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 that Letterman, 68, has performed countless times but will repeat no more after Wednesday, 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 at the theater on a recent afternoon partly to warm up his swing on a few easy pitches, but mostly to put on a show.
No home viewers were watching as he twirled his microphone around like a Wild West lasso, walked it across the floor like a dog and leaned on an expensive broadcast camera. This was a pretaping ritual Letterman was doing only for the few hundred audience members in the theater. Or maybe he was doing it only for himself.
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“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 Letterman is bidding 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 this last show, he will head home to his wife, Regina, and 11-year-old son, Harry, and try to figure out what comes next.
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 few hours after the show, a contemplative Letterman emerged, dressed in khakis and a T-shirt that said “Genetically Engineered Trout Is Safe!” to reflect 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.
As your last show approaches, have there been times when you’ve thought: I’m leaving too soon?
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, “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.
In the time since you made your announcement, the consensus is that you seem more relaxed and the show feels looser. Is that how you see it?
I couldn’t make that observation, but I certainly feel it. Because I think there’s a difference between regular-season hockey and playoff hockey. And I’m not in the playoffs.
Yeah, I do notice a difference. When I was watching those interim shows they did on The Late Late Show, and I saw John Mayer hosting one night, I thought, “Ohhhh, now I see exactly what the problem is.”
Because he’s young. He’s handsome. He’s trim. He’s witty. He was comfortable. So then I realized, I got nothing to worry about. I know I can’t do what Jimmy Fallon’s doing. I know I can’t do what Jimmy Kimmel is doing. There’s nothing left to be worried about.
Do you think you’ve left a lasting impact on the late-night TV landscape ?
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.
You were innovating out of necessity?
I never knew if the stupider things we did or the more traditional things we did would work. I didn’t know if the stupid stuff would alienate people. I didn’t know if the traditional stuff would be more appealing.
And then, when I look back on it now, of course the answer is, you want to do the weird thing.
Did the ascent of hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel push you out of the job?
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.
Did you have any involvement in choosing Stephen Colbert as your successor?
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. So that would have made sense to me as well.
But you were not consulted?
(shakes head no) Mm-mmm.
Did that bother you?
Yeah, I guess so. Just as a courtesy, maybe somebody would say: “You know, we’re kicking around some names. Do you have any thoughts here?” But it doesn’t bother me now.
At the time, I had made the decision (to leave) and I thought, OK, this is what comes when you make this decision.
Have you offered him any advice on how he should run his show?
No. We chatted when the announcement was made. And that was about it. I don’t think he needs [it] — he’s not a kid. He’s not a beginner. He’s had pretty good success.
Have you decided what you’ll do in your very last show?
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.
Will you be taking your cues from Johnny Carson’s final Tonight show?
That was fantastic. 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 (laughs). This one, people will say: “Ah, there you go. When’s the new guy starting?”
What will you do on Thursday morning after your last Late Show airs Wednesday night?
I will be completely in the hands of my family.
I will be going, later in the month, to the Indianapolis 500. And then beyond that, 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.
After you take a good, solid punch to the head, you’re just a little wobbly. I think in that state it would be good to have others making my decisions. ... That’s how he’s describing his retirement. A good solid punch to the head.