David Letterman’s 1994 Epic Appearance on Conan O’Brien

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Today marks the 40th anniversary Late Night. Seth Meyersawaited the original host David Lettermanwill be returning to NBC and promises to be a great show. Letterman’s first major return, however, came in 1994 when he helped Conan O’BrienKeep his job. Here’s what happened.

A Ugly Exit

Late NightJohnny Carson was the reason that this show was created. Johnny Carson was the talk show host who took over the 12:30 time slot through a tough contract negotiation in 1980. Letterman hosted his debut show with Bill Murray in 1982, and never looked back. After 10 years on the show, Letterman appeared prepared and ready to take the reins. Tonight ShowCarson made the decision to retire at age 62.

Infamously, that’s not what happened. NBC chose Carson’s permanent guest host and Letterman’s friend, Jay Leno, instead. Letterman and Jay Leno split after Letterman was jilted. The entire affair was ugly, and was immortalized later in The Late Shift. Lorne Michaels auditioned many folks to replace Letterman, before finally settling on a total unknown: Conan O’Brien.

Late Night with Conan O’BrienPremiered September 13, 1993. Newspapers blasted the former. SNL writer. NBC had O’Brien on Month-to-month agreementsIt was almost like it was a dream. Late NightIt could be cancelled at any time. But it kept going and slowly gained its feet.

Letterman returns

After his tumultuous exit from NBC, it didn’t look like Letterman would ever return to the network. On February 28, 1994, Letterman did just that. Sitting beside O’Brien, he held court with a fantastic interview. He had a few snubs at NBC, and entertained the crowd with stories of his baseball days. The entire interview is well worth watching, if for no reason than to see how giddy O’Brien is to sit across one of his idols.

Pivotally, Letterman endorsed O’Brien and the new version of Late Night. “You guys do an incredible amount of comedy and stuff that is produced that is very high level. The volume and the quality of the stuff just knocks me out. I think you’ve really done a great job to carve out a wonderful identity for yourselves… I think you did a nice job.”

A Morale Booster

The appearance wasn’t just funny, but it was a major boon for O’Brien. He later told Entertainment Weekly, “It was a morale boost…I’m thinking, If the guy who created the 12:30 thing comes on and says we’re smart and funny, let’s go.” Letterman would return to his original franchise a few times over the years, and naturally took O’Brien’s side during his own ugly spat with Leno years later.

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