10 Memorable Moments From the First 40 Years of ‘Late Night’ (VIDEO)
For four decades now, NBC’s Late Night franchise has kept viewers laughing way past their bedtime. The show turns 40 on February 2, and the jokes will likely continue for years to come. Current host Seth Meyers—who follows David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon at the Late Night desk—is signed on to man the show until 2025.
Sure, it might not get the audience or the attention of lead-in The Tonight Show, but Late Night has been a solid performer for NBC. In fact, Late Night ranked third in the late-night ratings—behind only The Tonight Show and CBS’s The Late Show—until ABC joined the fray with Jimmy Kimmel Live!
In honor of the show’s 40th, here are some of the defining moments of Late Night’s first four decades.
David Letterman gets ‘Late Night’ started
The future Late Show host was just 34 years old when he hosted Late Night’s inaugural episode on February 2, 1984, emerging from behind the peacock headdresses of a gaggle of showgirls. His first guest? Bill Murray, who would sit down with Letterman many times over the ensuing decades, including in The Late Show’s penultimate episode.
The King gives Andy Kaufman a royal slap
Just four months into his Late Night tenure, Letterman hosted a tense sit-down between comedian-turned-wrestler Andy Kaufman and WWE star Jerry “The King” Lawler. The two performers’ “feud” escalated during the interview, with Lawler slapping Kaufman hard enough to send the Taxi actor falling to the ground. It wasn’t until years later that fans learned the feud was just for show and that Lawler and Kaufman were friends.
Cher calls Letterman a certain word
Cher has sat down with Letterman many times over the years, but her first interview with the late-night host came in a 1986 Late Night episode. After Letterman got the conversation started by complimenting her on her “effective” perfume, the “I Got You Babe” singer razzed him, saying, “Is this as good as it gets?” A couple minutes later, she said she never thought she would ever want to join Letterman on the show. Why? Because he is, in her (censored) words, an “a—hole.”
Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter compete in a staredown
In 1994, not long after O’Brien took over the show, he challenged sidekick Andy Richter to a staring contest. In what would become a recurring bit, blinking was allowed, but distraction wasn’t—even when a dancing panda bear, a do-si-do-ing cowboy, a middle-aged flasher, and a toothpaste-spewing turkey popped up behind O’Brien.
A Burmese python gets personal with O’Brien
The late Steve Irwin appeared on Late Night with wife Terri in 1997, and he brought some friends with him, including a snake-necked turtle that could projectile-urinate—“We’ve had several guests do that,” O’Brien quipped—and a Burmese python that made a beeline for the late-night host’s nether regions.
O’Brien reaches the Finnish line
In 2006, O’Brien traveled overseas to meet his “international twin,” then-Finnish president Tarja Halonen, another public figure with a swoop of red hair. “We laugh very much about those shows,” Halonen told The Washington Post last year. “They were really a surprise for me. I didn’t know that they would do that. So it was a big laugh. I think that Conan’s sense of humor—it’s a little like [self-deprecating] British understatement, so we like it.”
Barack Obama slow-jams the news
Then-president Barack Obama surprised Jimmy Fallon’s collegiate audience in a 2012 episode taped at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, teaming up with the late-night host and The Roots’ Tariq Trotter to put a groovy spin on student-loan news.
Michelle Obama serves up mom dances
The following year, First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on the show, busting out her “Sprinkler” and “Raise the Roof” moves alongside Fallon in “The Evolution of Mom Dancing.”
Melisandre crashes a baby shower
Carise van Houten brought her Game of Thrones character, Melisandre, to a baby shower in a 2016 Late Night sketch—with the character hilariously trying to connect with the other guests of the party. (“I gave birth once,” Melisandre says at one point. “A shadow demon. I will never forget the way it emerged from my womanhood. Its claw-like hands grabbed onto my ankles so that it could propel itself into the night air.”) Better yet, the sketch featured Michelle Wolf and Amber Ruffin, before they got their own TV shows.
Seth Meyers goes day-drinking with Rihanna
As Meyers and Rihanna got more and more sloshed in this 2019 bit, they talked about a certain NSFW idea for a romantic night out, they teamed up on Meyers’ eye makeup, and they even role-played pickup lines. (“Excuse me, are you the girl from Battleship?”) But the pièce de résistance, perhaps, was Meyers singing along to Rihanna’s “Work” while wearing noise-canceling headphones.
Late Night with Seth Meyers, Weeknights, 12:35 am/11:35c, NBC