It’ll be hard for me to imagine life without David Letterman on the tube. He’s been on late night TV since 1982, and as someone who was a tween during that era I’ve been watching him since probably 1984 or so. In high school he was one of my main heroes, and a lot of what I think I know or appreciate about comedy can be traced back to obsessive late night viewings of Brother Theodore, Pee-wee Herman, Marv Albert, Chris Elliott, Harvey Pekar, Biff Henderson, et al. on the kooky public/secret clubhouse he had going on NBC for quite a while there. At the risk of editorializing, I have found Dave’s CBS show far less essential, to the point that I don’t even really care that much that he’s retiring; the turning point in that process may actually have been the institutionalization of the top ten list, which started out as just another random segment, just like viewer mail. The problem besetting his show post-1988, say, is the same syndrome that has happened to the rest of the late night talk spectrum, which is that watching ultra-prepped actors winkingly play beer pong with Jimmy Fallon (or whomever) has basically no relation to the truly unscripted, fairly snide, and attitudinally aggressive antics that used to occur around 1 a.m. most weeknights during the 1980s.
After Late Night with David Letterman had been around a year or two, a lot of savvier people began referencing it. It felt during this time like renegade entertainment, an unusual commodity that was obscurely about the entertainment industry if not quite of it, and therefore it became a kind of a trope, if you could work “David Letterman” into your story you added a slight buzz of disposable knowingness, much like referencing some of the guests he had on (Pee-wee etc.). In effect, Letterman became a kind of punchline for the smarter set. The idea of John McEnroe or Charlie Brown or Tootsie or Hulk Hogan visiting Letterman’s NBC was a joke in and of itself.
Case in point, issue 239 of the Avengers from Marvel, the January 1984 issue, which trumpeted on its cover, “THE AVENGERS ON LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN!” See? It was mildly ridiculous, as everything that appeared on Late Night was mildly ridiculous.
In the issue, aspiring actor Simon Williams (a.k.a. Wonder Man) gets booked on Late Night, whose producers request a larger cast of Avengers to appear. A few of the reserve Avengers join Wonder Man on the show, not knowing that serial pest Fabian Stankowicz seeks to sabotage their appearance by planting various booby-traps around the set. Eventually Letterman konks Stankowicz on the head with a giant doorknob.