by Jeff Weinstein
CBS has a year to fill some big circus clown-sized shoes in 2015 as legend of late night television; David Letterman has announced that he will be abdicating his throne.
He explained his decision to retire at 67 is to keep a promise to his wife Regina Lasko to spend more time with her and their 10-year-old son, Harry.
In 21 years of hosting the “Late Show,” Letterman has had his share of unforgettable moments.
He was flashed by Drew Barrymore, steamrolled by Robin Williams, Don Rickles and Mel Brooks, feuded with Oprah Winfrey and Madonna and nearly had his head kicked off his neck by a crazed Crispin Glover.
Famously known as a funny guy, Letterman was refreshingly honest and strikingly eloquent when the situation called for it.
In his monologue after 9/11, Letterman poured his heart on air stating he did not want to do the show but per, then New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani’s request.
He followed the courageous example Giuliani displayed during the tragedy and asked others to do the same.
“Courage as you know defines all other human behavior,” Letterman said. He went on to thank NYC firefighters and police calling them New York’s finest.
His tribute to talk show legend Johnny Carson upon his death in 1992 was another memorable and sincere high point in Letterman’s career.
Letterman has been on air for a record-holding 31 years as a talk show host. He is the last surviving link to the golden age of the late night talk show, which began on NBC’s “Tonight Show” in 1954.
Regarded as the most obvious choice as heir to Carson’s desk, Letterman was stunned when NBC passed him over for Jay Leno, despite being groomed for the job and hosting NBC’s “Late Night” for 10 years.
CBS jumped at the opportunity to woo him away from NBC studios in “beautiful downtown Burbank.” He would then host his own show, “Late Show with David Letterman” airing opposite of “The Tonight Show” during the 11:30 p.m. time slot.
Although, Leno typically beat Letterman in the rating wars, Letterman’s legacy will be far greater for being an innovator and reinventing the evening talk show format in his own quirky image.
“Now everybody out there…the two Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) and Conan (O’Brien) and (Steven) Colbert and (Jon) Stewart, are doing what Letterman did. He is the crown prince of the new age of irony. He did more of a parody of a talk show itself and that’s what they’re all doing now,” said Robert Thompson, media professor at Syracuse University.
Famous for off-the-wall comedy-stunt features such as “Stupid Pet Tricks,” “Stupid Human Tricks” and the “Top 10” list (an American institution unto itself), Letterman also pioneered the use of no-talent talent. He used them as comic foils, turning staff members and business people nearby the Ed Sullivan Theatre into awkwardly funny characters.
His stage manager, Biff Henderson and the owner of Hello Deli, Rupert Jee were often the targets of these anti-sketches that seemingly mock the form.
CBS may even consider dropping the talk show altogether in favor of experimentation. The genre has evolved vastly, becoming more expensive while yielding less money.
When Carson was the only game in town, the now hard-to-reach young male audience, an advertiser’s trophy, was very consistent. Averaging 9-12 million nightly viewers, Carson was able to strong-arm NBC into a $60 million per year contract in his last years.
Letterman garnered $30 million a year in his prime when the “Late Show” grossed $200 million per year and averaged 4 million viewers per night. Today’s late night stampede has whittled this down to 2.5 million viewers.
Once, there was just Carson, then Letterman and Leno. Now, there are 20 shows trampling each other for the limelight.
To make matters worse, most young male insomniacs today are not big fans of television, opting instead to surf the Internet, snacking off the YouTube buffet or lounging on social media sites.
For Letterman, the conundrum is compounded because his average viewer is 58 years old, according to the blog Boomersville.
In cyberspace, the new guard thrives well; Jimmy Fallon has over 3 million subscribers that check out his sketches and monologues. Letterman on the other hand has a meager online following of 40,000.
Nonetheless, Letterman’s departure is end of an era. Unlike Cher, Letterman will actually retire. Stewart can match his intellect, Kimmel his elfin prankishness and O’Brien his rebelliousness. The problem could be solved if CBS would fit 3 nutty people onto one chair.