Across the Atlantic, television is in mourning. Black curtains adorn the windows of the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway. The last remaining legend of the small screen has passed on; the last of his kind, we will not see his like again in our lifetimes. A true giant of late night entertainment has been felled. David Letterman has retired.
Eulogies have poured in from the great and the good. Conan O’Brien urged viewers to actually change channel to watch the final Late Show. Jimmy Kimmel’s ode to Letterman was so emo- tional he had to restart it three times. Jimmy Fallon credited Letterman with creating the late night talk show format as it currently stands. Jon Stewart capped it off by calling Dave the greatest talk show host of all time. High praise, indeed the highest praise possible, for a man who started his professional life as a weatherman.
For those of you who don’t know who David Letterman is, or don’t understand why his retirement is so monumental, just remember this; he hosted the same late night talk show on CBS for 22 years. That’s longer than most of you reading this have been alive for. Add to that the 10 years spent hosting Late Night and Letterman becomes the longest-running talk show host in American television history.
For many viewers, Letterman’s show has been the staple of American television. He was there in the aftermath of 9/11, providing a brief moment of normality to an American audience still reeling in the chaos. He was there after a quintuple bypass heart operation, visibly emotional as he thanked the team of doctors that saved his life. He was there, publicly apologising to an audience of millions in his admission of sleeping with members of his staff. The memorable moments continue: Cher calling him an asshole, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance art car-crash interview, Drew Barrymore flashing him. As you might imagine, 30 years on the air produces quite a highlights reel.
Admittedly, Letterman’s style has been criticised for not so much maturing with age as fossilising. Whilst Jimmy Fallon plays ‘Wheel of Musical Impressions’ with Christina Aguilera, and James Corden parodies the entirety of Tom Hank’s filmography in six minutes with Hanks himself, Letterman is sat behind the same desk, asking the same sort of questions, with a sardonic wit that’s unchanged since a time when the Berlin Wall was still standing.
His retirement comes as the final earthquake in the recent tectonic shifts in the world of American talk show television. Jay Leno’s retirement from the Tonight Show, for the second time, was equally monumental, giving his replacement Jimmy Fallon the space to monopolise on comedy segments that have vast YouTube audiences. Craig Ferguson, who hosted the show that followed Letterman’s for ten years, was replaced by essentially unknown Brit James Corden. And now we have Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report fame, stepping in to the largest shoes imaginable in the late night world as Letterman’s successor.
Letterman is a relic from an era that has long ceased to exist. Much closer in image to Johnny Carson than to the modern, energetic, unrelentingly enthusiastic breed of talk show hosts, Letterman is very much the last of the old guard of television royalty. None of the current talk show hosts will still have their shows in 20, let alone 30, years. The world of television is too jittery for one person to endure for that long again.
Watch the final Late Show if you can. As much as it’s simultaneously funny and moving, it is now also a piece of history; a monument to a man whose stature and legacy we will not see again.