit of irony as Bruce performs his song “Glory Days” on the last episode of Late Night. Some fans would say that in his move to 11:30 changed what the show used to be. In an effort to compete with Leno’s tonight show more commercial big name guests were booked. Country music artists performed. The show that would have featured Harvey Pekar, Andy Kaufman and other oddballs seemed to be in the rearview mirror. In the last segment of the show, it seems that perhaps Dave might be feeling this as well as he gets a little sentimental about closing the doors on this chapter of his career before opening the next. He thanks the audience for watching over the years and supporting his show. He thanks the staff and crew and implores the audience to watch and read the names in the credits and know that they were responsible for the success of the show. He thanks Paul and then he thanks NBC, saying that he always took pride in his relationship with the network, “and I hope in some small measure they took pride in our accomplishments.” He sets the stage for Conan, telling folks to watch his version of the show and, clearly fighting back the tears, says that he hopes to be invited to visit, as he’d “get a real kick out of that.”
While this episode serves less as a finale and more of transition, there’s clearly a lot of emotion involved in the process. In that aforementioned New York Times article it’s stated that Dave consciously didn’t want to do a big event episode in the same manner of Johnny’s final episode, as he says goodnight it’s still clear that this is a very important moment in his life. Beneath the credits, a clip from an earlier episode of Letterman is shown in which Dave mounts and rides a white horse off of a stage and around the building. It’s very fitting that as Dave moves from one show to the next, he’s riding a horse into the sunset.