David Letterman, who revolutionized late-night television with a mix of dry wit, irony and absurdist humor, announced Thursday that he will retire next year. He will have had a longer career in late night than any host, including his mentor, Johnny Carson.
Letterman is going out on his own terms after weathering a fight for NBC’s “Tonight Show” that sent him to CBS’s “Late Show,” health scares, and a sex and blackmail scandal. He is a hero to the two Jimmys he competes with each night, though both now beat him in the ratings with a style of comedy that favors viral-ready bits over Letterman’s more nuanced material.
Letterman said he informed CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves that he would leave the show at the end of his contract in 2015. He said he told Moonves, “Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring.”
Moonves said he has appreciated Letterman’s needling over the years, and appreciates his ability to keep “celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me.”
“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,” Moonves said. “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”
He added: 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 popularized many of the running gags of the generation replacing his: Fallon, Kimmel and Conan O'Brien‘s gently goofy stunts were at least partly inspired by Letterman’s array of “Stupid Human Tricks.” In 1984, he affixed himself to a Velcro wall. The ubiquitous lists that populate the internet owe a debt to Letterman’s nightly Top 10s.
Letterman thanked those that have worked with him on the show.
“What this means now, is that Paul and I can be married,” he said, referring to longtime band leader Paul Shaffer.
Letterman has been host of the show since 1993, when he moved to CBS after his former network, NBC, opted to hire Jay Leno to take over the “Tonight Show” when Carson retired. Letterman will have lasted a year longer on “Late Night” than Leno did on “Tonight.”
His announcement comes on the heels of a major late night shuffle. Jimmy Fallon took over the “Tonight Show” from Leno in February after 22 nonconsecutive seasons, and former “Saturday Night Live” head writer Seth Meyers filled Fallon’s old spot at “Late Night” on NBC on Feb. 24.
Letterman has looked back more and more in recent months. Wednesday, he enjoyed the latest of several recent visits by Bill Murray, his first “Late Show” guest.
Johnny Depp was Letterman’s sole guest for Thursday evening. Musical guest Joseph Arthur shared on Twitter his honor at being present for the announcement:
Letterman just announced his retirement. Historical night. Privileged to be here.
- josepharthur (@josepharthur) April 3, 2014
Watch the clip of Letterman’s announcement here: