David Letterman helmed NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” throughout the ’80s while he honed his chops for the big job: Succeeding his longtime mentor Johnny Carson as host of that same network’s “The Tonight Show.” But when Carson retired in 1992, Letterman was elbowed aside by Jay Leno. A semi-bitter Letterman packed his bags, went to CBS, and captained “The Late Show with David Letterman” until 2015, when Stephen Colbert took over.
During his tenure there, Letterman became the Rolling Stones to Leno’s Beatles: A bit less successful in the ratings, but still a powerhouse with unique edge. Letterman still structured his show according to the traditional monologue-and-guest format, but he never shied away from sketches, audience participation, sharp political humor, and absurdist comedy.
Letterman most likely benefited from being the consistent runner-up in late night, as having a tail to chase forces a performer to stay sharp. His impact on comedy and television is enormous: Very few contemporary comedians list Jay Leno as an influence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any who don’t speak Letterman’s name with reverence and awe.