David Letterman’s mother, Dorothy Mengering, has died at age 95. The Associated Press confirmed the news late Tuesday evening. She is survived by her family, of course, but also by a unique comedic legacy. Over 20 years ago, Mengering became an unlikely yet welcomed fixture on the Late Show thanks to the down-home gonzo segment “Guess Mom’s Pies.” The audience fell for the Indiana native’s droll acceptance of her son’s humor. She became part of the show’s extended cast, setting a president for late-night parent cameos, which have become a television tradition.
Dorothy Mengering had a very specific screen presence, but it was her relationship with her son that made her appearances work. Showrunners understood that and built on it. Jimmy Kimmel and his staffers shared texts from their moms and dads in recurring segments. James Corden sent his parents to report live from the WWE’s Monday Night RAW. Stephen Colbert broke character back in the Report years to pay sincere tribute to his late mother. Jimmy Fallon’s father heckled his very first Tonight Show monologue. Pete Holmes even played voicemails from his dad on that talk show nobody watched.
If Mengering hadn’t crushed it as a correspondent at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway and the next two winter games, among many other segments, other parents wouldn’t have been roped in to do recurring bits. And, yes, other parents seemed to imitate her, embracing their roles as foils to a comedic host. Late night needed an adult, and Mengering made it what it was today. She will always be number one on that Top Ten list.