David Letterman is retiring next year from his late-night show on CBS—ending more than three decades on two networks as a television comic and talk show host.
“We don’t have the timetable for this precisely down,” the 66-year-old Letterman told his studio audience in a surprise announcement during the Thursday afternoon taping of the Late Show With David Letterman. “I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, Paul and I will be wrapping things up,” he added, referring to his longtime bandleader Paul Shaffer.
The audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater in the Broadway theater district rose from their seats and erupted in a sustained standing ovation.
CBS, which lured Letterman in 1993 from NBC, where he had hosted a popular program at 12:30 a.m. since 1982, was taken by surprise by the timing of the announcement. Letterman revealed that he phoned CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves just before walking out on stage.
“I phoned him just before the program, and I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring,’” Letterman told his audience.
Moonves succeeded Howard Stringer, the man who recruited the late-night star to the Tiffany Network in 1993 after Johnny Carson, Letterman’s booster and mentor, retired, and Letterman was denied his dream job of hosting NBC’s powerhouse late-night franchise The Tonight Show.
Jay Leno got the gig instead, setting up an intense and occasionally bitter rivalry that only ended when Leno himself stepped down in February to make way for Jimmy Fallon.
Reached by The Daily Beast shortly after Letterman’s announcement, Stringer—who ran the Sony Corp. after leaving CBS—said: “I don’t want to speculate on his [Letterman’s] state of mind but I think he’s had an enormous run, and my guess is he’s leaving because of that.”
The British-born Stringer likened Letterman to the satirical tradition of comedy in his home country.
“I always thought what he brought was the intellect and insight into that job that was reminiscent less of previous talk-show hosts the sensibility of the great British comedians like Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python,” Stringer told The Daily Beast. “They weren’t run-of-the-mill comics; they had a kind of sensibility that was smarter than most. Dave had more in common with them than the standup comedians, even though he could do that. You never knew quite what to expect from his humor. He had a kind of a cutting edge that made you admire his brain as well as his sense of humor.”
Stringer, who remarked that he “never had a negative moment” in his relationship with the sometimes prickly Letterman, and that the two continued to exchange birthday and Christmas gifts long after Stringer left CBS, had this to say about Letterman’s 32 years on nightly television: “God, that’s a frightening number.”
He attributed Letterman’s durability to the fact that “he took great care of himself and of his audience; he respected his audience. I’m sure he had his bad moments, but he managed his privacy well, which is particularly difficult in this day and age.”
Among Letterman’s “bad moments” were his quadruple bypass surgery in 2000 and his October 2009 admission on his show, when he became the target of a criminal blackmail scheme, that he’d had sexual affairs with female staffers, even though he was married with a young son. For a an intensely private celebrity who didn’t often appear in gossip columns, the latter was an astonishing confession.
“But he did it on his own terms, and he managed it and protected himself in such a way that he didn’t become a headline in a gossip column every ten minutes,” Stringer said.
Letterman, who occasionally complained about CBS executives on the air, and once did an extended multi-night bit in which he mercilessly mocked Moonves, is leaving on a gracious note.
“The man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves, he and I have had a relationship for years and years and years, and we have had this conversation in the past, and we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance,” Letterman said.
Although Moonves is one of the planet’s highest-paid media executives, he is a hired hand, and CBS’s voting stock is controlled by CBS and Viacom executive chairman Sumner Redstone.
Moonves issued the following statement Thursday afternoon:
“When Dave decided on a one-year extension for his most recent contract, we knew this day was getting closer, but that doesn’t make the moment any less poignant for us. For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our Network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes—including me. There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business. On a personal note, it’s been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won’t have to do that for another year or so. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.”
Letterman, meanwhile, told his audience: “I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much. What this means now, is that Paul and I can be married.”