Lights Out for ‘Late Show’? (Here’s hoping no!)

As David Letterman celebrates his 10th year on CBS, he might be thinking of moving on
A few weeks before David Letterman went on an extended vacation he conducted an interview on “Late Show” with a young man by the name of Aron Ralston.
Ralston is an extreme mountaineer (unlike Dave) and Indiana native (like Dave), who – with the aid of a pocketknife – severed his lower right arm, which had been pinned beneath an 800-pound boulder in a remote Utah canyon for five days. After rappelling down, he walked three hours, was spotted by a helicopter and three months later was on national TV explaining all of this to a profoundly moved TV host.
With the interview wrapping up, Letterman wondered, “Could everybody have done this?” Ralston, 27, replied, “If you had a choice to go through an hour of pain to live another 60 years, you’d do the same thing.”
Letterman didn’t even bother to respond with a quip, the usual antidote to an interview that’s suddenly veered into uncertain terrain. He instead leaned on his elbow, settled himself into his chair, peered at Ralston through those primly professorial spectacles and asked, sotto voce: “Is that what you know about life that I don’t know necessarily?”
Some members of the audience tittered, unsure whether they’d just heard a joke or whether they had actually heard television’s most deeply serious funnyman ask the least funny question of them all. As in: What’s the meaning of life? What’s it all about? Why are we here and where are we going? You have some answers, Aron? You’ve been to the brink and back, so lemme have ’em.
Letterman has broken his neck twice in car accidents in years past, so maybe he just wanted some practical advice about how to deal with chronic pain. But more likely he was talking about something else, like this thing called life and how to make the best of it.
And for some reason, a contemplative David Letterman – a rare bird, to be sure, when he’s on the air – is an especially provocative Letterman. At least in popular imagination he remains TV’s Everest of insecurities: the self-loathing comic (an old cliche that just won’t die) who is rarely satisfied with his performance and who is never truly happy except when the little red light on the camera is on (OK, likely still true). He is arguably our most gifted and most human TV performer – the guy who was ravaged by shingles and felled by heart disease and exhausted by the grind and tormented by sometimes mediocre ratings and soulless networks. You prick him, he bleeds. Admirers have long cherished the quaint notion that maybe there’s a little bit of Dave in each of them, but God forbid, not too much.
And now, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman” (it premiered Aug. 30, 1993, in a deluge of media overkill that rivaled, then surpassed, the sinking of the Titanic), the stark humanity of Dave is sprawled out before us once again. Big anniversaries tend to force some people to think big thoughts, to make dramatic gestures. In 1972, on the eve of his 10th anniversary hosting “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson married his second wife, Joanna Holland.
Et tu, Dave? What are your cosmic thoughts these days, your grand designs?
This has been a challenging year for Letterman and for “Late Show.” He lost his closest friend, George Miller, the veteran comic (and a regular on “Late Night With David Letterman,” which ran on NBC from February 1982 to June 1993), to leukemia in March. The shingles then cost him nearly five weeks on the air, the longest hiatus for Letterman since early 2000 when he was sidelined a full five weeks after heart bypass surgery. After the shingles episode in April, he returned to acclaim; the show predictably enjoyed a brief ratings spike and then lost steam – big-time. “Late Show” is averaging 3.5 million viewers this summer, or 2 million below Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” which means that for all practical purposes, the late-night race (such as it is) is over.
Meanwhile, Letterman, who turns 57 in April, is weary, very weary, from the intense grind of a daily show. In an attempt to stanch the fatigue, he impulsively decided to add a series of Friday guest hosts in June. Because of the taping schedule, it was a ridiculous move that effectively spelled Letterman only one hour per week. He still ended up working essentially a full schedule. Worse, he never bothered to tell CBS, which watched helplessly as ratings crumbled (about 500,000 viewers on average were lost for each guest-hosted show). Letterman dumped the idea after only four attempts, but the damage was done. The relationship with CBS – still tenuous a year and half after ABC’s abortive raid to attract the host – got only shakier (both Letterman and CBS declined comment).
And here’s the punch line: There’s now widespread speculation among Letterman observers that he is contemplating retirement. When? There are plenty of guesses out there, but Letterman’s two-year contract ends in March, and then he goes to a year-to-year arrangement, which could tie him to CBS through 2007. This essentially means that by early spring, Letterman could say “adios” – or stick around another year. Tellingly, his idol and mentor, Johnny Carson, did precisely the same thing. After a series of multiyear deals, Carson went to a series of year-to-year contracts, and then officially gave NBC notice during a dramatic announcement at Carnegie Hall in May 1991.
Famously private, Letterman, of course, is saying nothing and has said nothing to the press in five years. He’s also instructed his staff to keep quiet, which just feeds the speculation monster. But there’s also a logical explanation for the silence: CBS tentatively has scheduled a 10th anniversary special for November, and that’s when Letterman, et al, want to pretend the real 10th anniversary arrives.
But divining Letterman is an old and notoriously error-prone sport. Perhaps the only reliable guidepost is what went on in Carson’s head. Steve O’Donnell, head writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Late Night” head writer for nearly a decade, says, “In terms of your conduct as a host and as someone who is responsible for a show and franchise, he looks to Carson.”
This is problematic, too. Foremost, Carson lasted 30 years on “Tonight.” Letterman, who’s spent 21 years on late-night TV, said in an interview five years ago: “Even if I wanted to [do 30], I’d be kidding myself that I could achieve that. I understand why [Carson] was working three days a week [toward the end]. I mean, if you can have the luxury of doing that kind of schedule, it’s easier to do 30. But 30? Heavens, that’s like two generations of people. Thirty!”
Carson mulled retirement for more than two decades, though apparently never gave it serious thought. And as Ed McMahon now recalls: “It was like a running gag with him. … He was teasing the audience, measuring the crowd [and] what they thought might work and what might not. He was having fun with them.” Carson was also teasing NBC, which desperately wanted to hold on to the man who brought in 17 million viewers a night during “Tonight’s” heyday in the mid-’70s.
Few believe Letterman has any real intention of leaving, and while there may not be any hard reasons why this may be so, there is a sound reason of the heart. O’Donnell says retirement speculation is “definitely fascinating,” because Letterman has “all the contradictions and complexities of a Hamlet or Winston Churchill, [but] I really do think [the show] is the purest satisfaction he gets.” He also cites a “subcategory” to Letterman’s thinking: “When we were in New York, he had had several opportunities to socialize with Jack Paar, and as much as he admired him, I think he was a little disappointed that he had done so little with the decades of his life following the early retirement [from ‘Tonight’].”
O’Donnell, who adds that he’s speaks only occasionally with Letterman these days, says he’s probably “collecting all the information and feelings that he has to collect to make a decision, and he’s not going to make his decision until he’s ready. And it may be that he has conflicting impulses. But the larger one is to stay the course. He’s also seen where unexpected things have been for him great opportunities to show what he has, and you think not only of his personal health problems, but also [after] 9/11, where he did such a fine and unpretentious job.”
“I don’t think he knows, but one day he’ll wake up and say, ‘I’ve done this, and [now] I’ll do something else,” says Hal Gurnee, “Late Night/Late Show’s” longtime director, who himself retired from “Late Show” several years ago after a decade and a half with Letterman.
There is, naturally, another point to be made. What else would Letterman do with his life? Yes, he has far-flung business interests (his production company, Worldwide Pants, and a management interest in Bobby Rahal’s motorsport racing team, among many others) and far-flung estates (including one jewel hidden on Martha’s Vineyard). But for Letterman, the tautology is simple: The show is his life, and his life is the show.
At the end of his classic profile of Carson published in the New Yorker in 1978, Kenneth Tynan wrote that Carson “is the grand master of the one show-business art that leads nowhere. He has painted himself not into a corner but onto the top of a mountain. Long – or at least as long as the air at the summit continues to nourish and elate him – may he stay there.”
And long may Dave also stay.