Late Show Top Ten List: Wikis


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The Late Show Top Ten List is a regular segment of the television program The Late Show with David Letterman. It is adapted from Letterman's NBC show Late Night. On September 18, 1985, the very first list, "The Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas" was broadcast.[1] The list is compiled by the show's writing staff.



The lists are usually given humorous topics such as Top Ten Signs Your Kid Had A Bad First Day At School or Top Ten Rejected James Bond Gadgets or based on current events.[2]

The CBS Web site also conducts a weekly "Top Ten Contest" on a particular topic (similar to the show), where viewers can submit their jokes and the top ten responses get posted on the Web site. These Top Ten lists, however, are not read on air. The contests continued through the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike while the show was on hiatus.

Background and origin

The Top Ten List was not originally a regular segment of Late Night, but was added as a way of mocking People magazine, which routinely featured such lists (as well as 'Worst 10' lists). Letterman had once made an off-hand remark on the show that he found the People lists to be annoying, and began his own lists as a way of ridiculing what had by then become an increasingly recurring trend in other periodicals and magazines.

While Letterman may have been mocking People and other publications (such as The New York Post) which published these top ten lists, those lists themselves as well as the format used by Letterman may well have been inspired by The Dick Clark Show, which aired on Saturday nights from February 1958 until September 1960 on the ABC network. At the end of each show, Clark would unveil the "Top Ten" records of the coming week, with a great deal of fanfare, similar to that used by Letterman.[3] From the 1930's to the late 1950's, Your Hit Parade--first on radio and then on television--presented the top songs of the week. However, this differed from Dick Clark's top ten in that Your Hit Parade presented the songs in random order. In addition, the number of songs presented by Your Hit Parade during its 24 years on the air varied from a low of seven to a high of 15. Clark originated the practice, continued by Letterman, of counting down the top ten in strict reverse numerical order, from number ten to number one, week after week.

Letterman's top ten skit was thought of by Steve O'Donnell while he was head writer of the Late Night Letterman show.[2][4] O'Donnell had also seen top ten lists in the magazines that looked like they had been written by comedy writers. What set him off was a list of top 10 eligible bachelors list in Cosmopolitan magazine including widower 80-years-old CBS boss William S. Paley.[1]

Four times a week O'Donnell sat with the other writer of the show to think of new lists.[4]

Ironically, the Letterman Top Ten List, introduced as a satire of the overuse of lists in popular culture, became so popular that it became a signature feature of the show, and at one point a series of compilations were released for sale in bookstores.

The switch from NBC to CBS

Before Letterman's departure for CBS, NBC had insisted that the "Top Ten List" was the intellectual property of the network, and demanded that it not be used on his new show. A loose compromise was reached where it would be renamed the "Late Show Top Ten List," although Letterman would soon simply refer to it once again as the "Top Ten List," with no repercussions.

The only significant modifications in the Late Show years have been the elimination of mentioning a "home office" (such as Wahoo, Nebraska or Grand Rapids, Michigan) and the addition of a computer-animated introduction and closing as well as background graphics. The list topics are also more frequently inspired by current, topical news and entertainment items, and have taken on less of the absurdist, random nature of its Late Night incarnation. This is likely a contributing factor in the show's gradual discontinuation of the compilation books.


The entries are read by Letterman in reverse countdown order, and are accompanied by a drum roll performed by CBS Orchestra drummer Anton Fig. There are currently five montages: the pyramids, the athletes (usually used for a sports-themed top ten list), the taxi cabs, the oil wells, and finally the sewer covers. The conclusion of the list is then followed by a brief performance by the band, usually a pop song relating to the topic of the list in some way (a common example being Michael Jackson's "Bad" being played after a list such as "Top Ten Signs You've Hired a Bad Accountant"). Sometimes the song chosen by bandleader Paul Shaffer relates to the list in such an obscure manner that Letterman will inquire about it.

Letterman makes no effort to hide any displeasure when reading a subpar list, usually provoked by tepid audience response. He will often tease the audience by threatening to not complete the list, but is often rebuked by playful protests from the audience and Shaffer.

Occasionally the list is given by a guest presenter (such as John Malkovich reading "Ten Things That Sound Creepy When Said by John Malkovich" or Casey Kasem reading the recurring category "Top Ten Numbers Between One and Ten"). At times the list has also been given by a series of presenters, with each providing one entry (such as the 2000 list for "Ten Things I've Always Wanted to Say to Dave", presented by a group that included Rudolph Giuliani, Cindy Crawford, and Dave's mom).

Four animated characters thus far have recited a Top Ten list on the show: Homer Simpson (twice), Peter Griffin, Stewie Griffin and Optimus Prime.

Perhaps to break the monotony of daily list, the show will occasionally add a twist to the presentation, sometimes by altering the nature of the list itself. One notable example occurred on November 27, 2001. Introduced as "Top Ten Ways Osama bin Laden Can Improve His Image," the list consisted of only one entry: "#10. There's no way he can improve his image. He's a murdering, soul-less asshole."[5]

A common source of confusion regarding the Top Ten List is why the #1 entry is usually seen as the least funny. This even inspired the Late Show to run a pre-taped bit in 1998, humorously exploring the apparent mystery, and to mention it again on December 29, 1999, when the list "Top Ten Phrases That Were Not Spoken This Millennium," included the #1 entry of, "Why is the number one always so damn funny?" The most sensical explanation is merely that because upon its completion, the list is followed by audience applause and the band performing, so any significant laughter provoked by a particularly funny #1 entry would essentially be cancelled out. Writer Bill Scheft confirmed this in a 2007 interview on Costas on the Radio, stating that the writers use the three funniest entries on #10, to start the list strong, #6, which accompanies an on-screen slide change, and #2, which is the last opportunity for a laugh before the completion of the bit.

Sometimes the list would be long if video clips are incorporated such as "Top 10 Bush Moments" and the music store featuring Jack Black, where number one simply has him reciting a verse for a minute.


Top Twelve List

Since 2007, the usual Top Ten list becomes the Top Twelve list during NASCAR Media Day in New York City, held in September after the Chevy Rock and Roll 400. The twelve drivers who have qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff reads one line each of the twelve for the night. This list is only used during this NASCAR Media Day that is held before the Sylvania 300, the first race of the ten-race playoff. In 2009, the NASCAR Top 12 list was not announced due to David Letterman being on vacation the week of September 14-18.

Home offices

Cities that have been the supposed source of the Top 10 list include:

  • Wahoo, Nebraska
    • Became a home office after the town lobbied Letterman for the status for months after Letterman mentioned that he liked the word "Wahoo".

Radio usage

Each Top Ten list is packaged into a nationally-syndicated radio feature, distributed by Westwood One for use the following morning. Following shows from which the list is omitted, or if Letterman is on vacation, the feature will utilize a generic list from the archives.


David Letterman's Book of Top Ten Lists and Zesty Lo-Cal Chicken Recipes  
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Comedy
Publisher Bantam Books
Publication date 1995
Media type Hardcover
Pages 165
ISBN 978-0553102222
OCLC Number 32894022
Dewey Decimal 818/.540208 20
LC Classification PN6162 .L377 1995

The book is written by David Letterman and the writers for The Late Show with David Letterman. It contains lists of various things usually associated with the show. It was written in 1995 and was published simultaneously in the United States and Canada.

The book also contains a plan for an end table by Norm Abram from This Old House. It does not contain a recipe for chicken.


An example of some of the lists are:

  • Top Ten Ways to Make T.V. better.
  • Top Ten rejected names for Euro Disney.
  • Top Ten Reasons America is the greatest country on Earth.
  • Generic Top Ten List.
  • Top Ten Signs you have a dumb dog.


  1. ^ a b Phil Rosenthal (2009-12-13), "No chance of a list-less columnist this time of year", Chicago Tribune,,0,3569113.column 
  2. ^ a b Tom Gliatto (1990-08-27), "And the No.1 Reason David Letterman Keeps Reading the Top 10 List–Well, It's Funnier Than His Monologue", People 34 (8),,,20118559,00.html 
  3. ^ Brooks, Tim; Marsh, Earle (2003). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows, 1946–Present (8th, revised and updated ed.). Ballantine Books. ISBN 9780345455420
  4. ^ a b Larry McShane, Associated Press (1991-11-02), "Letterman lists take country by storm", Reading Eagle,,529629 
  5. ^ McIntee, Mark (November 27, 2001). "This Week's Show Recap: Monday, December 31, 2001 Show#1717". Retrieved January 29, 2010. "quote, then "End of list. One item. That's all that was needed. And the audience showed their appreciation by giving the longest sustained applause since Dave's return from his heart thing. This told me one of two things. 1. The audience either loved this Top Ten list, or 2. They hate the Top Ten in general and were glad it was only one item." 

External links


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