It's David Letterman's comedy world
Willie Grace | 2/5/2015, 4:34 p.m. | Updated on 2/5/2015, 4:34 p.m.
(CNN) -- There was a time when there was nothing like David Letterman on television.
Letterman was the guy who dropped bowling balls and watermelons from the roof of a tall building. Letterman was the guy who had a writer come on to read, straight-faced, from "The Family Circus."
Letterman was the guy who let his stage manager recap "Melrose Place," let two Bangladeshi gift-store owners named Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam serve as "roving correspondents" and always -- ALWAYS -- bit the network hand that fed him. (Or, perhaps, gave the "GE handshake" to his corporate bosses. )
He took elements of Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Johnny Carson and Mad Magazine, ran them through his own skewed perspective and came up with something new: the anti-talk show.
On this date 33 years ago -- February 5, 1982 -- "Late Night with David Letterman" made its debut. The first guest? Bill Murray.
The talk show host announced in April that he was stepping down from "Late Night's" CBS successor, "The Late Show with David Letterman," in 2015.
Letterman's final show will be May 20.
'Do our own thing'
If you were a celebrity who came on "Late Night" (his 1980s NBC show) or "The Late Show" (his CBS successor) simply to chat about your new movie or album or TV show, good luck to you. Dave -- he was always "Dave" -- might be interested, but more likely he was bored or cranky. He much preferred the Steve Martins or Bill Murrays of the world who would use their spot to do something silly.
It was a comedic style that never really captured Middle America -- for most of their 20-year rivalry, Jay Leno's ratings were much higher than Letterman's -- but influenced a generation of comedians and comedy writers.
"The Simpsons," Ben Stiller, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, any comedian or comedy that used irony, silliness, absurdity and a little bit of antagonism as their stock in trade -- Dave made network television, previously an irony-free zone, safe for all of them. (There was more than a little Letterman in Garry Shandling's curdled, insecure faux talk-show host, Larry Sanders.)
"He did the thing that everyone's tried to do since and has never done, which is to take the talk-show form and redo it," Jerry Seinfeld, an early Letterman guest, told Rolling Stone in 2011. "The mindset was, 'We're tired of pretending there are no cue cards and no cameras and nothing's rehearsed. It's late, and we're going to take over this little piece of territory and do our own thing.' Now that mindset is everywhere."
Reveling in friction
At its best, Letterman's late-night show was unpredictable, particularly in the 1980s, when it was all new. He once used pictures from an old Sears catalog over the opening credits. He did a "360-degree show," letting the camera rotate all the way around during the course of the hour. (At the half-hour mark, Letterman was upside-down.)
His interviews -- the "talk" of talk shows -- were often deliberately devoid of content. Sometimes he used his guests for comedy bits, as when Steve Martin, allegedly on the set to promote a movie, deplored Letterman's questions and then had the Late Show Gospel Choir launch into a gospel song about himself.