Letterman retirement is a generational moment

David Letterman, host of the “Late Show with David Letterman waves to the audience in New York on Thursday, after announcing that he will retire sometime in 2015. Letterman, who turns 67 next week, has the longest tenure of any late-night talk show host in U.S. television history, already marking 32 years since he created "Late Night" at NBC in 1982. AP/CBS photo by Jeffrey R. Staab.

David Letterman, host of the “Late Show with David Letterman waves to the audience in New York on Thursday, after announcing that he will retire sometime in 2015. Letterman, who turns 67 next week, has the longest tenure of any late-night talk show host in U.S. television history, already marking 32 years since he created “Late Night” at NBC in 1982. AP/CBS photo by Jeffrey R. Staab.

Children of the ’80s, such as myself, are frequently amused these days by signs that we’re, you know, getting up there. We hear songs we helped drive up the pop charts on “oldies” stations and see movies we saw in high school dubbed “classics.” We go see Pat Benatar at the Opera House and marvel that she can still rock at 61.

But David Letterman’s announcement Thursday that he will be “wrapping things up” in 2015 is a bit more sobering.

When Johnny Carson stepped down from the The Tonight Show in 1992, it was a big deal for people my age. But he was from our parents’ generation. When we started watching Carson, as many referred to the show, it was already a fully-formed late-night institution.

Letterman, now 66, was the guy we watched create an institution and then another. Late Night with David Letterman did what no other show at the time had done: successfully replicated and tweaked the late-night talk show format of Tonight. Letterman’s sarcastic, frequently weird style, was in line with our generation’s sensibilities, and he created iconic late-night moments in an era before they could go viral on the Internet. Can you imagine stupid pet tricks, the Velcro suit or classic interviews with Dr. Ruth or Crispin Glover if they had YouTube to thrive on?

Then, after NBC bypassed him for The Tonight Show chair in favor of Jay Leno, Letterman went to CBS and created the first truly successful network competitor to The Tonight Show with The Late Show with David Letterman in 1994 — though we do have to give props to Arsenio Hall, who was in the midst of a good run with his syndicated show. It continued Letterman’s goofy sense of humor, Top 10 lists and relationship with band leader Paul Shaffer and The World’s Most Dangerous Band, renamed the CBS Orchestra.

The Late Show had its iconic moments, including Letterman’s response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and made stopping by to check out the Ed Sullivan Theatre a must on New York trips. While Leno’s Tonight show usually won the ratings game, Letterman was always the critical favorite and tended to be the cool show to watch.

Letterman hasn’t offered up a reason for retirement. On NPR’s All Things Considered Thursday, TV critic Eric Deggans observed maybe the Hoosier saw the recent changes in late night talk such as Jimmy Fallon’s successful ascendance to the Tonight Show spotlight, after five years hosting the show Letterman created, and Jimmy Kimmel’s move to 11:35 on ABC and realized late night had become a younger man’s game. While Letterman makes a segment out of his frustration trying to work with Twitter, Fallon quickly makes his hashtags segments cultural touchstones and worldwide trending topics.

There is also something Carson-esque about Dave’s announcement. It is on his terms. It is a guy probably knowing when it’s time to go, not overstaying his welcome, and who probably won’t make much noise after he says goodnight.

What will be interesting is to see how well CBS transitions to another host, which seems to be its intention. While The Tonight Show was an institution that had already been in several hands before Carson’s, The Late Show is Letterman. CBS will certainly try, but is it a seat to be passed on, and if so, to who? Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which follows Late Night, has the right of first refusal, but that has done nothing to stop an eruption of wide-spread speculation about possible successors including Jerry Seinfeld and Chelsea Handler.

If it is a successful hand-off, that will affirm Letterman created two TV institutions, Late Night and The Late Show, which is arguably a bigger feat than joining the line of Tonight Show hosts.

A number of the potential replacements are indicative of the much more crowded field late night talk has become in the two decades since Letterman staked out his place on CBS. But anyone who takes that job has to be wary of the dominance of NBC’s newly minted lineup of Fallon and Seth Meyers as the new Late Night host.

That will all play out in months to come. But what is certain is that for a lot of us, Letterman’s retirement marks a sobering moment of realizing we have watched a long and storied late night career from beginning to end.

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