My Late Night with David Letterman History

I suppose you could say this project began on February 1, 1982, but I was surely unaware of any far-sighted overview. I just wanted to preserve, in my own primitive way, what I was watching for an hour every late weeknight. It started on audio cassettes, at first intermittently, then nightly by Spring ’83.

Keeping track of each cassette content required logs. Here’s what I jotted down for the first half of Late Night’s debut (yes, I didn’t know the correct spelling of Paul’s last name):

I had purchased my first VCR in mid-February 1985, and from that date on I videotaped every Dave until his final Late Show thirty-plus years later. The logs continued throughout. This is from June 1992, documenting the contents of Videotape #1,611:

I bought my first Mac in the Fall of ’85, and one of my earliest computer projects was to transfer all of the logs — both audio cassette and VCR — into a searchable database. The data would later expand to include thousands of supplementary information provided by both public and private sources. Here’s a screenshot of one portion of the database, affectionately known in some circles as the SSIDB (SuperSecretInformationalDataBase):

In the mid-’90s I began trading videotapes with others around the country to close gaps in my collection, primarily the years preceding my first VCR.

The trades would eventually lead to both dubs and acquisitions of entire collections. By 2016 the number of incomplete shows had shrunk to around twenty-five. By the end of 2017, the Late Night collection had finally reached 100%. I had every show, all complete.

There are many folks to thank for helping me complete the collection. Some prefer to remain anonymous for now, but I hope in time they’ll be ok with my acknowledging how crucial they were. Among the major contributors I can name:

Christopher Bay (videotapes from 1977–93), Jim Chamberlain (1982–83), Dario Roaz (1982–83), Treg Tyler (1982–88), Laura Ryan (1985–89), Lisa Gilliam (1987–93), and Deborah Todd (1989–93). Among those with smaller but no less important contributions: Bill Rood, Bill Bredice, Richard Handal, Traci Gilland, Mitch Blank, Michael Covher, Ray Mitten, Dick Bullock, John Czach, Wyatt Clough, Keith McLeod, Ken Dixon, Jeff Kadet, and Cheryl Bulbach.

When Late Show ended in May 2015, my tape collection had been scattered throughout various locations in the apartment. Many were inaccessible, with immovable “stuff” blocking them. There were thousands of tapes in the back room and thousands more in the front. The back room was where all of the Late Nights were stored; here’s a photo from 2011 of one area. It wasn’t a welcome sight:

It was in the late Spring to early Summer of 2015 when several moments occurred that helped me begin to better appreciate what I had accumulated over the past three decades. The first involved one of Dave’s producers. She was still working after Late Show had ended — the only remaining staffer employed — and she was then dealing with payments to folks who were in video clips that had aired on CBS’s Letterman special a week before his final show. Because the documentation was lacking, it was left for her to track down the show dates for those clips, and there were several she couldn’t find.

So she asked me for help, and I was happy to oblige. It took around a week, but eventually I found the show dates to which the clips were attached. I soon realized that the reason she had asked me in the first place was because there was no longer anyone on staff she would normally assign for this sort of task. I was the only person she knew who would have had the resources readily available.

During the same period I gained access into Worldwide Pants’ licensing site, where Dave’s Late Shows were made available for licensing to media interests. I spent all of June and July inspecting each show, finding a number of problems: mismatched thumbnails, missing shows, and corrupt uploads. I made a list and sent it to the Late Show producer, and she then forwarded it to those managing the site, referring to me as someone who “had the time to do what I haven’t been able to do.”

Again, the resources she would have normally had during Late Show’s run — a full staff — was now absent, and so it was for me to figure this stuff out, on my time, on my dime. There was simply no one else around. It was a new self-awareness of value I hadn’t recognized before, and it planted a seed.

The other event during the 2015 late-Spring/Summer period: On June 10, Adam Nedeff, game show historian/author/expert/producer, posted a photo on his Facebook page: it was packets of Late Night and Late Show DVDs he had digitized from his own collection (posted here with his permission):

I was thoroughly impressed by his organizing prowess to hit the “Like” button to his photo. Adam’s reaction: “I like that Don Giller clicked ‘like’ when I know what he’s really thinking is ‘Aww, three cases. that’s cute.'”

He could not have known then that my own Letterman digital collection had been near-nonexistent; I had digitized practically nothing. And the thought of beginning such a project was daunting and laughable, considering the chaotic state of my storage.

Four days later, Adam approached me online and solicited a trade of Letterman-related DVDs. He had been looking for the 90-minute Late Nights that had aired on a nearly-monthly basis in 1982, then less frequently in 1983. I said let’s do it, partly because I had stored most of those particular tapes in the front room, not the back, and so the chore of cleaning everything up in the back could be postponed.

I spent some time setting up my VCR–>DVD equipment, finding the computer software needed to convert DVDs to video files, digging out the tapes, and getting to work.

The trade concluded late summer, and from that exercise, along with the potential value I had begun to sense months earlier with the Late Show producer, I finally got the itch to start what I had been dreading. First, I cleaned up the back room area:

I then set up the computer directories:

With that in place, I began to digitize the Late Night tape collection in earnest in September 2015. My first progress photo from late November documented the first six months of 1982:

Two weeks later I had reached the end of ’82:

Keep in mind that at this time I was missing many complete shows for the first three years of Late Night (1982-84), so what I had digitized here was only what I had, not what I needed. Eventually, all of the complete shows would find their way here, and they would all be incorporated into the digitized collection.

By late January 2016, 1983 (or, rather, what I had of 1983 at the time) was done. Here’s 1982–’83:

Early-April 2016, to the end of 1984:

All the while, each DVD had been converted to a computer .mp4 file and all of those files backed up onto other drives.

Early-June 2016, the DVDs up to the end of 1985:

Mid-September 2016, everything up to 1986:

I was running out of shelf space, so I emptied my CD cabinet and moved all of the Late Night DVDs there.

Late-February 2017, 1987 was completed:

Mid-May 2017, 1988 went quickly, thanks to the months-long writers strike:

Mid-October 2017, the DVD collection up to the end of 1989:

After months of delays, and, in the meantime, digitizing hundreds of shows from later years, 1990 was finally completed a year later in late November 2018:

Because I had already digitized many shows earlier, 1991 was finished just a month later in late December 2018:

And 1992 quickly followed in mid-January 2019:

On January 18, 2019, 1993 was done, and with that milestone reached I finally finished digitizing and converting to computer video files the entire eleven-plus-year run of Late Night with David Letterman. It was all backed up onto this mobile drive:

It’s taken three years and four months. Every show is now just a mouse-click away:

There remain duplicate shows from ’89 to ’93 to digitize from other sources. The reason for the redundancy: one video source may have a glitch that another source can then be inserted in its place, the ease of digital editing at the home level unthinkable when Late Night premiered in ’82. So while all of Late Night is done, there’s more digitizing ahead before the project is fully wrapped up.

Throughout this project, the persistent question had been “Why? Why were you doing this?” The answer was the realization brought to light in the Summer of 2015: No one else was. And so there was no option not to.

It’s conceivable that this is the only collection of its kind. There’s reason to suspect that not even NBCU’s archives have as many shows, and what they do have, very little has been digitized. (March 1, 2020 — I’ve recently learned that it’s worse than I thought: There are years of Late Nights in NBCU’s archives that, because of the videotape format used, are unlikely to ever be playable again.)

So here we are. The next chapter awaits.

Update. A chronicle of my Letterman databases is here:

Lastly, a plug: I have a You Tube channel that’s devoted mostly to Late Night uploads. Over 1,100 videos are up; they include selected segments, full shows, and comedy and guest compilations. Check it out: