NEW YORK — In a single bound, David Letterman seemed to leap the full length of the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, racing from backstage as if he’d been thrust forward by the fanfare played by his longtime bandleader, Paul Shaffer, and his CBS Orchestra, and by the rumble of his announcer, Alan Kalter, bellowing his name: “Daaaaay-vid Leh-terrrr-maaaaaaaan!”
It was a routine Letterman, 68, has performed countless times but will repeat no more after May 20, when he will preside over his last episode of “Late Show,” the CBS franchise he established and has hosted since 1993. Like the veteran slugger who comes to the ballpark for batting practice, he was here on this April afternoon partly to warm up his swing on a few easy pitches, but mostly to put on a show.
“Everything OK at home?” he asked the crowd. “Everything OK at work?” Met with mostly cheers, he laughed and added: “You don’t find yourself filled with some kind of emotional longing? Are we emotionally stable?”
But how could these fans not be riddled with angst, knowing that in a few weeks, Letterman would bid a heartfelt good night to all of this, after a run of more than 33 years in late-night television, even longer than the three-decade tenure of his mentor, Johnny Carson. After that last show, he will head home to his wife, Regina, and 11-year-old son, Harry, and try to figure out what comes next.
Late-night television will feel the loss of Letterman, one of its most innovative and unpredictable broadcasters, who in 1982 took a sleepy NBC time slot following Carson’s “Tonight” show and transformed it into a ceaseless engine for Top 10 Lists, Stupid Pet Tricks and a decade’s worth of pioneering comedy bits.
With almost no blueprint to follow, Letterman showed that late-night TV could offer more than a what’s-in-the-news monologue and witty banter with celebrity guests (though he was capable of doing all that, as well). He made his show a home for misfits and oddballs, for Andy Kaufman’s slap fights and Larry “Bud” Melman’s shrill soliloquies, where champion bird callers or his own mother were deemed as important as Hollywood ingenues or rising rock bands.
Letterman proved he could reinvent himself, too: When he was passed over as Carson’s heir in favor of Jay Leno, he packed up for the uncharted territory of CBS and became a more inclusive, if still idiosyncratic, master of ceremonies.
But Letterman is leaving a late-night biosphere very different from the one he helped thrive.
Hosts like Jimmy Fallon (who ultimately replaced Leno at “Tonight”) and Jimmy Kimmel (at ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live”) are dominating with their own ingenious energy, their Internet savvy and their visible youth, and Letterman is about to be replaced by Stephen Colbert, the politically astute smart aleck of “The Colbert Report.”
Upstairs in his “Late Show” offices, a contemplative Letterman reflected on all that he has learned along the way. In these edited excerpts from that conversation, he offered his unguarded and unsparing assessments of his heroes, his colleagues, his would-be successors and himself.
Q: As your last show approaches, have there been times when you’ve thought: I’m leaving too soon?
A: Yeah, I’m awash in melancholia. Over the weekend, I was talking to my son, and I said, “Harry, we’ve done like over 6,000 shows.” And he said, (high-pitched child’s voice) “That’s creepy.” And I thought, well, in a way, he’s right, it is creepy. Every big change in my life was full of trepidation. When I left Indiana and moved to California. When Regina and I decided to have a baby, enormous anxiety and trepidation. Those are the two biggest things in my life, and they worked out beyond my wildest dreams. I’m pretending the same thing will happen now. I’ll miss it, desperately. One of two things: There will be reasonable, adult acceptance of transition. Or I will turn to a life of crime.
Q: The late-night TV landscape has changed so much in the time you’ve been on the air. Do you think you’ve left a lasting impact on it?
A: I see that things are certainly different. A lot of what we did was dictated by Carson. A guy named Dave Tebet, who worked for NBC and was like a talent liaison — in the same that way that Al Capone was a beverage distributor — he came to us and he said: “You can’t have a band. You can have a combo. You can’t do a monologue. You can’t do, like, Aunt Blabby. You can’t do Tea Time Movie Matinee.” There were so many restrictions. So that was the framework we were handed, which was fine, because then they gave us an excuse not to think of that thing to do.
Q: Did the ascent of hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel push you out?
A: No, they didn’t push me out. I’m 68. If I was 38, I’d probably still be wanting to do the show. When Jay was on, I felt like Jay and I are contemporaries. Every time he would get a show at 11:30, he would succeed smartly. And so I thought, “This is still viable: an older guy in a suit.” And then he left, and I suddenly was surrounded by the Jimmys.
Q: Did you have any involvement in choosing Stephen Colbert as your successor?
A: No. Not my show. When we sign off, we’re out of business with CBS. I always thought Jon Stewart would have been a good choice. And then Stephen.
And then I thought, well, maybe this will be a good opportunity to put a black person on, and it would be a good opportunity to put a woman on. Because there are certainly a lot of very funny women that have television shows everywhere.
Q: Their selection of Stephen Colbert came very quickly.
A: They didn’t have to put much thought to it, did they? I think it was the very next day. But if you’re running the show with Jimmy Fallon, that’s a certain dynamic. Jimmy Kimmel, a completely different dynamic. And now Stephen Colbert will add a third, different dynamic to it. I think it will be very interesting to see what he will do.
Q: When you moved to CBS, so much was made of your rivalry with Jay Leno. In retrospect, do you feel like this was overblown?
A: No, I don’t think so. It would have happened if I’d have gotten the “Tonight” show, and he would have come here. I think people are curious to see, well, what will happen? And we prevailed for a while, and then I lost my way a little bit. Quite a little bit. And at that point, there was not much I could do about it. People just liked watching his show more than they liked watching my show.
Q: You feel that something, philosophically, at your show, caused this viewership shift?
A: Yeah. And it’s just my judgment. Before, I felt pretty confident in what we were up to, because there was no competition to speak of, whatsoever. In the beginning (at CBS), we came out of the chute, going a million miles an hour. And then when that was all done, we just sort of said, “Really, can we go a million miles an hour again?” And we tried, and we couldn’t. I think we had gone way down the road, maybe way down the wrong road.
Q: How did you get back on the right track?
A: I don’t know that we ever did get back the right way. It didn’t start to settle down until it couldn’t be more clear that Jay was the more popular show. And when we all realized that there’s not much we can do here. ... The guy in the race who spends more time looking over his shoulder, well, that’s the mistake. For two years, I made that mistake. We ran out of steam.
Q: Have you decided what you’ll do in your last show?
A: I have decided what I will do, yes. And I know of other things that are being worked on. My only concern is mine. What will I do? And I now know exactly what I will do.
Q: Will you be taking your cues from Johnny Carson’s final “Tonight” show?
A: I can remember when he signed off that night, it just left you (with) a nagging sense of loss. This doesn’t apply here. I want it to be a little more cheery. And I want it to be upbeat, and I want it to be funny, and I want people to be happy that they spent the time to watch it. Of course, Johnny’s last show was historic. This one won’t be. This one, people will say: “Ah, there you go. When’s the new guy starting?”
Q: The last “Late Show” airs on a Wednesday. What will you do Thursday morning?
A: I will be completely in the hands of my family. ... For the first time since Harry’s been alive, our summer schedule will not be dictated by me. It will be entirely dictated by what my son wants to do. And I think that’s pretty good.