When Charles Grodin died on May 18, 2021, at the age of 86, his many accomplishments were cited in numerous obituaries and tributes. One key component of his career that was also fondly commemorated were his fabled television appearances with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and with David Letterman on his two network shows.
No doubt inspired by Grodin’s recent death, foremost David Letterman scholar and archivist Don Giller has just uploaded to YouTube, a seven-part sequential compilation of Grodin on Letterman that is hours and hours of supreme funniness. There’s also the dymanic of them aging over 26 years while their personalities remain the same. Mr. Giller deserves a special Emmy for this immense project that will delight Grodin and Letterman fans while also preserving a chapter of show business history. Giller even provides bonus features such as Tom Snyder interviews and excerpts of Grodin’s cable television talk shows, one of which is Grodin interviewing Letterman.
Grodin created his meta gag in 1973, which was that he was playing a snide and combative version of himself. He was so good at it that some audience members gasped at his rudeness and home viewers wrote in to complain at how nasty he was to Johnny Carson, who was in on the joke. Grodin made several visits to Carson over the years and was even signed as an exclusive Tonight Show guest for a time. The notoriously moody Carson also banned him for a few years from appearing when he was hosting.
On June 3, 1981, Grodin appeared with Tonight Show guest host David Letterman. On February 24, 1982, Grodin appeared for the first time on Letterman’s recently airing Late Night on NBC. There were to be about 50 more such events, the last on January 23, 2008.
Their feuding was hilarious, and Letterman was often in hysterics at Grodin’s improvised surliness, intense facial expressions, eye rolling and voice that ranged from whiny to thundering. One of the highlights is Grodin showing up with old character Joey Faye playing his lawyer. The bit was that Grodin was so incensed at being badmouthed by Letterman and a few of his guests, that he was threatening legal action.
The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS would run seven more years after Grodin’s final appearance. What happened to end one of the great comedy teams? The other day I listened to a 2013 radio interview with Grodin. He seriously explained that he felt he had to give it up as by then he was mostly retired from acting, being more involved in social causes such as freeing wrongly convicted prisoners and that people expected him to be the character he was with Letterman and were amazed that he wasn’t.