Today marks the 40th anniversary of Late Night. Seth Meyers has invited original host David Letterman to return to NBC, and it promises to be a special show. Letterman’s first major return, however, came in 1994 when he helped Conan O’Brien keep his job. Here’s what happened.
An Ugly Exit
Late Night was born because of Johnny Carson. One tough contract negotiation in the early 1980s gave the legendary talk show host control over the 12:30 slot. Letterman hosted his first show in 1982 with special guest Bill Murray, and he never looked back. After a decade on the show, he appeared primed and ready to take over the Tonight Show whenever Carson decided to retire.
Infamously, that’s not what happened. NBC chose Carson’s permanent guest host and Letterman’s friend, Jay Leno, instead. Jilted, Letterman split for CBS. The whole affair was ugly and was later immortalized in The Late Shift. Lorne Michaels auditioned many folks to replace Letterman, before finally settling on a total unknown: Conan O’Brien.
Late Night with Conan O’Brien premiered on September 13, 1993. It did not go well, with newspapers bashing the former SNL writer. NBC had O’Brien on month-to-month contracts, and it felt like Late Night could be canceled at any moment. It kept on though, and slowly found its footing.
After his tumultuous exit from NBC, it didn’t look like Letterman would ever return to the network. On February 28, 1994, he did just that. Sitting beside O’Brien, he held court with a fantastic interview. He took a few potshots at NBC and regaled the audience with stories of playing baseball in his office. The entire interview is well worth watching, if for no reason than to see how giddy O’Brien is to sit across one of his idols.
Pivotally, Letterman endorsed O’Brien and the new version of Late Night. “You guys do an incredible amount of comedy and stuff that is produced that is very high level. The volume and the quality of the stuff just knocks me out. I think you’ve really done a great job to carve out a wonderful identity for yourselves… I think you did a nice job.”
A Morale Booster
The appearance wasn’t just funny, but it was a major boon for O’Brien. He later told Entertainment Weekly, “It was a morale boost…I’m thinking, If the guy who created the 12:30 thing comes on and says we’re smart and funny, let’s go.” Letterman would return to his original franchise a few times over the years, and naturally took O’Brien’s side during his own ugly spat with Leno years later.
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