Though it sprung up out of the ashes of David Letterman’s dashed campaign to succeed Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show, Letterman has built The Late Show into an institution that has rivaled NBC’s preeminent late night talker in reverence over the last two decades.
Letterman is, simply put, a titan on par with the late night greats, but as they once stepped away so too will Letterman, who reportedly announced that he is retiring from The Late Show in 2015 during tonight’s taping, thus closing off a career in late night that began more than 30 years ago.
A weatherman in Indiana, Letterman moved to Los Angeles in the mid-70s to embark on a career in comedy, landing various writing jobs and a slot on the Tonight Show as guest host. An irreverent but ultimately unsuccessful morning show on NBC would follow, but Letterman didn’t truly find his audience until 1982 with the debut of Late Night, an unhinged late night talker that followed Carson (whose company produced the show).
Much has been said about the controls that Carson’s production company put on Letterman during the show’s infancy – Carson limited what guests Letterman could book, the comedic tone, and the composition of the band – but those rules pushed Letterman away from the establishment and into a show that would be embraced by the counter culture for its irreverence.
Late Night with David Letterman felt dangerous and different. There was an attitude, a subtle rebellion against Carson (who Letterman idolized) and the old way. Remote segments, avant-garde humor, and the show’s boundary-free style captivated college age audiences, allowing Late Night and Letterman to influence the shape of comedy and culture in a profound way that will still be felt for decades to come.
With The Late Show, Letterman finally got a chance to reach a broader audience and step out from under Carson’s shadow. But while his primary competitor, Jay Leno’s iteration of The Tonight Show, consistently topped Letterman’s show in the ratings, The Late Show won its share of admirers and viewers, allowing Letterman to flourish in his new time slot.
Over the last two decades, Letterman’s tone has changed to a degree but it has occurred naturally as an organic result of aging and not as some kind of wholesale change made to court that broader audience. There’s still room for silly on the show, but the host has appeared more cranky and less game at times – with his comedic aggressiveness less likely to be tempered by his gap-toothed grin.
There is also a serious side that Letterman has displayed often, specifically following his heart scare back in 2000. In his first episode back following 9/11, during his talk with Warren Zevon before his death, and his tribute to Carson after his passing, Letterman has – while still maintaining his cutting wit and instincts – somewhat transformed himself into a late night statesman, something that we will soon be without in the midst of the very obvious youth movement that is afoot in late night.
Is that movement – highlighted by Jimmy Fallon’s early success with The Tonight Show – partially behind Letterman’s decision to step aside next year? In his address to his audience tonight (above), Letterman made it clear that he was the one that picked up the phone, but it is possible that Letterman read the writing on the wall. Surely CBS would never push him out, but perhaps, in a bit of cruel irony, Letterman came to the conclusion that he had just about given all he can to the show, and that late night belongs to the young, a reality that he had a heavy hand in crafting.
How much of a hand Letterman will have in choosing his replacement is unknown. Obviously, both Letterman and the network will likely move to make the transition as swift and painless as possible, but as of right now (and with all due respect to Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson) there really are no slam dunk candidates.
What do you think about David Letterman’s decision to step away from The Late Show: is his timing right and who do you think his replacement will be?
The Late Show with David Letterman airs weeknights on CBS @11:35PM
Source: CBS News