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Letterman's 30th Anniversary On Late Night TV: His Best Moments (VIDEOS)

The Huffington Post     First Posted: 02/ 1/2012 5:35 pm   Updated: 02/ 1/2012 5:41 pm

In August 30, 1991, "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson had "Late Night" host David Letterman on as his guest. Only months prior, NBC had announced that Jay Leno, not Letterman, would inherit Carson's position, despite the widespread belief that Letterman, as Carson's follower on NBC, was the rightful successor to the franchise.

However, Letterman appeared to be in good humor during his interview with Carson, who personally believed that Letterman deserved the position more than Leno. At one point Carson asked, "Can you envision yourself, 20 years from now, doing your late night show?"

Dave's response was immediate: A grin, followed by the high-pitched, hearty chuckle that's punctuated Dave's entire career. "Good one, John!"

The audience let out a disappointed groan, and Carson himself seemed surprised. "I'll put that down as a 'hardly no.'"

Turns out, Carson and the studio audience were correct to doubt. Wednesday, February 1 marks the 30th anniversary of David Letterman's debut on late night television. The only other late night host to claim such a boast is Carson, who hosted "The Tonight Show" from October 1962 to May 1992.

Today's younger generation knows Letterman not as a trailblazer for American comedy, but as the sexagenarian on CBS that pops up in the news when thin-skinned media figures need a target of the day. But like most trailblazers, Letterman's influence on comedy and broadcasting is impossible to overstate. His irreverent, ironic approach to dissecting the formal performance conventions has been a defining trait of American comedy since his debut.

If Letterman had only been responsible for turning his "Late Night" successors Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon into formidable cultural forces, his legacy would be iron-clad. In a time when audiences had only a handful of entertainment choices, Letterman used a major network watched by millions to strap cameras on monkeys, gab with his mother about his shopping list and swap insults with the day's sharpest comics. In short, he nearly single-handedly inspired a generation of comedians by coming into their homes at 12:30 p.m. each weeknight. Without David Letterman, there would be no Jon Stewart, Zach Galifianakis or Funny Or Die.

In his typically understated fashion, Letterman is reportedly not making a particularly grandiose deal out of his anniversary tonight. Rob Burnett, a producer of Letterman's "Late Show," told The New York Times, "It will most likely be the subject of the Top 10 list and probably represent a chunk of the monologue." The guests are slated to be Howard Stern and Bill Murray, who was Letterman's very first "Late Night" guest on February 1, 1982.

We've put together a slideshow of the most notable moments in Letterman's 25 year career. When do you think of "David Letterman," what comes to mind for you?

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  • First Episode Of "Late Night with David Letterman"

    The first five minutes of the 1982 debut of "Late Night with David Letterman" on NBC.

  • Bill Murray's First Appearance

    Bill Murray was the very first guest on "Late Night," and will appear on Letterman's 30th anniversary episode on Wednesday.

  • Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler Wrestle

    One of the most famous stunts in television history involved comedian Andy Kaufman cursing out and attacking professional wrestler Jerry Lawler in 1982. The episode was believed to be authentic until the release of the 1999 Kaufman biopic, "Man on the Moon."

  • Stupid Pet Tricks

    One of Letterman's signature bits is the self-explanatory "Stupid Pet Tricks."

  • Letterman & Grodin

    Charles Grodin has appeared on Letterman's shows since early on, in which Grodin plays a curmudgeonly version of himself and endlessly mocks Dave.

  • Dave's Velcro Suit

    Dave wore various unusual suits early on, like this suit made of Velco in 1984.

  • Dave Interrupts The Today Show

    One of Dave's most famous stunts was this 1985 prank when he interrupted a broadcast of his NBC comrades "The Today Show" since they got a bigger newspaper ad than "Late Night."

  • Jay Leno and Letterman Were Pals

    Ironically, David Letterman helped make Jay Leno famous when Leno was a frequent guest on "Late Night" in the '80s.

  • Monkey Cam

    From 1986, in one of his memorable bits from "Late Night," Dave let the "Monkey Cam" run wild in the NBC studios.

  • Guy Under The Seats

    Before his TV and film success, Chris Elliott became famous for playing a wide variety of characters on "Late Night," such as the Guy Under the Seats and a deranged version of Marlon Brando.

  • Letterman's Last Appearance On Carson

    Carson invites Letterman on his show after Dave had been passed over for the "Tonight Show" job. Carson asked the young host, "So, how pissed <i>are</i> you?"

  • First Episode Of 'Late Show'

    After the brouhaha of the great Carson/Leno/Letterman "Tonight" showdown of 1993, Letterman jettisoned NBC for CBS to directly compete with Leno's show. Here's the opening of his rechristened "Late Show."

  • Madonna Curses Out Dave

    In this 1994 interview, Madonna said quite a few words that cannot be said on TV, accusing Dave of paying too much attention to her sex life in his monologues.

  • Drew Barrymore Flashes Dave

    Drew Barrymore memorably danced on Dave's desk on his birthday in 1995.

  • Letterman Visits Conan

    Letterman did the new "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien a solid by appearing on his show a few times early on.

  • Dave Running Taco Bell Drive-Thru

    Dave popularized the now-commonplace "messing with customers" remote pieces when he manned the drive-thru at fast food restaurants like Taco Bell and McDonald's.

  • Letterman Returns From Heart Surgery

    In 2000, Letterman took over a month of from his show after receiving emergency quintuple bypass surgery on his heart. During that time, he employed "guest hosts" like Bill Cosby and Janeane Garofalo to anchor the show. Upon returning, he emotionally thanked the doctors who saved his life on the air.

  • The Late Show Returns After 9/11

    David Letterman was the first New York City based comedy show to return after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and eloquently voiced the feelings of many Americans on September 19.

  • Letterman's Carson Tribute

    The day after Letterman's hero Johnny Carson died, Letterman revealed that Carson had been quietly sending him monologue jokes every now and again since his retirement. His monologue on that show was entirely composed of jokes written by Carson.

  • Hostile Bill O'Reilly Interview

    Taking on a rare serious tone in this 2006 interview, Letterman defended Cindy Sheehan to Bill O'Reilly, and famously told him that "60% of what you say in crap."

  • Dave Embarrasses Paris Hilton

    In 2007, Dave leads a hilariously uncomfortable interview where he makes Paris Hilton squirm by asking her about her jail time.

  • Dave Returns From The Writers Strike

    "The Late Show" was the first show to come back on the air during the 2007 writers strike. The decision was not without controversy -- the show entered a separate deal with the WGA to negotiate their writers' return, while the other comedy shows returned, writerless. Regardless, Dave grew a beard in solidarity.

  • Oprah and Dave Bury the Hatchet

    The fabled "Letterman/Oprah" feud came to an end when Winfrey appeared on a much-hyped episode of "The Late Show."

  • Letterman Announces Affairs & Extortion Case

    Letterman shocked audiences in 2009 when he revealed that he was the subject of an extortion plot due to sexual affairs he conducted with multiple women on his staff.

  • Dave Interviews The President

    In 2009, Dave interviewed his first sitting U.S. President.

  • Dave Responds To NBC Tonight Show Drama

    If there's one subject David Letterman is familiar with, it's Jay Leno stealing "The Tonight Show" from another host. So when history repeated itself when NBC decided to reinstate Leno as the "Tonight Show" host after seven months of perceived underperformance by Conan O'Brien, Letterman simply had to weigh in. And the results were the funniest Dave had been in years.

  • Dave Is Threatened By Real-Life Terrorists

    In 2011, Dave responded to a terrorist threat that had been made against him. He told those in the studio, "Tonight, you're more than an audience. You're more like a human shield."