Among the reasons David Letterman became the king of late night is his ability to create or conjure memorable moments. Here are ten of the best.
Bill Murray is Dave’s first guest (1982)
Andy Kaufman challenges wrestler Jerry Lawler to a match (1982)
Dave gets dunked in a suit made of 3,400 Alka-Seltzers (1984)
What some do for science, Dave did for comedy. With a snorkel and goggles in place, Dave was dunked into a fizzy experiment in laughter. He’s helpless in his harness, floating in an effervescent water tank surrounded by the volcanic chaos of bubbles. The experiment was duplicated with the likes of sponges, marshmallows and velcro, showing how far Dave would go for a laugh.
The very first top 10 list (1985)
Cher calls Dave an a--hole (1986)
Dave’s meta-deconstruction of the late night form led to uncomfortable truths — such as in this segment, where an interview with Cher centered on why it took four years for her to agree to appear on the show. Her casual reasoning — “because I thought you were an a–hole” — became part of the show’s disarming folklore.
Madonna won’t stop stop cursing (March 31, 1994)
Drew Barrymore flashes Dave for his birthday (April 12, 1995)
Dave gets personal (2000 & 2009)
It’s one thing to be a great host with a knack for comedic moments. It’s another entirely to tap into the national psyche. Dave was long regarded as the king of irony, but that died in 2000, when he dropped all comedic facades to pay tribute to the surgical team that saved his life. It was a rare but powerful moment when Dave the host became Dave the man—a feeling that would be replicated as his messy personal cheating scandal went public nine years later—and his brittle realness drew us even closer to the legend we thought we knew.
Dave gives a heartfelt post-9/11 monologue (2001)
Joaquin Phoenix is bizarre and rambling (Feb 2009)
Phoenix devised a meta-hoax that found him growing a long beard and claiming to have left acting for hip-hop. Included in this, for reasons not quite clear, was appearing on Letterman like he had no idea what was happening around him. Letterman fired questions at Phoenix despite the guest’s inability to string together a sentence. Ending the interview with, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight,” cemented the segment as a classic.