When David Letterman left NBC for CBS, he engaged in some public bickering with his old bosses over what would remain the “intellectual property” of the network, which left some wondering whether he was going to be allowed to bring some of his most popular Late Night bits to his new Late Show. The kerfuffle proved to be no big deal, as Letterman and his writers just renamed the segments and proceeded as normal. Because, what… They weren’t going to keep doing a nightly Top Ten List?
The Top Ten List debuted on Late Night With David Letterman on September 18, 1985, and quickly became a staple, because the format was so flexible, repeatable, and sharable. The list could be completely absurd, or ripped from the day’s headlines. It could be read by Letterman or by a series of guests, accompanied by pictures and video or just by words on a screen. Most importantly, because the jokes were short and the segment ran every night, the best pieces could re-run on morning TV and radio shows.
These 10 Top Tens are all drawn from the four book collections that were released in the 1990s: two from the NBC era (published by Pocket Books), and two from CBS (published by Bantam). Together they illustrate how the feature developed, and double as a mini-history of American culture from 1985 to 1996—including the history of Letterman himself.