On May 20, the ever-fresh Late Show with David Letterman will play its last engagement. After more than four decades on the TV screen, the show’s host is fading out. Letterman’s retirement was not exactly a surprise, even for devotees. He turns 68 this year; Johnny Carson was two years younger when he called it quits. Though the veteran comedian/emcee seems robust, he underwent quintuple-bypass surgery years ago, and there has been scuttlebutt about other medical issues since then. But the real reason for the move has less to do with Letterman than with his audience. Young talk-show devotees (CBS’s target audience) have begun to drift away to the Jimmies—Jimmy Fallon (age 41) and Jimmy Kimmel (47)—as well as to edgier late-night offerings.
Even so, Letterman will remain in public memory for a long time. Many still recall him as a brash newcomer from flyover country, with a headful of ideas and a take-no-prisoners approach to celebrity. Indiana-born and bred, Letterman had notorious clashes with film and pop stars including Cher, Shirley MacLaine, and Madonna. He put animal absurdities into the national conversation when he introduced Stupid Pet Tricks (Dachshunds on a treadmill, a rabbit that walks on two feet, a Yorkie that answers the question “Who’s the President?” by growling “Obama.”) And of course, he created his trademark Top Ten lists.
These included: Top Ten Ways Las Vegas is Better Than Paris (Number 4: Vegas didn’t lose a single inch of ground to the Nazi war machine); Subway Punk’s Top 10 Etiquette Tips (Number 10: When passing a screwdriver to a friend, remember, it’s HANDLE FIRST); Top 10 Courses Taken by Texas A & M Players (Number 8: Sandwich-making [final project required]); Top 10 Least Popular Fairy Tales (Number 7: The Little Old Lady Who Lived in Al Sharpton’s Hair); Top 10 Questions Asked of Miss America Contestants (Number 3: Are those real?); Top 10 Least-used Hyphenated Words (Number 4: Hitler-riffic); and Top 10 Rejected Halftime Shows for the Super Bowl (Number 8: A Thousand Shirtless Drunk Guys in Rainbow Wigs).
Though King David now seems serene, his has been a troubled rule. When Carson retired in 1992, Letterman was widely considered the heir apparent. Instead, NBC chose Jay Leno. Letterman shrugged off the rejection and went to CBS, where, after an early lead, his ratings consistently trailed Leno’s. In 1995, he hosted the Academy Awards. As the reviews noted, Hollywood was not his milieu. No one was more sardonic about the debacle than Letterman himself: “Looking back, I had no idea that thing was being televised.”
In 2009 came a tasteless sex joke about Sarah Palin’s 14- and 18-year old daughters. Not only Palin, but also the National Organization of Women took him to task, and Letterman delivered an on-air apology “especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also the governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke.” A few months later, Letterman was threatened by an anonymous blackmailer who threatened to expose the host’s extramarital affairs with employees of his production company, Worldwide Pants. Letterman was not about to pay the demanded $2 million. Instead, he called the district attorney and made a public confession of his private amours with a personal assistant and an intern. He apologized yet again, this time to his wife and staff. The blackmailer was traced, tried, and jailed, and the Late Show went on—and on and on.
Now, after more than 6,000 evenings, host, fans, and critics have mellowed. Forgiveness is the operative word, and a fond look back at Letterman’s career includes an unprecedented 52 Emmy nominations and five primetime Emmy Awards. He was the first recipient of the Johnny Carson Award for Comic Excellence. His alma mater, Ball State University in Muncie, named an impressive structure in his honor: the David Letterman Communication and Media Building. (Naturally, his acceptance speech listed the Top Ten good things about seeing one’s moniker in stone letters. Number 10: If reasonable people can put my name on a building, anything is possible.) And, at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors, Letterman was recognized as “one of the most influential personalities in the history of television, entertaining an entire generation of late-night viewers with his unconventional wit and charm.”
All this for a man who admits, “I can’t sing, dance or act. What else would I be but a talk show host?” A good thing he was no John Travolta, Tony Bennett, or Robert De Niro. Millions would have been deprived of a uniquely American talent. Goodnight, David, and thanks for the laughter in the dark.