This just in from the Home Office at the Ed Sullivan Theater: David Letterman announced to his Late Show audience today that he will be retiring sometime in 2015. This will end more than three decades in late night and maybe the most influential run in talk shows and comedy, period. “I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all of the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much,” Letterman said. “What this means now is that Paul [Shaffer] and I can be married.”
We have a lot of time to process this and pay tribute to his brilliance — Letterman’s retiring, after all, not dying, and not for a year — but for now, a few thoughts on what this means:
* The Jay Leno Connection. No, I’m not saying that CBS is going to give Leno Letterman’s job. (Though begin popping the popcorn if it happens.) But I do have to wonder if Leno’s retirement wasn’t part of the impetus for Letterman to call it a day. After Leno left Tonight in 2009, the Letterman crew hoped it would be Letterman’s chance to rule the late-night ratings in the last stage of his run. But Conan O’Brien was gone in half a year, Letterman fell behind Leno again, and it doesn’t look like he’s catching Jimmy Fallon, the new standard-bearer of anti-snark, anytime soon. But he’s outlasted Leno, and — having begun his career as an iconoclastic anti-showbiz host and grown into a reflective elder TV statesman — it probably seems time to end things on his own schedule.
* The Succession. Now comes the volley of rumored candidates to succeed Letterman. Many of the suggestions will be brilliant hosts and comedians who nonetheless are probably better off hosting anything but an 11:35 show on CBS. Craig Ferguson’s conversational quirk is perfect for late-late night, where it already is. (Before you say it: Yes, Ferguson has a paper deal to take the time slot, and no, it’s not cast in stone if CBS wants to pay him off.) Ditto Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose names are already being tossed around. (O’Brien is another matter, but it would be interesting to see if CBS wants him, and if he wants it.) But first I’m interested to see if CBS is committed to the idea of keeping a traditional late-night interview show, period. When Late Show began in 1993, there was only Tonight to compete with; now there’s ABC, and cable besides. CBS did something radical by hiring Letterman in the first place; will it do something radical again?
* The Legacy. When I say Letterman was the dominant late-night figure of his era, someone will probably say — someone always does — that can’t be true, since he rarely had the highest ratings. Influence, though, isn’t something you measure by one show. It’s Letterman’s Late Show and Late Night — not Leno’s or even Johnny Carson’s, really — that you see reflected in the style and attitude of one late-night show after another: Comedy Central’s satires, O’Brien and, really, probably just about every comedy writers’ room in TV to one extent or another.
Really, Letterman’s successor has already been named, in the form of all of those people — as well as in his current competitors. There’s a bit of him even in the nice-guy Fallon, and a whole hell of a lot in Jimmy Kimmel, who has already responded to the news. “David Letterman,” he tweeted, “is the best there is and ever was.”
Amen. And now it’s time for CBS to think about the “will be.”
Update: Some followers on Twitter have already taken the headline of this piece as a slight against Johnny Carson. They’re both greats. Carson ruled late night for three decades (though he didn’t invent the format) and David Letterman defined the tone of comedy for decades. For that, I’d put Letterman slightly higher — slightly! — but I’m also not interested in making this a Highlander-style showdown between two of the best broadcasters there ever were. If you prefer Carson, here’s a tribute I wrote to the Great Telecommunicator when he died in 2005.