The news broke yesterday and it hit me harder than I thought it would: David Letterman had announced that he would be retiring as host of The Late Show With David Letterman at the end of his current contract, which expires next year, in 2015.
Dave has always been my guy, the funny, acerbic, self-deprecating host who reinvented the way we look at the talk show format. Some say Jimmy Fallon, with his emphasis on sketch comedy and performances as opposed to interviews, is in the process of reinventing it once again.
Maybe that’s why Dave chose this moment to step aside. Or maybe he’s just tired of the grind. He’s been through a lot physically and emotionally over the past decade. The guy has earned a break.
He’s also earned hundreds of millions of dollars too. Maybe he just doesn’t have the same drive he used to. It would be perfectly understandable.
Either way, he’ll be missed. Even though I no longer watch his show as religiously as I used to, he will always be the greatest to many in my generation. As he credited Johnny Carson for being his biggest influence, we can say the same thing about him.
Here’s what I wrote about Dave a couple of months ago when Jay Leno was in the process of leaving the Tonight Show.
It always seemed to me that you had to make a choice.
You were either a Letterman person or a Leno person. It’s like cats and dogs–you couldn’t really like them both.
I remember as a college student watching Letterman almost every night when he hosted Late Night With David Letterman and thinking to myself,
“This is the first TV host type who has ever really made me laugh.”
He was really funny in a way my friends and I could relate to. He turned the entire stale, vanilla talk show template inside out and introduced a new type of authenticity and realness to late night TV that we had never seen before.
Sarcastic, self-deprecating, never taking himself or his guests too seriously. No performer has had a greater influence on my career in media than Dave.
So, when Johnny Carson decided to retire from The Tonight Show to a life of yachting and tennis, it just seemed right that Dave would get the gig. He was the natural choice, the heir apparent, Johnny’s hand-picked successor.
Enter Jay Leno. A stand up comedian once described by his good friend at he time David Letterman as ,”the funniest person I know.”
I liked Jay as one Dave’s best and most frequent guests, (and as Johnny’s occasional fill-in ) but never thought he stacked up against either as a host.
Well, except in the ratings, which he has dominated since taking over as host of the show in 1992. It was no surprise then that Dave and Jay’s friendship became strained to say the least. Letterman fans everywhere were outraged.
That was Dave’s job! It almost seemed like his birthright.
Subsequently, Jay has become everyone’s favorite punching bag, in large part due to Dave’s relentless drubbing.
One of the things I did like about Jay has been his refusal, for the most part, to respond these attacks, some of which (Jimmy Kimmel, some of Conan O’Briens’s minions) have crossed the line in my opinion. That’s class.
Plus, you know what they say when you’re the top dog?
“Never punch down.”
I admit, my feelings for Jay have softened over the years. While I still consider myself a “Dave Guy”, I don’t really watch his show that often anymore. More often than not, he seems cranky and uninterested–which he probably is after all of these years. Who can blame him? As great of a career as he’s had, he still never got the one gig he desperately wanted.
So when Jay signed off as host of The Tonight Show the other night, I felt empathy for him. He was emotional and real in a way that we’ve never seen before. You can tell that he really loved being the host of that show. I’m sure Jimmy Fallon will do a great job as the next guy to occupy that coveted seat, but I’m not sure he’ll ever love it as much as Jay did.
Jerry Seinfeld, who’s close to both Jay and Dave, put it best recently in an interview with the New York Times. (Click on the link to watch a video of the two he put together.)
They’re intertwined as people,” Seinfeld said of the two hosts. “This is my tribute to everything that was good about their relationship. You see it clearly. I don’t really think there is any place else that you can see it as easily — how much they still think of each other, in a nice way.”
Agreed. And take this bet. At some point over the next year or two, Jay will give Dave his biggest ratings win in years by appearing as a guest on his show.
(He better hurry though, he’s got a little more than a year to go as Dave’s current contract is set to expire in 2015.)