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Photo:AP Photo/Nancy Kaye. David Letterman at the taping of his first talk-comedy hour "Late Night with David Letterman" with guest Bill Murray, February 1, 1982 in New York.

Photo:AP Photo/Nancy Kaye.
David Letterman at the taping of his first talk-comedy hour “Late Night with David Letterman” with guest Bill Murray, February 1, 1982 in New York.

How Bill Murray Went Missing

During Letterman’s First Episode

Here?s where it all began: Murray?s interview as the first guest ever on NBC’s?Late Night with David Letterman. In his typical sardonic fashion, he makes fun of Dave, explains that he regrets not strangling Richard Nixon when he had the opportunity, has a humorous mental breakdown, shows off a short film he made in his backyard about a panda bear named ?Cancun? that was forced to work in a Chinese restaurant, and ends the whole thing by doing aerobics while singing Olivia Newton John?s ?Physical.?

Letterman – FIRST NBC EPISODE – Bill Murray (1982)

?Watch?the very first episode of?Late Night

?Bill Murray completely takes hold of his interview, leaving Letterman to throw in the occasional one-liner or play with his pens. But he doesn?t seem?that?mad about it. Letterman was allowed to experiment with the form in a way that hosts simply can?t today. It was a new show in a new timeslot. There was no history. There were no rivals. There was no internet. In short, there were zero expectations. It could be whatever Letterman wanted it to be, and Letterman wanted it weird, because that?s the show he wants to put on.

An Oral History of “Late Night with David Letterman,” 1982-1993,?journalist Brian Abrams went behind the scenes of one of the most seminal shows in television history. Abrams talked to the men and women who brought?Late Night?to life, and who set the stage for comedy, as we know it today.


Executive producer,?The David Letterman Show?(1980),?SCTV?(1980-81), Late Night with David Letterman?(1982-87)

Letterman only cared if guests were going to be funny. If they were gonna be the run-of-the-mill, ?tell us about your movie? guests, I don?t think he was too interested in that. It wasn?t plug, plug, plug, plug, you know? The motto we had on our show was, ?If you learned anything from our guests, we made a terrible mistake.? Now on our first show, we had Bill Murray. That?s another story.


Writer,?Late Night?(1982-83)

He came in the writer?s room [a few days prior]. He took a sweater and draped it over the lamp. Then he turned on the radio. It was like a boom box. He didn?t like how the sound came out, so he took a metal trashcan, emptied it, and put the radio into the garbage for the reverb. Then he put that on the desk. Remember: Dave and [Dave?s head writer/girlfriend] Merrill [Markoe] had gone home for the night. So it?s like ?Mommy and Daddy left.? Then he got one of the interns to go out for tequila. So my first thought was, ?I?ve been in show business two weeks, and I?m having a party with Bill Murray.?


Talent coordinator,?Late Night?(1982-89)

That was his style. He liked to hang out in the office and get to know the writers. He liked to kibitz around with ideas of what he should do, what he should not do.


Whence this was all established ? the margaritas were made and the radio was on ? Bill Murray sits down and starts to work. And he?s absolutely dead serious about trying to come up with funny stuff. So he spent an hour or maybe two hours trying to come up with a funny bit. Having said that, nothing worthwhile came out of that. So Bill wound up writing his own bit for the first show, which was going to happen anyway.


[On February 1, 1982] we couldn?t find him, so we basically put out an internal APB. Everyone looked in all the doorways, looked through all the rooms. The show was starting, and we found out that he had left the building. He came in through the 6th Avenue entrance ? it was a building he was familiar with because of?Saturday Night Live?? and [talent coordinator] Cathy [Vasapoli] and I asked, ?Where have you been?? And he said, ?I had to go home and feed my cat.?


Director,?The David Letterman Show?(1980),?Late Night with David Letterman?(1982-93)

I get very nervous with dead air, and it was like visual dead air. I said, ?Where the f is Bill Murray?? and they said, ?He?s out in the airlock.? I was in the control room, which is right by the airlock [the walkway that connects dressing rooms to the stage]. So I went out, picked him up, and threw him out in the studio. I didn?t throw him exactly. I pushed him. I said, ?Jesus Christ, Dave is waiting for you!? He thought it was part of the act in a funny way. He was playing with Dave, and I think he was happy to be forced back into the studio. He wanted to cause a fuss and people to be upset, and he did.


Writer,?Saturday Night Live?(1976-1980; 1984-2013);?head writer,?Late Night?(1982-83)

I didn?t know that he had gone missing. I was actually there in the audience with a girl I had been going out with. I just remember there was a moment when he was singing Olivia Newton-John[?s ?Let?s Get Physical?], and he went out in the audience and dragged a [crew member] on stage. He was spinning her. There was a panic for me. I was wondering if he was going to drop her on her head on the studio?s concrete floor. That was my big memory of that evening.


I remember Dave being annoyed because he?s waiting for him to get through with this routine. The show was out of his hands, and this guy who was singing ?Let?s Get Physical? had control.

By?Brian Abrams

In his new Amazon Kindle Single?AND NOW?An Oral History of “Late Night with David Letterman,” 1982-1993