Over thirty years at the desk of his very own late-night talk show, multiple generations of fans, the respect of comedians the world over: David Letterman has had, by any measure, an awfully good run. Though they had to know it could come sooner or later, thousands of viewers, since Letterman announced last Thursday that he plans to retire in 2015, face the imminent prospect of a world without the Late Show as they know it. For the young and young-ish among them, many of whom didn’t come into the world themselves until after Letterman’s 1982 national debut (see video at bottom), this constitutes an entirely new and troublingly less absurd televisual reality. But the master comedy host didn’t simply emerge on to the scene, fully formed, those 32 years ago. Anyone who’s watched long enough to notice the frequency of Letterman’s references to Indianapolis, his hometown and the media market that granted him his first “big” chance as a weatherman, knows that he never forgot his roots.
As with many illustrious careers, Letterman’s humble early shot followed even humbler, earlier shots. Just above, you can hear the 21-year-old “Dave Letterman”’s broadcast from April Fool’s Day 1969 on WAGO-AM, the closed-circuit radio station he helped to found at his future alma mater, Ball State University. Though only a five-minute clip, this recording showcases not just Letterman’s preternatual microphone presence, but his way with the near-psychedelic walls of sound effects, seemingly free-associative speech, and pure wackiness that so came into its own in the late sixties and early seventies. (The Firesign Theater would soon perfect it.) Letterman followers who must know everything — and they certainly exist — should note that, when he calls a delirious-sounding woman in this segment, he calls none other than Michelle Cook, the very first Mrs. Letterman. Though we have yet to learn the identity of Letterman’s Late Show replacement, I feel certain, after this listening experience, that the Letterman of twenty years from now will rise from the ranks of podcasting. Listen out for him; he may not drop colorful phrases just like “horse dentures falling into a rusted howitzer artillery shell,” but you’ll know him when you hear him. Or her.
Below you can watch Bill Murray's appearance on Letterman's first 1982 show.
via WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.