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Influential ‘Late Night’ turns 40 with humor intact

David Letterman was the host of "Late Night" from 1982-1993. He is shown after moving to CBS for the “Late Show with David Letterman."Jeffrey R. Staab

Next Tuesday is the 40th anniversary of the “Late Night” franchise. Back in 1982, it replaced “The Tomorrow Show,” which was hosted by Tom Snyder, and it has been an integral part of NBC’s late-night approach ever since.

Each of the four hosts who’ve presided over the show since its inception have gone onto bigger late-night shows except, so far, Seth Meyers, who has been at the desk since 2014. David Letterman (1982–1993) moved to the earlier CBS “Late Show” slot, Conan O’Brien (1993–2009) went on to NBC’s earlier “The Tonight Show” slot — if only briefly. And Jimmy Fallon (2009–2014) is currently the host of the “The Tonight Show.”


The most influential host was its first, Letterman, who is going to celebrate this coming Tuesday by appearing on Meyers’s show, which starts at 12.35 a.m. Times have changed, of course. Back in 1993, Letterman couldn’t get away from “Late Night” and NBC fast enough after the network chose to replace Johnny Carson with Jay Leno. At CBS, he went up against Leno every night with a vengeance.

Letterman’s years on “Late Night” were hugely influential. He ushered absurdism and meta-awareness into a network realm that was known for being more mainstream and promotional. He was ironic to the core. So much of what is de rigueur in comedy in general right now can be traced back to Letterman’s sensibility, not least of all cringe comedy.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.