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20 moments from David Letterman's 30 years in late night [Video]

February 1, 2012 |  7:42 am

David Letterman

David Letterman celebrates 30 years in late-night TV on Wednesday. His first show premiered on Feb. 1, 1982, in the slot after Johnny Carson's legendary talk show, with Letterman as a sharp-tongued renegade, equally happy to ruffle stars' well-practiced anecdotes and make a fool of himself (and his staff) by partaking in wacky stunts.

Here are some of his most memorable moments. [Warning, some of these videos feature late-night language].

Letterman's first episode: The first episode featured Bill Murray, post-"Saturday Night Live" and "Caddyshack" and clearly enjoying himself with Letterman, who needles, "Now that you're well-known, is it harder to be funny?"

The Top 10 list: Letterman developed a number of running features and gags, the most enduring of which is the nightly top 10 list. The list is often topical and, as the years have passed, frequently read by someone making news themselves. One classic is Top 10 Reasons I like Being an Actor, as read by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. (No. 9, from De Niro: "Every time I go to work, I get to ask myself, 'I wonder if I'll see Harvey Keitel naked.' ")

Crush and destroy: The show was an early favorite with young guys and college kids, so it's no surprise that Letterman had a number of running stunts involving destroying things. There was the hydraulic press series:

And then there was the throwing things off the roof era:

Notorious interviews: Letterman quickly forged a reputation as an unconventional (sometimes verging on combative) interviewer, which led to very strange and sometimes uncomfortable moments, like the one with '80s-cult actor Crispin Glover:

Almost two decades later, Letterman had a similarly bizarre encounter with Joaquin Phoenix:

And in the years in between, his chat with a slightly scrambled Farrah Fawcett:

Not to mention a giddy Tom Cruise, who seems on the verge of hysterics:

Ladies' man: Dave often took a flirtatious tone with female stars, though his way of flirting sometimes had an edge. It worked wonderfully with actress Terri Garr, one of his favorite comedy foils of the '80s:

It blew up in his face sometimes, as when Drew Barrymore famously flashed him:

And sometimes it yielded memorable results, as when Sandra Bernhard brought her pal Madonna on the show in 1988, wearing matching outfits. (Madonna: "She hates it when people don't talk about her." Sarcastic Bernard: "Oh, you don't have that problem much!"):

Six years later, Dave and Madonna were bickering and sparring like old lovers (with foul language to boot):

Letterman as stuntman: Dave enjoyed seeing guests squirm, but in the show's early years, he was game to put himself in uncomfortable situations too, as with the great Velcro suit experiment:

And then there's the episode where he dressed in an Alka-Seltzer garment and had himself dipped in a tank of water:

The sidekicks: Letterman's show roped in some great sidekicks over the years, among them the late Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest):

And who could forget Chris Elliot's Guy Under the Seats:

Political animal: As wacky as the show gets, Letterman reserves the right to dip into public affairs, as when he brought on Bill O'Reilly and starkly debated the Iraq War in 2006:

He's also brought on numerous politicians and even some presidents and future presidents:

Animal politics: But lest things get too heavy, Letterman has always known how to entertain viewers. He practically pioneered the viral animal video with his ever-reliable Stupid Pet Tricks series"

And if you still doubt his ability to relate to the common Americans' need for something cute and funny at the end of a very long, hard day, the proof is in the puppy wigs:


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-- Joy Press

Photo: David Letterman with Justin Bieber. Credit: John P. Filo / CBS