Yesterday was a hectic day at work – I was jumping from conference call to conference call, trying to finalize the arrangements for a team meeting for one of the projects I manage and adapting to the fact that our Internet is now running at 45% capacity. There was a lot of multi-tasking and the usual mayhem; I can’t even remember what else I was going when I saw an e-mail from CNN pop up in my inbox. I was honestly relieved to see it was a news update and not another email that was going to generate more work for me to do. I gave it a cursory glance – and then stopped what I was doing to read it again. I’d misread a tweet earlier in the day – it turns out that it was in fact the White House, not the Waffle House, that has been outflanking the GOP on Obamacare – so I wasn’t fully confident in my reading competition.
But I had in fact read it correctly – David Letterman announced that he was retiring.
I was somewhat surprised that the news had as much of an effect as it did; anyone who has even occasionally read the blog knows that my late night allegiance lies with Jimmy Fallon. I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report every night. I’ve become a more frequent Conan viewer, though I usually watch everything but the interviews. I dabble in Kimmel when he has on interesting guests.
I honestly can’t tell you the last time that I’ve watched The Late Show with David Letterman. With so many late night options, he just doesn’t make it into the rotation very often; DVRing and streaming helps me keep up with more shows, but there is only so much time in a day. Letterman is a causality of my overbooking.
But that wasn’t always the case. From high school until my early years of grad school, I was a regular connoisseur of Letterman – first when he was on NBC with Late Night and then when he moved to CBS to go head to head with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. At the time, Letterman was the more edgy late night host – Carson was great, but I was clearly not his target audience and we all know how much I can’t stand Jay Leno and his blandness. Letterman was also the only New York based show in the early years, so I felt more of a kinship to him and his affinity for a city that I also love. When I originally dreamed of going to see a live taping of a show, Letterman was who I wanted to see. I especially was a fan of his Top Ten lists, so much so that I basically stole the concept and appropriated it for my own use (in homage, of course). Many of my friends in college would wake up to find a Heather created Top Ten (or Top Five if I ran out of ideas) posted on the dry erase board of their dorm room, usually recounting some of the adventures that we had the night before. I recently found a treasure trove of these lists and they still make me laugh, even after all this time. When Letterman had his emergency bypass surgery in 2000, I tuned in for his first show back and cried as the thanked all the people that helped him through that scary ordeal. In 2001, Letterman was one of the voices that helped ease the pain of 9/11. I may not have always watched Letterman, but I was somehow comforted to know that he was always there.
Letterman’s retirement announcement is not a complete surprise; he’s the elder statesman in the current late night landscape and his ratings do not come close to the highs of either of the two Jimmys. The success for late night shows are measured differently now – it’s not just ratings, but viral videos that help dictate success and that is a game that Letterman, like Leno, is ill-equipped to compete in. Letterman and Leno was more of an even playing field, but with younger and hipper options in late night Letterman began to seem more and more like the crotchety old guy at the desk. Letterman has been doing a show in some capacity for over 30 years – practically my entire life – so the idea that he would be retiring wasn’t really a question of if, but when. With a young son at home, it makes sense that he would want to leave on his terms to spend more time with his family.
Knowing that something is going to happen and it actually happening are two different things, however, so even if I was expecting this announcement sooner rather than later it still made me a little sad. I barely remember late night without Letterman and its going to be weird to flip through the channels at 11:35 and not see him. He’ll be around at least through 2014 – that gives me a year to try to go to a taping – but his seat wasn’t even cold yet before the speculation started as to who would replace him. There are some interesting ideas out there, but how practical some of them are will remain to be seen. Just please don’t let it be Leno.
Perhaps knowing that my time with Letterman is limited will prompt me to make more of an effort to check in on him; I’m never going to be able to swing watching him every night, but I’d like to watch a handful of shows a month. At the very least, this announcement makes me nostalgic for the era when Letterman was my late night guy; I have a lot of fond memories of those shows from the 90s. So here’s a tip of a cap to Letterman – I’m glad that he gets to plan out his farewell and the late night terrain will be very different without him. In a lot of ways, many of the people who are currently doing shows in late night are able to do what they do because of Letterman.After all, he originated the concept of Late Night over at NBC, which has served a springboard for a lot of people. Many of his peers realized that and issued nice statements yesterday. I think Seth Myers said it best:
Congratulations Dave and best wishes on your upcoming retirement!