David Letterman On Entertaining


(By Mike McVay) Late Night on NBC, now hosted by Seth Meyers, recently celebrated its’ 40th Anniversary by inviting back the original host of the program, David Letterman. I made sure to record the program as I felt sure that there would be valuable lessons to share with on-air personalities and with content creators. I wasn’t disappointed. Letterman shared stories showed his vulnerabilities and fears when he first launched the program and talked about how the program grew and evolved during his years from its inception on NBC in 1982 to his departure to CBS in 1993.

The episode was an immediate lesson in show biz. Letterman walked out, faced the audience and acknowledged them, waved to the band, to the stage crew, embraced Meyers, and then … without ever turning his back to the audience … went up the steps to the desk and chairs and found his seat. Doubtful that many noticed it, but he approached the stage forward facing, and immediately owned the set. The man was ever conscious of the audience.

Letterman shared that he’d flopped the year before Late Night started. He had hosted a daytime 90-minute talk show, which failed because it wasn’t right for that time of day. He sat out for a little more than a year before NBC pitched him the Late Night concept. He focused on what he felt he’d done well, which was to live on the edge, and play fun & games like morning radio shows played. Letterman clearly took much from radio. Including the regular conversations that he had with his mother. He shared that he started because he was once driving to work and heard Howard Stern talking to his mother on the radio. Proving once again the famous line “Amateurs borrow and professionals steal.”

The former host of the program shared how the show started, how it evolved and that ultimately how his departure helped the show to grow. He was an appreciative guest of Meyers. He complimented Seth and showed his respect for the host of the program. Letterman acknowledged the band and how great it was to be around live music. All while staying in character.

Letterman is a good story teller. He shared a story about his son, Harry, and how as a now 18-year-old he not only doesn’t watch his father’s old programs, he barely wants to be around his father. Which is a window into the lives of most parents who have 18-year-olds. Letterman was prepared and armed with a variety of stories that he could use, if needed, as needed.

Dave’s approach to the interview was a lesson in being understated as he delivered subtle humorous lines that had great comedic meaning. When talking about his new YouTube channel, he subtly added “and we have vaccine misinformation.” When he shifted into a story about how Jack Hannah from the Columbus Zoo would visit his old show, he slipped in that Hannah would bring “wild exotic, rare and unregistered animals.” All in jest, of course. His timing, and the delivery of the lines, showcased the high level of his skills. His story telling was descriptive, but efficient and to the point.

The lessons to take away from David Letterman’s appearance on the 40th Anniversary of Late Night:

  • Always be audience facing when you create content or perform. Facing the audience means consciously entertaining, informing and communicating with them. This approach is often lost in daily operation of many media companies. Somewhere along the way they forget that big audiences can lead to bigger revenue and that successful programming attracts such audiences.
  • Be prepared for any appearance. Be it on-air, an in-person presentation, a remote appearance, or at a promotion or event. Arm yourself with stories to share, more than needed, so you’re ready to share when the opportunity occurs. The same can be said for any program. Be well prepared by knowing as much as you can about all things topical.
  • Be self-deprecating. Humility, providing it is genuine, is attractive. It is endearing. It’s a deposit into the bank of public opinion for a future withdrawal.
  • A good idea is a good idea. Amateurs borrow. Professional’s steal. Can you take a strong idea and make it your own? Can you make it better?
  • Communicate in stories that are descriptive and to the point.
  • Everything has to evolve if it is to continue to grow. The key is to know when evolution has to happen in order to continue growth.
  • All things end. Know when it’s time to move on.


Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. DJ’s aren’t entertainers. They’re being outdone by Tik Tok’ers. DJ’s announce songs and try to get callers to say where they’re calling from, and ending a phone call with a fake laugh while hitting the post… all in 12 seconds. That’s not entertainment. Great article, but radio is not where this is happening anymore.
    Solid points, wrong venue.

  2. This article reminded me that the thing Letterman and other successful hosts brought to TV was that live experience in front of an audience. They know when they’re tanking because they did it in the clubs. How many radio DJs have that experience of performing in front of a live audience? An audience that paid for a ticket to get in. It’s one thing to see their reactions in the ratings. It’s another to have them get up and walk out on you in the middle of your act. Imagine being able to see the audience change the station during a morning show. I think that’s a valuable way to separate the real entertainers from the posers.


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