Conan O’Brien and Paul Rudd. Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon. Way before those playfully vicious, long-running feuds between a talk show host and a frequent celebrity guest, there was David Letterman and Charles Grodin.
Although Grodin, who just passed away at age 86, starred in beloved comedies such as Midnight Run, The Heartbreak Kid, and Beethoven and once hosted his own talk show, his contentious appearances on Late Night with David Letterman comprise a vital part of his legacy.
Comedy duos ordinarily have a straight man, but Grodin and Letterman both seemed to have independently invented close strains of the same dry wit. Putting the two of them together in a faux-antagonistic face-off should technically not work at all. However, something about Letterman’s cool-guy needling and Grodin’s supreme deadpan rebuffs made each of their increasingly hostile tête-à-têtes a master class in comedic, passive-aggressive push-and-pull.
Although it’s worth falling down an entire YouTube rabbit hole to watch all of these appearances, there’s one in particular that several of Grodin’s fans have pointed out on Twitter in the wake of his passing. It’s an episode from 1991, in which Grodin brought on vaudevillian actor Joey Faye to pose as his attorney, so that he could sue Letterman for things he’d said to Grodin during another recent appearance on the show. It’s a dynamite entry point for anyone not familiar with this aspect of Grodin’s career, and a fitting tribute for anyone already in the club.
RIP to a major comedic talent and an uncommon wit.