Early life and career
Letterman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father, Harry Joseph Letterman (April 15, 1915 – February 13, 1973), was a florist. His mother, Dorothy Marie Letterman Mengering (née Hofert; July 18, 1921 – April 11, 2017), a church secretary for the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, was an occasional figure on Letterman's show, usually at holidays and birthdays.
He lived on the north side of Indianapolis (Broad Ripple area), about 12 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he enjoyed collecting model cars, including racers. In 2000, he told an interviewer for Esquire that, while growing up, he admired his father's ability to tell jokes and be the life of the party. Harry Joseph Letterman survived a heart attack at age 36, when David was a young boy. The fear of losing his father was constantly with Letterman as he grew up. The elder Letterman died of a second heart attack at age 57.
Letterman's association with Ball State University was recognized by a renaming ceremony for their David Letterman Communication and Media Building in 2006.
Letterman attended his hometown's Broad Ripple High School and worked as a stock boy at the local Atlas Supermarket. According to the Ball State Daily News, he originally had wanted to attend Indiana University, but his grades were not good enough, so he instead attended Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana. He is a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, and he graduated in 1969 from what was then the Department of Radio and Television. A self-described average student, Letterman later endowed a scholarship for what he called "C students" at Ball State.
Though he registered for the draft and passed his physical after graduating from college, he was not drafted for service in Vietnam because of receiving a draft lottery number of 346 (out of 366).
Letterman began his broadcasting career as an announcer and newscaster at the college's student-run radio station—WBST—a 10-watt campus station which now is part of Indiana Public Radio. He was fired for treating classical music with irreverence. He then became involved with the founding of another campus station—WAGO-AM 570 (now WWHI, 91.3).
He credits Paul Dixon, host of the Paul Dixon Show, a Cincinnati-based talk show also shown in Indianapolis while he was growing up, for inspiring his choice of career:
I was just out of college [in 1969], and I really didn't know what I wanted to do. And then all of a sudden I saw him doing it [on TV]. And I thought: That's really what I want to do!
Soon after graduating from Ball State in 1969, Letterman began his career as a radio talk show host on WNTS (AM) and on Indianapolis television station WLWI (which changed its call sign to WTHR in 1976) as an anchor and weatherman. He received some attention for his unpredictable on-air behavior, which included congratulating a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane and predicting hail stones "the size of canned hams." He would also occasionally report the weather and the day's very high and low temps for fictitious cities ("Eight inches of snow in Bingree and surrounding areas") while on another occasion saying that a state border had been erased when a satellite map accidentally omitted the state border between Indiana and Ohio, attributing it to dirty political dealings. ("The higher-ups have removed the border between Indiana and Ohio making it one giant state. Personally, I'm against it. I don't know what to do about it.") He also starred in a local kiddie show, made wisecracks as host of a late night TV show called "Freeze-Dried Movies" (he once acted out a scene from Godzilla using plastic dinosaurs), and hosted a talk show that aired early on Saturday mornings called Clover Power, in which he interviewed 4-H members about their projects.
In 1971 Letterman appeared as a pit road reporter for ABC Sports' tape-delayed coverage of the Indianapolis 500 (his first nationally telecast appearance; WLWI was the local ABC affiliate at the time). Letterman was initially introduced as Chris Economaki, although this was corrected at the end of the interview (Jim McKay announced his name as Dave Letterman). Letterman interviewed Mario Andretti, who had just crashed out of the race.
Move to Los Angeles
Letterman's comedic career took hold at Los Angeles' Comedy Store
In 1975, encouraged by his then-wife Michelle and several of his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers, Letterman moved to Los Angeles, with hope of becoming a comedy writer. He and Michelle packed their belongings in his pickup truck and headed west. As of 2012, he still owned the truck. In Los Angeles, he began performing comedy at The Comedy Store. Jimmie Walker saw him on stage; with an endorsement from George Miller, Letterman joined a group of comedians whom Walker hired to write jokes for his stand-up act, a group that at various times would also include Jay Leno, Paul Mooney, Robert Schimmel, Richard Jeni, Louie Anderson, Elayne Boosler, Byron Allen, Jack Handey, and Steve Oedekerk.
By the summer of 1977, Letterman was a writer and regular on the six-week summer series The Starland Vocal Band Show, broadcast on CBS. He hosted a 1977 pilot for a game show entitled The Riddlers (that was never picked up), and co-starred in the Barry Levinson-produced comedy special Peeping Times that aired in January 1978. Later that year, Letterman was a cast member on Mary Tyler Moore's variety show, Mary. Letterman made a guest appearance on Mork & Mindy (as a parody of EST leader Werner Erhard) and appearances on game shows such as The $20,000 Pyramid, The Gong Show, Hollywood Squares, Password Plus and Liar's Club, as well as the Canadian cooking show Celebrity Cooks (November 1977), talk shows such as 90 Minutes Live (February 24 and April 14, 1978), and The Mike Douglas Show (April 3, 1979 and February 7, 1980). He was also screen tested for the lead role in the 1980 film Airplane!, a role that eventually went to Robert Hays.
His dry, sarcastic humor caught the attention of scouts for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Letterman was soon a regular guest on the show. Letterman became a favorite of Carson and was a regular guest host for the show beginning in 1978. Letterman credits Carson as the person who influenced his career the most.