The following biography
David Michael Letterman (born April 12, 1947) is a
famous American television personality, late night talk show host, comedian,
television producer, Indy Racing League car owner (Rahal Letterman Racing), and
philanthropist. His first long-running hit in the 1980s was on NBC's, Late Night
with David Letterman before he transferred to CBS in the 1990s with Late Show
with David Letterman, whose talk show lasts longer than his first. He is once
divorced, from Michelle Cook, and he had a long-term relationship with his
current show's writer, Merrill Markoe. His longtime fiancée is Regina Lasko, and
they have one son, Harry Joseph, born November 3, 2003. He is named for
Letterman's ironic, often absurd comedy is heavily
influenced by comedians Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.
Born: April 12, 1947
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Occupation: late night talk show host, comedian,
and television producer
Salary: $40,000,000 
David Letterman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana.
His father, Harry Joe Letterman, was a florist who died in 1974; his mother
Dorothy Letterman (born July 18, 1921), a Presbyterian church secretary, is an
occasional figure on the show, usually at holidays and birthdays. He has an
older sister, Janice, and a younger sister, Gretchen. One of his early comedic
influences was the Cincinnati talk show host Paul Dixon, but the person who
would influence his life the most would be Johnny Carson, host of the Tonight
Letterman graduated from Ball State University,
where he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. He received a B.A. in
telecommunications in 1969. He began his broadcasting career at Ball State's
student-run radio station, WAGO - AM 570 (Now known as WCRD, 91.3). A rare
aircheck of Letterman on WAGO can be heard here (registration required). (the
voice of Letterman's first wife Michelle Cook can be heard on the clip, playing
a character in a sketch)
Letterman began work as a radio talk show host and
on Indianapolis television station WTHR as a local anchor and weatherman. He
received recognition for his unpredictable on-air behavior, which included
erasing state borders from the weather map and predicting hail stones "the size
of canned hams." One night he reportedly upset his bosses when he congratulated
a tropical storm on being upgraded to a hurricane.
Move to LA
In 1975, Letterman moved to California with hopes
of becoming a comedy writer and started writing material for sitcoms. He also
began performing stand-up comedy at The Comedy Store, a famed Los Angeles comedy
club and proving ground for young comics.
Letterman became one of the acerbic writers for the
controversial hit show of the Smothers Brothers, whose program heavily
criticized the U.S political system. CBS abruptly pulled the show when the jokes
were deemed too cutting; it was this incident made Letterman wary of all CBS
dealings. This reluctance was what kept Letterman from immediately signing with
CBS following the Late Night and also fueled the continuing rumors that
Letterman seeks employment at ABC and Fox.
Letterman also appeared for a time in the summer of
1977 on a short-lived TV series of the same name as the group that starred in
it, Starland Vocal Band, in which he made various jokes about how fortunate he
was that nobody would ever see his performance on the program (because of its
Letterman had a stint as a cast member on Mary
Tyler Moore's variety show Mary, a guest appearance on Mork & Mindy (as a parody
of est leader Werner Erhard), and appearances on game shows such as The $20,000
Pyramid. He also hosted a 1977 pilot for a game show, entitled The Riddlers that
was never picked up. His dry, sarcastic humor caught the attention of talent
scouts for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Letterman was soon a
regular guest on the show. Letterman became a favorite of Carson's and became a
regular guest host for the show starting in 1978.
Soon afterwards, Letterman was given his own
morning comedy show on NBC, The David Letterman Show. The show was a critical
success, winning two Emmy Awards, but was a ratings disappointment and was
cancelled after a brief run during the summer of 1980.
NBC kept Letterman under contract and tried again
in a different time slot; in 1982, Late Night with David Letterman debuted on
the network. Letterman's show, which ran weeknights at 12:30 am eastern time,
immediately following The Tonight Show, quickly established a reputation as
being edgy and unpredictable, and soon developed a cult following (particularly
among college students). The show was markedly different from the soft-sell
talk-show competition (including his own lead-in); Letterman as an interviewer
could be sarcastic and antagonistic to the point that a number of celebrities
have even stated that they were afraid of appearing on the show. Letterman's
reputation as an acerbic interviewer was born out of moments like his verbal
sparring matches with Cher, Shirley MacLaine and most notably, Madonna (see
Madonna on Letterman).
The show often included quirky, genre-mocking
regular features, including "Stupid Pet Tricks", dropping various objects off
the roof of a five story building, the Top 10 List, and a facetious
letter-answering segment. Other memorable moments included Letterman using a
bullhorn to interrupt The Today Show TV program, which was on the air conducting
a live interview at the time, announcing that he was the NBC president and that
he was not wearing any pants; interrupting Al Roker on the Live at Five live
local news by walking into the studio; and the outrageous appearances by
comedian Andy Kaufman, Late Night writer Chris Elliott and comic book writer
Harvey Pekar. In one highly publicized appearance, Kaufman appeared to be
slapped and knocked to the ground by professional wrestler Jerry Lawler. (Lawler
and Kaufman's friend Bob Zmuda later revealed that the event was staged.) Actor
Crispin Glover once aimed a kick at Letterman's head; the host immediately left
the set. When the show returned after a commercial break, Glover had
disappeared. A guest shot by writer Hunter S. Thompson was cut short, apparently
after Thompson offered to shoot off fireworks on the studio floor. Peter Ustinov
was the midpoint guest on the night of Letterman's famous "upside down show,"
during which the television camera was gradually rotated 360 degrees over the
course of the hour; Ustinov was photographed completely upside down during his
appearance, in close-up, but Letterman himself was only shot from a distance
during this part of the show.
Switch to CBS
Letterman remained with NBC for eleven years. Upon
Johnny Carson’s unexpected announcement that he would retire in May 1992, a
protracted, multi-lateral battle erupted over who would replace the long-time
Tonight host. Eventually, executives at NBC announced Carson's frequent
guest-host Jay Leno as Carson's replacement, despite Carson's professed desire
to see the torch passed to Dave. Letterman had ironically become a victim of his
own success — NBC’s confirming Letterman's high ratings in the 12:30 (EST)
timeslot signaled that the network preferred to hold on to Letterman in the
'Late Night' gig. Letterman, a longtime protégé of Carson's who had frequently
credited Johnny with boosting his career, was reportedly bitterly disappointed
and angry at not having been given the job on the Tonight Show.
In 1993, reportedly on Carson’s advice, Letterman
departed NBC to host his own show opposite Tonight on CBS at eleven-thirty
Eastern, The Late Show with David Letterman. Three years later, HBO produced a
made-for-television movie called The Late Shift, based on a book by New York
Times reporter Bill Carter, chronicling the battle between Letterman and Leno
for the coveted Tonight Show hosting spot. Letterman would mock the film for
months afterward, specifically on how the actor playing him didn't resemble him
in the least. ("They took a guy who looked nothing like me and with makeup and
special camera angles, turned him into a guy who looked nothing like me, with
red hair.") About a year after Late Show began, Carson made a surprise
appearance during a 'Top 10 list' segment. The audience went wild as Letterman
stood up and proudly invited Carson to sit at his desk. Such was the
overwhelming applause that Carson was unable to deliver the joke (the applause
having gone on too long) and he humbly returned backstage.
The Late Show competes in the same time slot as
Leno's The Tonight Show. Letterman has garnered both critical and industry
praise; his shows have received 67 Emmy Award nominations, winning twelve times
in his first twenty years in late night television. Nevertheless, Leno
consistently beats Letterman in the ratings. At one point Leno's lead was as
large as two million viewers, but has narrowed, as of February 2005, to fewer
than a million viewers (5.8 vs. 4.9 million).
Letterman has also consistently ranked higher than
Leno in the annual Harris Poll of Nation's Favorite TV Personality; as of 2004
Letterman ranked second in that poll, behind Oprah Winfrey.
On January 14, 2000, a routine checkup revealed
that an artery in Letterman's heart was severely constricted. He was rushed to
emergency surgery, recieving a quintuple bypass. While he was recovering, a
string of guest hosts filled in for him.
Upon his return to the show on February 21, 2000, a
visibly thinner and weakened Letterman brought onstage all of the doctors and
nurses who had participated in the surgery and his recovery (with extra teasing
of a nurse who had given him bedbaths -- "This woman has seen me naked!"),
including Dr. O. Wayne Isom and physician Louis J. Aronne, who makes frequent
appearances on the show. In an unusual show of emotion, Letterman was nearly in
tears as he thanked the healthcare team with the words "These are the people who
saved my life!" The episode earned an Emmy nomination. For a number of episodes,
Letterman would continually crack jokes about his bypass.
Additionally, Letterman invited the band Foo
Fighters to play "Everlong", introducing them as "my favorite band, playing my
Letterman would again hand over the reins of the
show to several guest hosts (including Brad Garrett, Elvis Costello, John
McEnroe, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Bonnie Hunt, and Luke Wilson) in February
2003, when he was diagnosed with a severe case of shingles. Later, Letterman
tried using guest hosts for new shows broadcast on Fridays, but that experiment
did not last long, possibly due to the decreased ratings from these shows.
On September 17, 2001, David Letterman was the
first major American comedy performer to return to the television airwaves after
the September 11, 2001 attacks. In his opening monologue, absent the usual
musical opening credits and cheering audience, an uncharacteristically serious
and very emotional Letterman struggled with the reality of the attacks and the
role of comedy in a post-9/11 world, saying
"The reason we were attacked, the reason these
people are dead, these people are missing and dead ... They weren't doing
anything wrong, they were living their lives, they were going to work, they were
traveling, they were doing what they normally do. Uh, as I understand it -- and
my understanding of this is vague, at best -- another smaller group of people
stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we're told that they
were zealots fueled by religious fervor, religious fervor. And if you live to be
a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any
His guests that night were then-CBS Evening News
anchor Dan Rather, who was very emotional as well and spoke with feeling about
the courage of firefighters as well as reading verses from the song, America the
Beautiful. Dave got his first laugh when, at the end of his monologue, he said,
"And thank God Regis is here so we have something to make fun of." Before
September 11, various descriptions were affixed to New York City at the
beginning of the show, but starting with the 9/17/01 show, announcer Alan Kalter
introduced the show "From New York, The Greatest City in the World, it's The
Late Show with David Letterman!"
Satirist Daniele Luttazzi, who brought Steve
Allen's genre of talk show in Italy and works as script doctor in the US, gave
this analysis of Letterman at the Late show: [...] "On a personal note, I
consider Letterman irreverent, but qualunquista [roughly meaning 'politically
apathetic']. His jokes on the Iraq War were trivial, little informed and
therefore reactionary." [...] (july 2003, Luttazzi's own site luttazzi.it)
Bill Hicks, when guest at the Texas music program
capziz, said: "I found out that one of Dave's rules is he doesn't like comics to
talk about Jesus on his show; which I find really wierd, I mean, to pretend to
be this "hip" late night talk show, while actually being as mainstream as
In early 1995, it was announced Letterman would
host that year's Academy Awards ceremony. Critics blasted Letterman for what
they judged as his poor hosting of the Oscars. In a joke about their unusual
names, he started off by introducing Uma Thurman to Oprah Winfrey, and then the
both of them to Keanu Reeves ('Uma...Oprah! Oprah...Uma! Oprah, Uma...Keanu!'),
and many of his other jokes fell flat.
Letterman recycled the apparent debacle into a
long-running gag. On his first show after the Oscars, he confessed 'Looking
back, I had no idea that thing was being televised.' For years afterward,
Letterman would bring up how horrible a host he was, although some have defended
him by saying it was the show itself, not him, that was poor that year.
In January 2000, Letterman underwent quintuple
heart bypass surgery. During the initial weeks of his recovery, friends of
Letterman hosted re-runs of the Late Show, including Drew Barrymore, Ray Romano,
Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Regis Philbin, Charles Grodin, Julia Roberts, Bruce
Willis, Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Short, Danny DeVito, Steve Martin and Sarah
Later, while still recovering from surgery,
Letterman revived the late night tradition of 'guest hosts' (a practice that
virtually disappeared on network television during the 1990s) by allowing Bill
Cosby, Kathie Lee Gifford (recommended by Regis, who was asked first but had no
time in his schedule), Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, and others to host new
episodes of The Late Show. Cosby, the show's first guest host, refused to sit at
Letterman's desk out of respect, using the couch instead; Garofalo also followed
suit, utilizing a set of grade-school desks instead.
In March 2002, as Letterman's contract with CBS
neared expiration, ABC expressed the intention to offer Letterman the time slot
for long-running news program Nightline with Ted Koppel, citing more desirable
viewer demographics. This caused a minor flap that ended when Letterman
re-signed with CBS. Letterman addressed his decision to re-sign on the air,
discussing that he was content at CBS. He also gave a short speech, discussing
his great respect for Ted Koppel, praising his work in television.
Letterman and Carson
In early 2005, it was revealed that retired King of
Late Night Johnny Carson still kept up with current events and late-night TV
right up to his death that year, and that he occasionally sent jokes to
Letterman. Letterman then used these jokes in the monologue of his show, which,
according to CBS senior vice president Peter Lassally (a onetime producer for
both men), "[Johnny] gets a big kick out of." Lassally also claimed that Carson
had always believed Letterman, not Leno, to be his "rightful successor." 
Letterman would do a characteristic Johnny Carson golf swing after delivering
one of Carson's jokes. Letterman also frequently employs some of Carson's
trademark bits on his show, including "Carnac the Magnificent" (with Paul
Shaffer as Carnac), "Stump the Band" and the "Week in Review". The late Carson
wrote all of the jokes Letterman used in the opening monologue of his first show
after Carson's passing.
Letterman and Conan O'Brien
After Letterman left "Late Night" on NBC, his
hosting duties were given to Conan O'Brien. During O'Brien's first rocky year as
host of Late Night Letterman was very supportive, making an amicable appearance
as one of O'Brien's first guests and later filling O'Brien's audience with the
stand-by audience from his own show. Letterman would also invite O'Brien as a
guest on The Late Show With David Letterman. Years later, when NBC announced
that O'Brien would take over The Tonight Show (a job previously coveted by
Letterman), Letterman congratulated O'Brien on his show.
Letterman started his own production company,
Worldwide Pants Incorporated, which produces his show and several others,
including Everybody Loves Raymond, The Late Late Show, and several critically
acclaimed, but short-lived television series for Bonnie Hunt. Worldwide Pants
also produced the comedy/drama program Ed, starring Tom Cavanagh, which aired on
NBC from 2000-2004. It was Letterman's first association with NBC since he left
the network in 1993. During Ed's run, Cavanagh appeared as a guest on The Late
Show several times.
Outside of television
Letterman's personal life is kept very private.
Letterman was raised Presbyterian but is not known
to attend church on a regular basis. When guest Ray Romano once broached the
subject, Letterman quipped, "I've been to a few games, but I'm no season ticket
holder." After his bypass surgery, he commented, "And by the way - I ain't
Presbyterian," in reference to the name of the medical center. Letterman
frequently speaks respectfully of people's faith and church involvement.
A Life Loyal Member and Significant Sig laureate of
the Sigma Chi fraternity, Letterman financed the construction of a house for
Ball State's chapter.
An on-and-off cigar smoker, Letterman could
sometimes be seen taking puffs between commercial breaks, when coming back from
break a cloud of smoke could always be seen and Letterman would make the "who
me?" face. He has been on the cover of Cigar Aficionado in addition to having
many blurbs in other issues.
In 1969, Letterman married his college sweetheart,
Michelle Cook. The couple divorced in 1977.
For a time, Letterman was engaged to Late Night
head writer Merrill Markoe, but their relationship eventually fell apart. Markoe
moved to California soon after to pursue a writing career.
In 1985, Letterman established the Letterman
Telecommunications Scholarship at his alma mater, to provide financial
assistance to Department of Telecommunications students, based solely on his or
her creativity, and not high academic grades —Many reports have stated that in
order to qualify for the scholarship a student must have a C average or below.
This is not true, nor has it ever been true. The scholarships are based on
creativity regardless of grade point average. Letterman continues to donate
regularly to Ball State and other organizations through his American Foundation
for Courtesy and Grooming.
In 1988, Margaret Mary Ray was arrested while
driving Letterman's Porsche near the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City. Ray
claimed to be Letterman's wife. Ray went on to be arrested repeatedly in
subsequent years on trespassing and other counts. In one instance, police found
her sleeping on Letterman's private tennis court at his home in New Canaan,
Connecticut. Ray spent nearly ten months in prison and 14 months in a state
mental institution for her numerous trespassing convictions. On October 7, 1998,
Ray was struck and killed by a train in an apparent suicide in Colorado.
In 1994, Letterman appeared in the Chris Elliott
film Cabin Boy, as the "Old Salt in the Fishing Village." He is credited as Earl
Hofert, a pseudonym Letterman employs occasionally, the name borrowed from an
uncle on his mother's side of the family. At the 1995 Academy Awards, Letterman
did a skit with various other people "auditioning" for the role, including
Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell, Paul Newman, Michael Buffer, Albert Brooks and Jack
Lemmon. The biggest reaction came from Barry White's deep delivery of "Would you
like to buy a monkey?"
In 1996, Letterman became co-owner of the
open-wheel racing team known as Team Rahal, with former Indianapolis 500
champion Bobby Rahal. The team changed its name to Rahal Letterman Racing in May
2004, and later that same month, team driver Buddy Rice won the Indianapolis
500. This was an exciting win indeed for Indianapolis native Letterman, who has
attended the race regularly since he was a young child. Normally a private
person away from the studio (like his mentor, Johnny Carson), Letterman
uncharacteristically gave many interviews following the race.
Also in 1996, Letterman provided the voice of the
character "Mötley Crüe Roadie #1" in the animated motion picture Beavis and
Butt-head Do America, again using Earl Hofert as his name in the end credits.
Letterman has often expressed an appreciation for Beavis and Butt-Head, once
calling it "the only thing [on television] that consistently makes me laugh".
Letterman, along with bandleader Paul Shaffer and
Late Show stage manager Biff Henderson, celebrated Christmas 2002 in Afghanistan
with United States and international military forces stationed there. The three
visited Iraq around Christmas in 2003 and 2004 as well.
On September 12, 2003, Letterman announced that his
long-time girlfriend and ex-colleague Regina Lasko  was six months pregnant
with his child. His son Harry Joseph Letterman, named after David's late father,
was born on November 3, 2003. Letterman was about to tape a show when the news
came and thus Shaffer was forced to step in as guest host for the broadcast.
In March 2005, local police in Choteau, Montana,
where Letterman owns a home, foiled an alleged scheme to kidnap Letterman's son.
In late October 2005, Jay Leno told the New York
Daily News that he and Letterman have not spoken to one another in 13 years.
In December 2005, a fan named Colleen Nestler (whom
Letterman claimed he had never met) sought a temporary restraining order in a
Santa Fe, New Mexico court against Letterman, claiming he used code words and
gestures on his television broadcasts to convey romantic feelings towards her.
She claims these incidents caused her "mental cruelty." After a judge granted
the order, Letterman's lawyer declared the order "absurd and frivolous" and
filed a motion to end it.  At a December 26 hearing, the order was lifted.
 As usual, Letterman was able to make fun out of the situation: during one of
his monologues soon after the story broke, he told the audience after they
laughed at a joke he had made: "That wasn't a joke, that was a coded message."
In an interview on Tom Snyder's Late Late Show,
Letterman expressed his fascination for the hobby of short-wave radio listening.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
The book The Top Ten Ways to Ruin the First Day of
School (which was originally published as The Top Ten Ways to Ruin the First Day
of 5th Grade) is a fictional book about a boy (Tony Baloney) who attempts to get
on the show. The book frequently included David Letterman, especially nearing
the end, when Tony is actually on the show.
Spoilers end here.
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