Conan O’Brien: David Letterman, “When I Was A National Punchline … Rescued Me”

Conan O’Brien tonight opened his TBS late night show with a moving tribute to David Letterman, the man he replaced as host of NBC’s Late Night, after Dave moved to CBS to host Late Show following NBC’s decision to give Tonight Show to Jay Leno:

“Tonight is no ordinary night.  As you all know, in about 35 minutes, David Letterman is going to air his last episode of Late Night television. It’s a huge deal…He has been the North Star for me and for every comic of my generation.

What I wanted to talk about tonight, briefly, is something incredible that Dave did for me almost 22 years ago — something that had a profound impact on my life. Some of you may be too young to know this, but way back in 1993 I took over David Letterman’s iconic Late Night television show. I was a complete unknown with absolutely no experience performing on television.  I was utterly and totally unprepared for that enormous job.  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 shit 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. I honestly have no ill will about that time because, by and large, people were right. I was in way over my head – and with this hair, that’s saying something – and the conventional wisdom was that I should be immediately cancelled.

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 February 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.

After that night, everything turned around for me.  The morale of the staff shot through the ceiling.  My producer, my writers, Andy – 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…At one of the lowest points of my life, when I was a 30 year old national punchline, Dave, for reasons I still don’t really understand —- completely rescued me.  I truly believe that simple act of kindness turned everything around and made all the difference.

So ladies and gentlemen here’s the plan for tonight…I’m going to let you know the exact moment when Dave’s show is starting and I’d like you to switch over. I may be talking to seven viewers at that time, but do it. I promise you we will not see a man of his talents and comedic integrity again in our lifetime, and you do not want to miss out.

Have a great show, Dave, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

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