The late-night TV hosts who battle one another for audiences laid down their arms this week to pay tribute to their inspiration, David Letterman, as he finished his run on "Late Show."
Conan O'Brien, who emerged from semi-obscurity as a comedy writer to succeed Letterman on NBC's "Late Night" in 1993, told viewers of his TBS show how a guest appearance by Letterman turned around his rocky start as a late-night host.
"I was utterly and totally unprepared for that enormous job," O'Brien said. "I don't think anything like that could happen today -- the government wouldn't allow it. And after going on the air, in September of 1993, I got the ... kicked out of me. Critics despised me, the ratings were bad, my skin broke out, and my network started to make it clear that I probably wouldn't be around very long.... And then, something miraculous happened. After four really dreary months, out of the blue, we got a message at the show that David Letterman wanted to come on the program as a guest. Now understand: Dave wasn't just the biggest late-night star at that time, he was the biggest thing on television. He didn't go on other people's shows. It was like the Beatles asking Maury Povich if they could stop by and sing a few tunes. At the time, I was convinced it was a prank -- it couldn't be real. But, on Feb. 28, 1994, David Letterman walked onto my set and blew the doors off the place. It's easily one of the happiest nights of my professional life."
O'Brien showed a clip of the appearance and noted, "After that night, everything turned around for me. The morale of the staff shot through the ceiling. My producer, my writers, and Andy [Richter, his longtime sidekick] -- we all thought that if David Letterman can come on our show and say a few kind words, maybe, just maybe, we can earn the right to be here. And we survived."
ABC's host Jimmy Kimmel chose to air a repeat of his show instead of going with a new episode against the farewell show of Letterman. Kimmel has idolized Letterman since childhood. On Tuesday's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," he became emotional as he spoke of Letterman's career. He showed photos of a birthday cake decorated with "Late Night" logo from Letterman's era and his "L8 NITE" vanity license plate. "The reason I have this show is because the executives at ABC saw me when I was a guest on Dave's show," Kimmel said while holding back tears.
Seth Meyers, who took over NBC's "Late Night" last year, opened his show Tuesday with a re-creation of the opening titles used during the time Letterman hosted in the 1980s. Meyers' crew went to every original New York location, including Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall and the Lyric Theatre, seen in those titles. "The big difference between 1982 New York City and today in New York City -- so many fewer pornography theaters," Meyers said in a Letterman-esque riff. "It's so sad because people still bring families here for vacation and I don't know where they go anymore."
"Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon chose to make his remarks saluting Letterman on his Monday program. "I, like every kid who grew up watching him, will miss him," said Fallon. He held up his eighth-grade yearbook which had a prediction from a teacher that he would one day replace Letterman on "Late Night." Fallon was the host of "Late Night" after O'Brien left to host "Tonight."
James Corden, the host of "The Late Late Show" used Letterman's opening theme at the start of his Wednesday program that followed the finale. The words "Thank You Dave" were posted on the marquee above Corden's stage in his CBS Television City studio. He spent much of his opening monologue praising the host who was the first to bring comedy to the 12:30 time slot in late-night TV.
"So many ideas on television today come from his 30-year career," Corden said.