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, in reverse order and with a great deal of fanfare, similar to that used by Letterman.
Letterman's top ten skit was thought of by Steve O'Donnell while he was head writer of the Late Night Letterman show. 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 84-year-old CBS boss William S. Paley.
On September 18, 1985, the very first list, "The Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas" was broadcast.
Read more about this topic: Late Show Top Ten List
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