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Madonna made an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman on March 31, 1994. The appearance was noted for an extremely controversial series of statements and antics by Madonna, which included many expletives. In particular, Madonna said the word "fuck" fourteen times during the course of the interview. This made the episode the most censored in American network television talk-show history while at the same time garnering Letterman some of the best ratings he ever received.
Madonna's language and behavior—which was provocative, seemingly spontaneous at times, full of double entendres, and ended with a playful refusal to leave the set—caused a large public controversy. The Federal Communications Commission received numerous complaints about the language used on the show, echoing Letterman's (sarcastic) remark that she had to stop using the bad language "because people don't want that in their own homes at 11:30 at night".
This was not Madonna's first or last appearance with Letterman. She was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman in 1988 with comedian Sandra Bernhard. This was, however, her first appearance since Letterman moved from NBC to CBS in 1993.
When Madonna was a guest on the March 31, 1994 edition of The Late Show, it marked her first appearance on American television that year. Letterman introduced Madonna right before she entered the set in this manner:
Our first guest tonight is one of the biggest stars in the world, and in the past 10 years she has sold over 80 million albums, starred in countless films and slept with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.
Paul Shaffer responded "she's your guest! ... Come on, she's your guest!" to which Letterman responded, "everything's fine, just relax, will ya?" Madonna then entered the stage to the sound of her 1983 hit "Holiday", clutching a pair of her underwear, which she asked Letterman to smell during the interview. "Wait a minute, aren't you gonna smell them?" she said, to which Letterman replied "I'll take care of that later," and Madonna complained to the audience "I gave him my underpants and he won't smell them!" This sketch made the headlines of the tabloids. The sketch was satirized in 2001 in the Italian late night show Satyricon, where guest Anna Falchi actually took off her red panties on stage, and the host went all the way to smell them, which caused scandal in Italy.
Letterman, following up from events earlier in the program, asked her to kiss a man in the audience; Madonna refused. Letterman expressed admiration for her not succumbing to the pressure. Madonna began smoking a cigar, and as he moved to another topic, Madonna interrupted him, in an opening salvo soon to be indicative of the random provocations to come: "Incidentally, you are a sick f*ck. I don't know why I get so much sh*t."
Letterman steered his questioning toward her private life and, in particular, the singer's reported relationships with several NBA players. Madonna replied with a series of sexual innuendos, commenting "that [overhead] microphone is really long"; Letterman responded by talking about her friendship with Charles Barkley. When Letterman abruptly changed topic and asked about her nose ring in an ambiguous way ("Did it hurt when you had that thing put in, uh, put in your nose?"), Madonna laughed and said "I thought you were going to ask me if it hurt something else ..." which spurred a collective series of nervous laughter from the studio audience.
Prior to the first commercial break (which Madonna objected to, citing that she wanted to "break the rules" and not conform to the constraints of American network television), the star asked Letterman if he was wearing a "rug"; never missing the opportunity for a joke, the host, referring to Madonna's short slicked-down hairstyle, replied by asking Madonna if she was wearing a swim cap.
After the commercial break, Madonna told Letterman that he had changed since her last visit, that he was no longer "cool" or challenging to his guests, that "Money's made you soft." Letterman asked her what was really bothering her; the star told the audience that she was angry that the comedian always (in Letterman's words – "periodically") made references to her sex life on the show.
Towards the end of the interview, she also asked whether he had ever smoked "endo," a slang reference to marijuana. Looking uncomfortable, the host told the singer that he had no idea what she was talking about; Madonna called him a liar which led Letterman to make light of the embarrassing question by acting like Johnny Carson.
When Madonna refused to leave the set, there was jeering from members of the audience, including heckling to "get off". The home audience never saw Madonna leave her chair; instead, the show cut to a third commercial break, after which the singer was gone. Letterman said, "Coming up in the next half hour, Mother Teresa is going to drop by." He then looked at an index card and joked, "Oh, I see we've been canceled, there is no show tomorrow night."
Another guest, who was the United States Grocery Bagging Champion at the time, was scheduled to appear on the show that evening, but his segment was cut, due to Madonna refusing to leave the stage when her interview was over. Counting Crows concluded the show with a performance of "Round Here".
Madonna later explained her behavior as a failed attempt to make a stand against television censorship, and made up with Letterman by having him escort her onstage at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards. In an interview with Bob Guccione, Jr. in Spin magazine in the fall of 1995, Madonna further defended herself:
You can show a person getting blown up, and you can't say 'f*ck'? It's such hypocrisy. The fact that everyone counted how many f*cks I said—how small minded is that? ... The other thing that was ridiculous was that David Letterman knew I was going to do it. I talked to the producers of the show. Everybody was like, this will be really funny if you say "f*ck" a lot they'll just keep bleeping you. Well, I came out and started doing it, and David freaked out. The way he introduced me was derogatory, so my whole thing was, okay, if that's how you want to play it, you cannot beat me at this game.
In a subsequent interview with USA Today, Letterman noted how Madonna sent him a fax on his birthday, shortly after the episode aired. "It was more of the same," he revealed. "'Happy f*cking birthday. Have a nice f*cking day.' I know she was trying to be funny about it." The fax sent April 12, 1994, reads:
Happy F*cking Birthday Dave!
glad you could get so much mileage out of the f*cking show. Next time you need some F*cking publicity, just give me a f*cking call.
The incident was widely referenced in popular culture. For example, in an episode of The Critic titled "Sherman, Woman and Child", Madonna is featured as a profane guest of Humphrey the Hippo, a parody of Barney & Friends. In the Space Ghost Coast to Coast episode "Bobcat," comedian Bobcat Goldthwait sarcastically comments to the character Moltar that Space Ghost's interview with The Ramones "is going as well as the Letterman-Madonna interview."
Letterman referred to the incident frequently in the short term afterward, usually as a disaster, even though it was a ratings bonanza. In one example, while raising the topic of Madonna's appearance, he added the subordinate clause: "... or as I call it, Black Thursday ..."
Following the incident, Madonna's appearances on Letterman did not end. Madonna briefly appeared in a 1995 episode when she brought Letterman candy and flowers for Valentine's Day. She then proclaimed that, "I'm a changed woman since I met you," to which Letterman excitedly exclaimed, "Yes!" Madonna then went on to add, "And I'm not going to say 'f*ck' anymore." And in 1998, Madonna appeared briefly to announce number three on Letterman's top ten list that night – "Ten Things Beautiful Women Love About Dave."
Madonna returned on November 3, 2000, for her first sit-down interview with Letterman since the notorious 1994 incident to promote her new album, Music. The two of them discussed the previous interview, with a deal of humor and objectivity. Madonna chalked it up as a part of her "rebellious period", while Letterman admitted that he now understood how beaten up Madonna must have felt by the press during that time and that he contributed to that. Madonna then concluded that they were both having a "weak moment", which was met by laughter from both the audience and Letterman. Before the singer took stage to perform her latest single, "Don't Tell Me", Letterman jokingly admitted that, "I still have the panties. We had to put them in the vault upstairs, because people were trying to swipe them from me." An uncomfortable Madonna declared that, "I won't rise to that bait."
Madonna guested again on November 11, 2003 to promote her children's book, Mr. Peabody's Apples. Before she entered, Letterman stated he "just didn't want any awkward moments."
On January 11, 2007, Madonna appeared on Letterman to promote her latest movie, Arthur and the Invisibles. The two joked about the 1994 infamous episode. When David asked Madonna, "What do you think about all these celebrities such as Britney Spears, not wearing their underwear?", Madonna replied, "It's freezing outside. Maybe you can give them to Britney."
Madonna appeared for the last time on September 30, 2009 to promote her latest release, the greatest hits compilation Celebration. During this episode, Letterman and Madonna again made light of her appearance on the show in 1994. The episode concluded with Letterman and Madonna going down the street and sharing a vegetarian pizza (minus cheese at Madonna's request) and martinis together.
- TV Guide, September 17, 1998
- Tucker, Ken. "Like Aversion: Madonna's shocking David Letterman interview – The pop-star's interview on the Late Show produces the show's highest ratings". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 26 January 2014.
- Time Magazine Don't F___ with Madonna Time.com
- J. Randy Taraborrelli (2008) Madonna: An Intimate Biography, p.233
- Georges-Claude Guilbert Madonna as Postmodern Myth: How One Star's Self-Construction Rewrites Sex ... p.98
- Cross, Mary (2007) Madonna: A Biography p.61
- O'Brien, Lucy (2009) Madonna: Like an Icon p.198
- Loris Mazzetti Il libro nero della Rai p.28
- Enzo Biagi (2002) Cose loro e fatti nostri p.124
- Spin Magazine interview Archived 2012-07-14 at Archive.today
- USA Today article, May 9, 1994
- YouTube – Humphrey the Hippo and Madonna
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