David Letterman marks low-key 20th anniversary

Host brings usual low-key approach to latest milestone but should savor outlasting Leno

David Letterman made his CBS debut on Aug. 30, 1993 — the consolation prize, at the time, for having lost the coveted “The Tonight Show” throne to Jay Leno. Yet if the host has never entirely gotten over that, he’s certainly made the best of a disappointing situation.

Letterman’s first “Late Show” guest, Bill Murray, made an encore appearance Thursday night in recognition of the 20th-anniversary, but like most of Letterman’s milestones, this one will come and go with relatively little fanfare. CBS no doubt would have liked to commemorate the moment more ostentatiously — a primetime special, perhaps? — but Dave settled for Murray’s hijinks and a sweet photo album in the closing moments. Even the customary celebrity tributes — which would have been easy enough to assemble — were tossed off as a silly gag.

Still, in his heart of hearts, Letterman should find a lot to savor as he heads into the coming year. With Jay Leno being elbowed out of “The Tonight Show” (again) in February, Letterman — who signed a deal that extends through 2014 — not only has a chance to go out as the daypart’s elder statesman, but the potential ratings champ as well. And while that might seem strange given the 66-year-old host will be facing a pair of much-younger rivals in the two Jimmys — Fallon and Kimmel — having weathered the Conan O’Brien experiment and with the No. 1 network backing him, it’s not a far-fetched possibility, particularly in terms of total viewers.

As it stands, Letterman has already achieved plenty — surpassing his idol Johnny Carson, who anointed him as his spiritual heir, as the longest-running latenight host in history (including his stint on NBC from 1982-93). Even so, he always comes across as someone who’s never entirely satisfied, as if no amount of success could have been enough.

As with Carson, Letterman remains extremely private, a slightly incongruous trait for such a public figure. That reticence has only intensified since the strange extortion plot he had to deal with a few years ago, which made public embarrassing revelations about affairs he had with members of his staff.

Letterman is a complicated guy, but he clearly knows what he’s comfortable doing — and CBS has been smart enough to leave him alone and let him do it. In that context, watching NBC repeat the tumultuous process of pushing Leno toward retirement for a newer model brings to mind a line from “Chinatown” — namely, “I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

Not that comics, especially one as irascible as Letterman, really embrace the idea of respectability. During his monologue, Letterman said in response to the obvious question of how long he might continue hosting “Late Show,” “I want to be dragged out of here kicking and screaming, like they did with Regis.”

Regis is back, of course, at least sort of. And after watching his experience and NBC’s persistent lack of gratitude toward Leno, it would be nice to see Letterman hang on until he’s good and ready to call it quits — contentedly feeling like he’s had enough, before emulating Carson one last time and bidding us all a very heartfelt goodnight.

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