02/11/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Foolishly, David Letterman had tried to make a go of it in the bright light of day. The former weekend weatherman from Indiana had his own national morning television show out of New York City in 1980. But his skewed humor and barely-out-of-bed looks (the thatchy hair seemed particularly insolent) left many daytime viewers perplexed—if not, indeed, slack-jawed with incomprehension.
All that changed at 12:30 a.m. ET on Feb. 1, 1982, when NBC's Late Night with David Letterman premiered in the slot right after the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Suddenly the world made sense: The Hoosier had found a home, and irony-starved insomniacs had found an idol. In the two decades since, Letterman has helped reshape late-night TV and American comedy itself with crusty wit (and, lately, a little bit of hip sincerity), heroically adolescent sight gags and stupid tricks from all species. Letterman, 54—whose rechristened Late Show with David Letterman moved to CBS in 1993—hasn't announced plans to celebrate this latest milestone. But that didn't stop PEOPLE from assembling a Top 10 list of important moments from the world of Dave.
9 FEBRUARY 1994 TAKE YOUR MOTHER TO WORK DAY
TV novice Dorothy Mengering, 80, covers the Winter Olympics from Lillehammer for her son. "Everyone in Norway was so nice," she said in '97, "and it was so clean."
8 JULY 28,1982 MEN IN FIGHTS
Pro wrestler Jerry Lawler pummels comic and wrestling rival Andy Kaufman; the blows look real, but the "feud" is later proved fake.
10 MARCH 31, 1994 MADONNA
TALKS A BLUE STREAK, DAVE TURNS RED
After lighting up one of Letterman's cigars, Madonna
puts the censors to work, forcing them to bleep out the F word 13 times, "I should've said, 'You say that word one more time and you're gone,' " Letterman recalled
later. "That's I didn't."
7 AUG. 30, 1993 THE WELCOME RAGGIN'
On Letterman's first night on CBS as host of Late Show, taped at the renovated Ed Sullivan Theater, Bill Murray—who did jumping jacks and sang "Let's Get Physical" on Late Night's premiere in 1982—is again the kickoff guest, this time with a can of spray paint. He also gives his pal Dave a name tag.
6 APRIL 12, 1995 DREW BARRYMORE
'S LAUGH DANCE
Saying she has learned to strip at a New York City club, Barrymore dances on Dave's desk and flashes him her breasts. "Any woman who tells me she sat next to Dave's desk and didn't want to get up and dance for him, they're lying," she later said. He called it "one of the delights of my adult life."
5 MAY 13,1994 JOHNNY COME GREATLY
In a major snub to Tonight heir Jay Leno, Johnny Carson (seen here in 1985) crosses network lines for a Late Show cameo.
4 NOV. 13, 1987 YOU GOT ME ON EDGE, BABE
Letterman's uneasy history with Cher begins when she calls him "an ass——" on air in 1986. ("He can be so mean," she later explained.) The next year he reunites her with ex Sonny Bono for the first time onstage in 10 years. When they sang "I Got You Babe," Cher recalled, "I just thought, Oh God. I don't want to do this publicly.' "
3 FEB. 21, 2000 ALL PATCHED UP
Robin Williams brings a cooler marked "Human Organs" for Dave's first show after quintuple-bypass heart surgery.
2 JUNE 6, 1997 FARRAH FAWCETT UNPLUGGED
The former Charlie's Angel disturbs viewers with a weird, disconnected appearance. (She asks if the backdrop is really Manhattan.) She makes a more coherent visit two years later.
1 FEB. 28, 1984 STUCK ON DAVE
"It may be hard to tell that I'm easily embarrassed from watching the show," he has said of such inane stunts as donning a Velcro suit and then flinging himself onto a Velcro wall and sticking. "Or it may be that I'm in the wrong line of work."