There is a rich tradition of late-night hosts ragging on their own TV networks. Before Johnny Carson’s long reign, Jack Paar sparred with NBC after the network cut a 5-minute bit because it used the term “water closet,” which censors found objectionable. Even a much cuddlier NBC personality, Jay Leno, dined out on the network’s primetime woes once the “Must-See” glory years ran fallow. Stephen Colbert, who will take over the 11:30 slot after David Letterman retires, has already showed he will pick up that mantle. He told ad buyers last week at the CBS upfront that his show will be a good fit on the network known for CSI and NCIS because it will consist mostly of “solving murders by zooming in on pubic hairs.”
Letterman, though, took this common practice to new heights during a media era when multinational corporate interests were starting to exert more and more influence on the TV business. Always suspicious of his overseers, Letterman targeted Jack Welch, then-CEO of General Electric, and Bob Wright who ran NBC, during his days following Carson at 12:30 p.m. He brought that sensibility to CBS, hazing CEO Les Moonves in the 1990s but eventually allowing relations to thaw as the network’s fortunes rose and the host became a TV institution over 22 years at the network. Here are a few of Letterman’s most memorable jabs:
4) The fruit basket. In 1986, when GE succeeded RCA as NBC’s parent, Letterman taped a bit in which he tried unsuccessfully to deliver the new executive leadership a fruit basket. “You need authorization to drop off a fruit basket?” Letterman asked a security guard. “Oh, this is going to be fun to work with these people, isn’t it?”
3) The toaster oven. Letterman took to calling GE management “knuckleheads,” and took note of the push toward synergy by joking NBC had green-lit “a miniseries about the history of the toaster oven.”
2) ‘More with Les.’ When Moonves came to CBS in 1995, two years after the coup engineered by former network boss Howard Stringer, he was regarded as “the new guy.” Letterman “doesn’t like change,” Moonves later recalled. “David’s first reaction is, ‘I don’t trust the new guy.’ So it did start off adversarial.” The host invited his new boss on air for a segment called “More with Les,” during which he traded jabs with Moonves.
1) The 2014 Upfront. In a moment of reconciliation, Letterman and Moonves shared the Carnegie Hall stage. Letterman recalled a “48-hour phone fight” the two had years earlier. At one point, he told the CBS chief, “Les, I just had heart surgery and the cardiologist said, ‘Dave, you have a brand-new life. Don’t waste a second of it.’ And I slammed the phone down on Les.”
Here is more from Moonves recalling the pair’s dynamic: