From Frank Sinatra‘s appearance on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in 1976 to Sonny and Cher reuniting on Late Night With David Letterman in 1986, light night TV has been host to some unforgettable musical moments. With more shows than ever on the air, the last decade has brought some seriously classic moments, including Warren Zevon‘s final appearance on The Late Show in 2002 to Paul McCartney hitting The Colbert Report in 2013. In this list, we’ve also included a few of our favorite weird non-musical moments – like Joaquin Phoenix’s puzzling 2010 Late Show appearance – just because they never get old.
Warren Zevon‘s Final TV Appearance (2002)
Warren Zevon was a frequent musical guest on Late Night With David Letterman, even sometimes sitting in as bandleader when Paul Shaffer was away. So in 2002, when news broke Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Letterman devoted an entire episode to one of his favorite singers. Zevon was in good spirits throughout the public farewell, advising viewers to “enjoy every sandwich.”
“It was unforgettable,” remembered Paul Shaffer later. “He said to me on the phone, when he was still in Los Angeles and we were preparing it, ‘Just keep the jokes coming. I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me.'” Zevon played heartbreaking versions of “Mutineer,” “Genius” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Later, comedian Richard Lewis spoke for fans everywhere when he wrote Letterman a letter saying how moved he was. He received a short note back: “Dear Richard, thanks, but it was all Warren. Dave.”
White Stripes on Late Night With Conan O‘Brien (2003)
Conan O’Brien and Jack White’s friendship goes way back: they met at a Detroit bowling alley before the White Stripes were famous. “He was just thanking me for putting young music, new music on the show, so we hung out and talked,” O’Brien told Rolling Stone in 2010. “I’m so comfortable with him.” To mark the release of 2003’s Elephant, the band played on Late Night for an entire blistering week. As seen in this clip, they did some acting too.
Letterman Returns from Writers’ Strike
In 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, halting production on most shows for more than three months. David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, was able to strike a deal early, and they returned to the air after two months. It sparked some of Letterman’s best performances in years; he returned sporting a mountain man beard (he joked that he looked “like a missing hiker”). What did Letterman learn? “Show or no show, I really enjoy drinking in the morning,” he said.
The Beastie Boys on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (2009)
Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has been full of huge names, from Springsteen to McCartney, but Fallon seemed extra psyched to host the Beastie Boys in 2009 (he confessed he’d seen them live at least 10 times). The event is even more meaningful: it was one of their last performances together ever. They announced their next album the Hot Sauce Committee Vol. 2, talked about their Check Your Head reissue and performed a funky “So Wat’cha Want” with the Roots, still clearly at the top of their game.
Jimmy Kimmel Impersonating Jay Leno (2010)
Jay Leno got a lot of heat for returning to The Tonight Show following Conan O’Brien’s short hosting stint – especially from Jimmy Kimmel. The day O’Brien announced he was leaving NBC after the network tried to move his time slot from 11:30 p.m. to midnight, Kimmel did his entire show as Leno, sporting a wig, a giant plastic chin, a slight lisp and beginning the show with lots of high-fives. “Do you know what ABC Stands for?” Kimmel said early on. “Always Bump Conan.”
Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman (2010)
Joaquin Phoenix’ appearance on the Late Show promoting new film Two Lovers was weird from the start; the actor emerged with a new beard and defensively answered every question. He even announced he was retiring from acting to focus on a hip-hop career. The appearance was the perfect vehicle for Letterman’s quick-footed genius (“”What can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?” he asked at one point). Phoenix finally appeared on the show the following year looking like his old self and apologized, saying, “I assumed you would know the difference between a character and a real person – but I apologize. I hope I didn’t offend you in any way.” But Letterman didn’t mind at all. “You’re never better than when that happens,” Regis Philbin told Letterman afterward.
Vampire Weekend and Black Keys Fight It Out on The Colbert Report (2011)
Stephen Colbert won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 2010, and it predictably went to his character’s head. With the ability to cast a ballot for the following year’s nominees, he invited Best Alternative Album nominees the Black Keys and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig to determine which band he should vote for. The result was a “Sell Out Off,” as both acts have allowed their songs into several advertisements. Who won? Watch to find out, and be prepared for a violent twist at the end.
Bruce Springsteen on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (2012)
To promote the Darkness on the Edge of Town box set, Bruce Springsteen made a rare talk show appearance on Fallon. Then he made an even more unexpected move: dressing up as himself circa 1975 to duet with Jimmy Fallon (dressed as Neil Young) on Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” “[Bruce] was absolutely game for it,” Questlove told RS after the taping. “He completely surpassed any expectation I’ve ever had for any mythical god of rock figure.” Bruce later ripped through fiery takes of “Because the Night” and “Save My Love” with the Roots. Added Questlove, “I’ve done some intense playing on our show, but that was the most intense playing I’ve ever done.”
Paul McCartney on The Colbert Report (2013)
From A Hard Days Night to appearing on Saturday Night Live with Chris Farley in 1993, Paul McCartney has always had a good sense of humor about himself. Earlier this year, he appeared on a special hour-long episode of Colbert to promote his reissue of Wings Over America, recalling his days of driving a van to college gigs with Wings and fielding some hilarious questions and observations from the host. “Mick Jagger said ‘Why would you want your old lady in your band?'” Colbert said as McCartney nodded. “Do you ever see him and mock him for looking like an old lady?” Macca was game, and at one point he summed up his whole career: “Sometimes I do pinch myself thinking, ‘Done pretty good.'”
Radiohead on The Colbert Report (2011)
Radiohead appeared on Colbert for a full hour surrounding the release of The King of Limbs in 2011, sitting down for an interview in “the Doctor Pepper Flavor Zone.” Colbert cracked the band up asking if they had won American Idol or Britain‘s Got Talent and criticizing them for hating corporations and taking “American rock jobs.” But the best part was when the band plugged in for a set including “The Daily Mail” and “The National Anthem.”