Letterman reacts to a bikini-clad Demi Moore in 1995. The actress starred in the film “Striptease” and helped David with his Top Ten list by removing index cards, one by one, revealing the bikini.(TONY ESPARZA / AP)
2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain gets comfortable with Letterman.(J.P. Filo / AP)
In a flurry of unexpected tweets and hastily assembled blog posts, the news went out across America and the world that David Letterman is retiring from CBS’s “Late Show,” which he has hosted for 21 years, sometime in 2015, or as he put it “2015, for the love of God.”
The first report came, reportedly, from Mike Mills, formerly the bassist of R.E.M., who was on the “Late Show” set to play behind musical guest Joseph Arthur, and heard Letterman’s unexpected announcement and duly sent it sailing into the thick of social media. The Internet went wild -- typical! -- and CBS, which might have expected such a chain of events, quickly made a clip of Letterman’s announcement available to the online world. A statement from Les Moonves followed, praising the host’s “greatness,” his “wit, gravitas and brilliance,” and their “terrific friendship” -- a long relationship to which Letterman also referred on-air.
Letterman is about to turn 67 -- that impending event, and a lot of other career math (21 years on CBS, 32 in late-night TV, 6,000-some shows) formed the lead-in to the big news. Given his age, and perhaps especially given that he is the father of a 10-year-old, and perhaps also given that he is a 10-year-old’s father who has had a quintuple bypass, there was nothing deeply surprising about the announcement. There was the usual small shock when a big thing you knew was coming finally comes. But you will have plenty of time to work yourself through the five stages of grief. (Or just skip straight to acceptance.)
The studio audience, hearing the news, hardly reacted -- they greeted it, to my hearing, with silence, stunned or skeptical, though it should have been clear from the build-up what was coming. Letterman, who is a publicly thoughtful person -- he is perhaps funniest when he is the most forthcoming -- spoke of the passage of time and told a long story about a fishing trip with his son and subsequently trying to identify a bird they photographed there. “So that’s when I started thinking in terms of how long does a guy want to do a TV show -- if you spend most of your day trying to ID birds, should you really be running a network TV show?”
Eventually there were laughs (“What this means now, is that Paul and I can get married,” Letterman said of bandleader Paul Shaffer) and a standing ovation. “Wrapping things up and taking a hike” is how he described their eventual, though not imminent departure.
Letterman did not seem to be suffering any trauma -- if anything, he looked exhilarated. It was practically certain that, given their tangled history and well-documented if largely out-of-view battle for the Iron Throne, I mean the “Tonight Show” desk, he would not leave his post before Jay Leno departed his. But that obstacle has been removed, or removed himself, to play casinos. If it is hard to imagine a similar show-business coda for Letterman -- whose name so conveniently alliteratively chimed his rival’s -- it is perhaps because it’s easy to imagine he has a life outside it.
It felt significant that there was, as Letterman told it, hardly any time between his phoning Moonves “just before the program” to say he’d be leaving and his telling the audience. While he has never seemed needy of their approval, particularly, he has lived in their presence for three decades, and his announcement felt familial; he has owned to personal failings in their presence, and talked them through some shared difficult moments, as big as 9/11 and as personal as the looming death of friend of the show and sometime substitute bandleader Warren Zevon.
It took only slightly longer than the typing for the lists and listicles to appear online, nominating replacement hosts, with special regard to candidates who would break the de facto sex and color barrier among hosts -- that is, who would be other than a white (straight, for that matter) male -- that results in part from the glacially slow turnover in late night network television. (It’s hard not to endorse such a change, here in the second decade of the 21st century; the next white male host is going to look really white and male.) Much of this blue-skying is just thought experiment, or a way to shout out to a favorite comedian, with little regard to the particular requirements of the job. There surely will be much studying of the question before a plume of white smoke rises over CBS headquarters.
It has also been suggested (they are coming fast, the suggestions) that this juncture may be one in which to bring radical change in a more overarching way to late night -- change more different than Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is from Jay Leno’s, which, for all its improvements still cycles through its studio celebrities with something to sell. (In four words: ditch the talk show.) But just as it is always hoped a new president will change the old Washington, and can’t, or won’t, big show business institutions are full of inertia. A show like “The Late Show” is the only way CBS can regularly put A-list movie stars and big-name pop artists on television, and they are not going to be in any hurry to lose that.
Craig Ferguson, whose “Late Late Show” follows “Late Show” (and is produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants), would in the now traditional rule of succession, be next in line for the part; but he seems temperamentally unsuited for a job that would require him to appear to care, at least a little, about the promotional conventions of industrial show business. (Letterman could always split the difference.) He is an old punk rock drummer at heart.
But that is all for 2015, sometime. The choice of a replacement, or a new direction, will inevitably be something to argue about until time proves it apt or inept, and possibly even after that. Meanwhile, the light at the end of the tunnel may make for Letterman’s best year in a while. But even if we admit that he could seem less than engaged of late, or just guilty of the sin of growing old in a business that worships youth -- he has grown into that “You kids get off my lawn” stuff -- Letterman is still one of the most interesting people on television: smart, clownish, casually revealing (within bounds), compulsively honest, curious where curiosity is merited, up on the important stuff, clearly complicated and 100% authentic Dave.