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Letterman returns to 'Late Night' to celebrate show's 40th anniversary

David Letterman's "Late Night" show replaced Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" on NBC on Feb. 1, 1982.
David Letterman's 'Late Night' show replaced Tom Snyder's 'Tomorrow' on NBC on Feb. 1, 1982.

The Indianapolis native kept us awake with Stupid Pet Tricks, wacky Top Ten Lists, the Monkey Cam and lots of innovative comedy on late-night television.

And the No. 1 reason to watch Seth Meyers' NBC Late Show Tuesday night/early Wednesday?

To see David Letterman, who started the show on Feb. 1, 1982.

Letterman makes a rare network TV appearance, returning to NBC when Meyers celebrates the 40th anniversary of the show the Indianapolis native hosted from 1982 to 1993 (12:35 p.m. late Tuesday Feb. 1/early Wednesday Feb. 2).

Letterman, who had failed with a short-lived daytime David Letterman Show in 1980 on NBC (June 23 to Oct. 24), took over the 12:30 a.m. time slot from Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show.

He unleashed a fire hose of comedy, similar to Steve Allen's groundbreaking stunts as first host of NBC's Tonight Show. Letterman was rewarded with five Primetime Emmy Awards for Late Night: one for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy program in 1985, and Outstanding Writing For A Variety or Music Program 1984-87. The show also won a prestigious Peabody Award in 1991, and he was presented a Peabody Individual Award in 2015.

On Late Night, Dave kept us awake by strapping a camera to a roller skating monkey named Zippy for TV's first Monkey Camera. He visited stores that sold only light bulbs or lamp shades. He was rebuffed by General Electric security guards when he tried to deliver a Christmas gift to GE's Manhattan headquarters after the company bought NBC in 1986.

He donned a Velcro suit and jumped on a Velcro wall. He covered himself in Alka-Seltzer tablets and was lowered into a huge water tank. (Steve Allen did the same thing with tea bags in the 1950s.)

Every night he read a Top Ten Listfrom the home office. The first one, on Sept. 18, 1985, was "The Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas." Other topics included "The Easter Bunny's Top Ten Pet Peeves," "The Top Ten Least-Used Hyphenated Words," "The Top Ten Government Euphemisms For A Recession," "Top Ten Rejected Crayola Colors" and "The Top Ten Rejected Half-Time Shows For The Super Bowl."

Stooge Larry "Bud" Melman often helped Dave in video vignettes explaining the proper etiquette for using a Laundromat or riding in an elevator. And every week, Letterman would read hilarious "Viewer Mail," many written and sent by Jerry Scales of Covington, KY.

Letterman and his writers filled the airwaves with goofy products: the Waffle Axe, Barbie's Parking Space, Sensible Putty (so kids can practice bathroom caulking), Pogo Crutches and the Strawberry Shortcake Shrunken Head.

Books that Dave promoted from his desk definitely were fiction: Name Your Baby When You're Angry;  Charles Bronson's Cooking with Pumice; BEAKS: The Big Nose Book; Down To the Sea In Tweed: The Cautious Guy's Guide To Beach Fun; A Child's First Book Of Smoking; and What To Say After You Say 'Hands Up!'

When what Letterman would call "the pinheads at NBC" chose comedian Jay Leno to replace Carson in 1992, Dave jumped to CBS to host the Late Show at 11:35 p.m., head to head with Leno. After Letterman, NBC's Late Night was hosted by Conan O'Brian and Jimmy Fallon. Meyers took over in 2014 when Fallon took over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno.

To be fair, Letterman's legacy isn't all giggles and grins. In 2009, he confessed to his CBS Late Show audience that he had had "unspecified sexual relationships with female staff members" after a blackmail attempt by a man threatening to expose his affairs.

Letterman retired in 2015, only to return to Netflix in 2018 with My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman. Before he left CBS, the Peabody Awards presented him a career achievement Individual Award. The judges wrote:

"David Letterman entered our late-night lives like a ghost of television’s past and its future, reviving the anar-chic, anything-goes antics of pioneers like Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs but also pushing the parameters with a postmodern sense of irony. On Late Night with David Letterman, post-Tonight on NBC, he was a one-man fringe festival, a daffy dadaist who found hilarious new uses for Velcro, watermelons and monkeys. He dismissed the obsequious veneer of showbiz chitchat and made celebrities work for their promotional plugs, expecting them to play at his comedic level or be left twisting in the wind. His irreverence, his tongue-in-cheek Top Ten lists, his outlandish sight gags and his prickly personality resonated with the young and the sleepless and the TV-jaded.

"Late Night won a Peabody in 1991, cited by the Board of Jurors for its “freshness and imagination.” When NBC didn’t give him the retiring Johnny Carson’s chair, Letterman in 1992 took his circus to CBS, where the earlier Late Show with David Letterman enlarged his audience, gave him the leverage to produce other shows, notably Everybody Loves Raymond and the Peabody-winning Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and allowed him to mature before our very eyes…

"By the time of his retirement last year, he was still a master of mischief but also a late-night statesman, as comfy with a sincere commentary as a stupid pet trick. He is missed personally, but his imprint is everywhere. Late-night is the Land of Letterman now, with every show and every host bearing some trace of his groundbreaking style. For enlivening television for 33 years and reshaping the tone and form of late-night entertainment, David Letterman is awarded an Individual Peabody Award."

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.