NBC airs its annual Christmas in Rockefeller Center special tonight, culminating in one of New York City's oldest and most revered holiday traditions: the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
It's a beautiful sight, of course — the 70+ foot tree, with its thousands of twinkling bulbs sitting above the statue of Prometheus, the ice skaters below. But as anyone who works nearby will tell you, the throngs of visitors it attracts can make getting in and out of the area a nightmare.
For eleven years beginning in 1982, one of those working in the area was David Letterman. Never one to bite his tongue — especially in those early NBC years — Letterman made no secret of his frustration with the tree and its many visitors, using the bully pulpit of his show to plead with viewers to not visit in person, giving birth to one of Late Night with David Letterman's longest-running annual gags.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Letterman archivist Don Giller (who recently posted an exhaustive Letterman Christmas tree compilation that clocked in at more than 2 hours), even those who weren't alive at the time can relive the eleven year saga in its entirety and then some. If that sounds like a bit much, with Don's blessing, we've collected below the signature piece of the late night host's tongue-in-cheek campaign against the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree: ten year's worth of tree lightings gone terribly wrong.
A key component of David Letterman's unique brand of comedy early on in his run at NBC was to poke fun at the absurdity of show business conventions. On December 5th 1983, he turned his focus to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting, which at its core is a very well-hyped non-event. How better to drive that point home than to purportedly "cover" the lighting live on the show, showing it for what it really is?
Two years into his run at NBC, David Letterman is clearly more at ease behind his Late Night desk, a budding version of the racanteur he would become over the next three decades. It's here where he first expresses his frustration with the tree and the crowds that it attracts, suggesting alternative holiday attractions before cutting to a live shot of the tree a day later, just as the first of many unexpected visitors crashes the party:
Two weeks later, in a call-back to the previous year, it's once again time to light the tree.
This is the year when it all comes together: Letterman's distaste for the holiday crowds, the absurdity of the tree-lighting, and another cautionary tale for those who might be considering a visit:
Well known to Letterman fans of a certain generation, Zippy the Chimp had a memorable appearance on the show in March of 1986 when he first wore the now-legendary Late Night Monkey Cam. He made a return visit eight months later as the Christmas tree lighting's disaster du jour:
In an attempt to head-off the holiday crowds, Letterman announced on November 17, 1987 that there would be no tree that year. (To which bassist Will Lee suggested that stores might be closed, too.)
Alright. maybe there was a tree that year, but once again it was greeted by mayhem, with the assist of a giant New York City rat on tree-lighting day, followed by another epic disaster several weeks later:
In David Letterman's imagination, the year 1988 saw the Rockefellers in financial trouble, leading to some serious downsizing of the holiday Christmas Tree:
Several weeks later, when it came time to light the tree, the show took inspiration from a certain classic Japanese film franchise:
Could this be the first year disaster didn't strike the tree-lighting? It sure seems that way, until...
By the dawn of the 90s, the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi Estate made headlines when it acquired a majority interest in Rockefeller Center. That didn't end the tradition of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, but it did change its flavor. The show's 1990 tree-lighting bit directly referenced Mitsubishi's acquisition of the real estate complex:
The crash of the Japanese stock market quickly reversed the fortunes of Rockefeller Center's new owners, and by 1991 the legendary complex was in bankruptcy, leading to cost-cutting measures and (apparently) a search for new revenue streams:
Though it wasn't known at the time, Christmas 1992 would be David Letterman's last in Rockefeller Plaza. In January 1993, he announced he would be moving to CBS, where his show would air an hour earlier. Appropriately enough, the final tree-lighting bit was a return to basics for the show, as a giant spotted owl wreaked havoc on the festivities one last time:
While 1992 saw the book close on an annual Christmas tree tradition for Late Night with David Letterman, there were new and continuing Christmas traditions ahead after his CBS show debuted in 1993, including meatballs on Christmas Trees, Jay Thomas' Lone Ranger story, and the inimitable Darlene Love's annual performance of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).
For more classic Letterman, be sure to visit Don Giller's YouTube Channel.
Jed Rosenzweig is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer. Follow him on Twitter @jedrosenzweig.