David Letterman has a complicated legacy, but few people had more impact upon the general tone of comedy in the ‘80s and ‘90s than he did. Before The Simpsons or Seinfeld, Letterman pioneered the kind of irony and postmodernism that defined Gen X and opened the door for the later absurdity of Adult Swim and the internet. His first late night show, Late Night with David Letterman, aired immediately after Johnny Carson for a decade, and there has probably never been a starker contrast between TV’s past and future as when one show bled into the next.
Letterman’s first decade in late night was his most groundbreaking and influential, and unfortunately it’s been almost impossible to watch any of it in an official and well-preserved capacity. YouTube rips of fuzzy old VHS tapes were the best we had to go on for years. Fortunately that’s now changed, as Letterman has launched an official YouTube page full of clips from both his NBC and CBS shows.
The YouTube channel leans more heavily on his CBS era, of course; it lasted twice as long as his NBC show, and was a much higher profile show. And I’m not trying to dismiss the Letterman of the ‘90s or ‘00s; he didn’t have the same edge he had on NBC, but he was still recognizably Dave, and was far funnier and a better interviewer than his main competition. But there was something truly special about Late Night with David Letterman in the ‘80s, and now that it’s getting a new life on YouTube perhaps those who were too young to experience it will understand why Letterman was so revered at the time.
The channel launched on Tuesday, Feb. 1, and has been posting new clips every day since. (The third video uploaded was Letterman’s interview with Hank Aaron, which is obviously of extreme interest to the Atlanta Braves fans at Patse, of which I might be the most passionate.) The selection so far is full of interview clips, but also includes some of the show’s most infamous moments, including the Jerry Lawler / Andy Kaufman showdown from 1982, and collections of bits like Stupid Human Tricks and Top Ten Lists. If you’ve never seen ‘80s Letterman before, or simply want to relive those shows from 40 (?!) years ago, now’s your chance.