Dave evolved from struggling radio host to star

Letterman didn't think he'd make it at first

Jeff Lewis remembers a time when David Letterman thought he never stood a chance in the entertainment industry.

"Dave was working out of Indianapolis and had become disillusioned with talk radio," the Ball State alumnus and close friend of Letterman said. "When I mentioned the idea of moving out to California, Dave made the comment, 'If I can't make it in Indy, how the hell am I going to make it in LA?'"

After encouragement from both his friends and former wife Michelle Cook, Letterman made the decision to leave and pit his skills against others who were struggling to make it big in the business.

Within five years, Letterman managed to become a regular as a comedian at The Comedy Store, a stand-up comedy club.

"Dave was one of the founders of the Comedy Store phenomenon," Lewis said. "He was hired to open the second location, and he helped to usher in a whole movement that saw the arrival of comics like Jay Leno, Robin Williams and Steven Martin."

Soon after, Letterman made small appearances in television programs such as "The Gong Show" and "The Peeping Times," a parody of the "60 Minutes" news program.

A brief stint on the new "Mary Tyler Moore Show" caught the attention of late-night legend Johnny Carson. On Nov. 26, 1978, Letterman made his first of more than 22 appearances on "The Tonight Show."

NBC took note of Letterman's popularity on "The Tonight Show," and in 1980 granted him his own morning talk show titled "The David Letterman Show." The program did poorly in the ratings, however, and was canceled the following year.

When the network was in search of a late-night comedy show to follow "The Tonight Show," they again kept Letterman in mind. On Feb. 1, 1982, "Late Night with David Letterman" debuted at 12:30 a.m. with Bill Murray as the first guest.

The show quickly grew popular among audiences of all ages, particularly the college set. Letterman had free reign while hosting the 60-minute program, spoofing his spectators with crazy pranks such as 360-degree broadcasts, where the camera would make one complete rotation during the show.

Along with his absurd antics, Letterman began to incorporate characters into his show, a trend he continues to carry on with band leader Paul Shaffer, the dimwitted Larry "Bud" Melman and others.

Another Letterman tradition began on Sept. 18, 1985, when he debuted the first Top Ten List -- the top 10 things that almost rhyme with "peas."

Letterman left NBC after nearly 12 years to host his current late-night program, "The Late Show with David Letterman," on CBS. On Aug. 30, 1993, the show debuted with Bill Murray once again serving as the first guest.

In the 20 years since his debut as a late-night television host, the comedic Hoosier has proven his ability to endure. Undergoing a major network switch, successfully recovering from bypass surgery and helping America laugh again after Sept. 11, Letterman remains an integral force in the television industry.

Still, despite his popularity and overwhelming success, Letterman has not forgotten where he once came from.

"His influence on Ball State has been incalculable," Lewis said of Letterman's continued ties to the university. "I mean, how do you even measure it? What Dave has done is make BSU a much hipper place to be, and no amount of money or any kind of ad campaign is going to do for this university what Letterman has done -- absolutely no amount."


More from The Daily

This Week's Digital Issue