During the April 3, 2014 taping of CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman, the beloved television host announced that he will officially retire in 2015. Letterman has held this position on CBS since 1993, preceded by his role hosting NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman from 1982 to 1993.
His rise to fame began in his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana as an anchor and weatherman for the AM radio station WNTS. After moving to Los Angeles in 1975, Letterman began his career as a comedy writer. He became a regular contributor to the summer series The Starland Vocal Band Show, co-starred in a comedy special Peeping Times produced by Barry Levinson, and appeared on shows including Mary Tyler Moore’s variety show Mary, Mork & Mindy, and various game shows. Through all this, he became a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and soon was hosting his own morning show on NBC: The David Letterman Show. Though the show was a critical success and earned two Emmys, it was cancelled in 1980 due to poor ratings.
NBC then decided to try Letterman in a different time slot, and thus began Late Night with David Letterman, filming in NBC Studios in New York at 12:30am Monday through Friday. Its first guest was Bill Murray, and soon developed a cult following for being edgy and unpredictable. In 1992, Johnny Carson retired, NBC gave the job of hosting The Tonight Show to Jay Leno instead of Letterman as many expected, and as Carson intended. In response, Letterman left NBC for CBS, and the Late Show with David Letterman was born, taping at 11:30pm at the historic Ed Sullivan Theater. That marked the beginning of a kind of “Talk Show War” between Leno and Letterman fighting for ratings. Letterman rebranded himself as a bit more formal, both in terms of his wardrobe and the mood of the program. He has held this job ever since, also appearing as the host of the Academy Awards in 1995, and re-signing his contract with CBS several times until 2014. Yet his tenure was not without conflicts.
In October 2009, Letterman revealed on his show that he had been the victim of an attempted extortion of $2 million, threatening to reveal that he had had sexual affairs with several of his female employees. After Letterman cooperated with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to conduct a sting operation involving a phony check, Robert J. “Joe” Halderman was arrested with the charge of attempted grand larceny, and served a 6-month jail sentence. Following the event, several prominent women including the co-host of NBC’s The Today Show Kathie Lee Gifford questioned whether Letterman had created an unfair working environment. Letterman issued a public apology to his wife and staff on October 5, 2009. Through all of this, it is amazing that he kept his position, but CBS time and again renewed his contract.
With Letterman’s retirement, almost all of the remaining late-night hosts will have come from the post-Johnny Carson era. It is possible that the old style of comedy is no longer relevant, or perhaps Letterman, at age 67, was just ready to step down and enjoy his remaining years. Just seven years after Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show, he suffered from a severe heart attack and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. He became somewhat of a recluse, and died six years later. Carson was a heavy smoker, and of course we hope that Letterman will not endure a similar fate. Still, it must not be easy to give up the mantle.
The future of Late Show is presently uncertain. One potential successor is Craig Ferguson, who has hosted The Late Late Show following Letterman since 2005. His contract, which expires at the end of the year, calls for either him to replace Letterman or to receive a payout. Other options include Jon Stewart, who has a huge following, and whose present network Comedy Central is owned by the same company as CBS. Furthermore, many people are interested in the idea of Chelsea Handler, who has just announced she will be leaving E! where she has hosted Chelsea Lately since 2007. Other names in the mix are Amy Schumer of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Ellen Degeneres, and Neil Patrick Harris. There is also talk that the show may move to Los Angeles.