The David Letterman Show premiered on 23 June 1980 and aired at 10 am (est) on NBC. It was originally scheduled for 90 minutes, but was quickly cut to 60. Low ratings, corporate meddling, and a naive desire to have a quirky, smart, self-aware show during the day made Letterman and his staff realize that their days were numbered and they introduced a segment called “Cancellation Sweepstakes,” where viewers guessed the date that NBC would finally pull the plug.
The show only lasted for 90 episodes, but introduced many of the signature elements that Letterman would take to late-night, including “Small Town News,” “Stupid Pet Tricks,” and elevator races.
The show earned 3 Emmy awards (Outstanding Host or Hostess in a Variety Series, Writing, and Art Direction), but was canceled in October.
According to some staff members, Letterman was devastated. “He told me that would be the last time he’d ever work in television,” recalls director Hal Gurnee. Letterman’s dejection was momentarily alleviated when he received a telegram: “You have been a source of relief and inspiration for all of us,” it read. “We are deeply upset that your show has been canceled.” It was signed, “Martin Scorsese and the cast of Raging Bull.”
16 months later (1 Feb. 1982) Letterman was back with Late Night with David Letterman.