Revisiting the ‘Late Night’ Debuts of Letterman, Conan, and Fallon

Tonight sees the premiere of the fourth iteration of NBC’s Late Night franchise, with Seth Meyers taking over the position previously held by David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon. In honor of Meyers’s debut, we decided to look back at those of his three predecessors. Each host’s first night came with some of the same: characters, bits, and segments that would return in the future, and ones that failed, often due to nerves. Although it’s unfair to judge a host based on their first show alone, it’s interesting to look back at how each era of the show started.

The first Late Night premiered February 1, 1982, in the 12:30am, post-Tonight Show slot. David Letterman, known for his guest appearances and stints as a substitute host on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, got the Late Night gig only sixteen months after the cancellation of his short-lived NBC morning program The David Letterman Show. 

The debut of Letterman-era Late Night opens on actor Calvert DeForest as Larry “Bud” Melman performing a parody of the prologue to Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. DeForest would return many times on both of Letterman’s shows.

His very first guest was Bill Murray, whom Dave manages to ask about Stripes in between a flood of accusations from Murray, who claims Dave’s cast a spell on his new audience and is holding guests captive backstage. The two watch a panda videotape Murray brought in, and after a commercial Murray calls off-camera for “the new Newton-John thing,” meaning to cue up the song “Let’s Get Physical,” which he sings, roping in a member of Letterman’s staff to dance with him. Murray serves as a foil for Letterman, his outlandishness appearing to assuage any first-night nerves as the new host laughs in reaction. Murray’s bits proved to be a success as he’s visited Letterman many times since, both on Late Night and The Late Show, even returning as Dave’s first guest for the latter.

After the interview, a remote local news parody called “The Shame of the City” has Letterman as a reporter exposing vendors’ signage misspellings and other blights on society. Then Letterman performs science experiments with children’s program host Mr. Wizard. Aside from moments where Letterman appears rushed, he is just as charming interacting with Mr. Wizard as he is with the goofy Murray. For the show’s close, young comic Steve Fessler recites from memory an obscure Bela Lugosi script, cementing the show as a center for offbeat comedy. 

When Dave left, Conan O’Brien, who had previously written for SNL and The Simpsons but wanted to transition into performing, hosted his first Late Night on September 13, 1993. O’Brien’s inexperience as a performer came across as annoying to critics of his Late Night debut. In The War For Late Night, Bill Carter recounts The Washington Post’s Tom Shales’s vocally negative review that called Conan, “a living collage of nervous habits,” continuing, “he giggles and titters…He has dark, beady eyes like a rabbit.” Weeks later Shales’s disapproval swelled as he wrote, “Hey you, Conan O’Brien! Get the heck off TV!”

If Conan was nervous, there was good reason to be — he had big shoes to fill. In an excellent pre-taped cold open, Conan strolls through Manhattan as doormen, children, and Tom Brokaw stop to remind him of the high expectations that come with replacing Late Night’s host of more than ten years. “Lot of pressure,” they say, and “You better be good as Letterman!” Conan greets his discouragers with a smile and, whistling, enters his dressing room, combs his hair, and prepares a noose for himself.

In his first monologue, Conan tests out signature gestures and thanks his guests for coming on despite his lack of celebrity. To ease his nerves, Conan is accompanied by sidekick Andy Richter, who, the pair jokes, won the sidekick contest on the back of box of donuts. In a (eventually recurring) segment “Actual Items,” the two demonstrate their chemistry while pulling fake absurd quotes they claim came from real small town newspapers.

Conan’s first guest is John Goodman, mid-promotion for The Flinstones movie. In a cute bit, Conan bestows upon him a “First Guest” medal, and after Goodman introduces Conan to “leg wrestling,” Cheers actor George Wendt comes onstage for “a grudge match between the burly, lovable big guys of TV.” Before commercials Bob Costas, who hosted Later following Late Night at the time, gives a fake preview for his show that evening: an interview with the two remaining actors from The Wizard of Oz. Louis CK plays the angry tree.

In a less-decorated interview with second guest Drew Barrymore, Conan appears skittish. Third guest Tony Randall points at Conan’s suit and calls him a bar mitzvah student, and when the host jokes he’s going to a wedding later Randall insists, “No, it’s a bar mitzvah.” Conan closes the night singing “Edelweiss,” with cameras pointed at his weeping guests, and Randall comes back to sing with him, ending on a better, weirder note that works. (Song starts around 9:40.)

Late Night With Jimmy Fallon premiered on March 2, 2009. Another SNL alum, Fallon was more familiar with performing, having served as a cast member and co-anchor for “Weekend Update.”

After a cold open featuring Conan, one of the premiere’s highlights comes at the end of Jimmy’s monologue: “Slow Jam The News,” which Jimmy performed with Tariq from house band The Roots. This segment was such a success that it was revisited later in the series with high-caliber guests like Brian Williams, Mitt Romney and President Obama.

Something special about Fallon’s Late Night was the interactivity—Jimmy was the first host to be active on the Internet, and this sense of community played an important role in his show. One of the more absurd segments in his debut is “Lick It For Ten,” another that would later recur on the show, in which Jimmy brought three audience members to the stage and offered each ten dollars to lick a lawn mower, photocopier, and a fish bowl, respectively. Jimmy has fun with his audience, and The Roots do great supporting the segment.

Where Fallon struggles in his first show is the interviews. First guest Robert De Niro appears to be a reluctant participant, with Jimmy doing most of the talking, including his De Niro impression. A short sketch with DeNiro (even one that becomes a recurring sketch for the show) seems unnecessary. Jimmy eases up for second guest Justin Timberlake, a friend from his SNL days who launches them both into song. Yet despite any first-show difficulties, De Niro would return several times on Fallon’s Late Night and even appear for the “$100 Bet” segment in his Tonight debut last week. Although as time passes, critics expect more of each progressive host, it’s worth noting that transformations occur, the shows settle into a comfortable place, and each host has become an important figure in his own right and moved on to host another big late show upon leaving Late Night.

Late Night with Seth Meyers premieres tonight, with guests Amy Poehler and Joe Biden, musical guest A Great Big World, and Fred Armisen leading the promising new house band. History tells us the show will be a mixed bag, and first-show jitters aren’t uncommon, but in all likelihood, Meyers’s Late Night will find places where it hits its stride, and it’ll be interesting to look back on the start years from now.

Jenny Nelson is a writer located in Brooklyn.

Revisiting the ‘Late Night’ Debuts of Letterman, […]