David Letterman is readying an exit from his latenight perch at CBS’ “Late Show” that will play down the hype associated with the event, according to people familiar with the matter, and instead focus on his work on the program he has broadcast for decades.
As the veteran host enters his last six weeks at the helm of the program, CBS has unveiled a roster of celebrities slated to appear. The names include George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern, Julia Roberts, Robert Downey Jr., Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, Jack Hanna and Scarlett Johansson. CBS promised “many more names to be announced in the coming weeks.” Bill Murray, the actor and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member who was Letterman’s first guest when he started “The Late Show” at CBS as well as “Late Night” at NBC, is also expected to return to the program, though CBS did not offer details about when he might visit or on the particulars of Letterman’s final broadcast scheduled for May 20. No details about any special programming that may be broadcast in tandem with the show’s final weeks were disclosed.
The announcement is one of the first CBS has made describing how Letterman’s tenure will come to an end, and it may be one of only a few. The network typically maintains a “hands-off” policy in regard to its latenight host, leaving it to Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, to do broader communications about the man at the center of the show. A spokesman for Worldwide Pants did not respond immediately to a query about Letterman’s intentions for his last weeks on air.
One school of thought has emerged that Letterman may choose to depart in much the same way as Johnny Carson, the iconic host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” to whom many believe Letterman is the true successor in latenight TV.
Before broadcasting his last show on May 22, 1992 – nearly 23 years to the date of Letterman’s scheduled departure date — Carson held fast to his routine. His penultimate program featured a serenade by Bette Midler and an appearance by Robin Williams. Carson’s final “Tonight” appearance featured no guests, just the host chatting with his audience about the moment while playing the occasional series of clips from past programs. Longtime aides-de-camp Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen were also on set.
If the publicity-averse Letterman did want to gain a more intense spotlight on his exit, the time to do it would be now. Departures from latenight TV are announced months in advance of the actual event in order to give show staffers to make new plans; to gain support from advertisers who might like to tap the swell of viewers likely to result as the show moves toward its end; and to call viewer attention to the fact that a longtime host is getting ready to leave the airwaves. Jon Stewart announced his plans to leave Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in February, even though he is not likely to step down until some time between July and the end of 2015.
Yet Letterman is not known for craving the limelight outside of his appearances on his program. Other hosts may work to generate attention for a special series of shows, much as Conan O’Brien recently did for a trip he made to Cuba that was shown on TBS’ “Conan.” Letterman’s activity outside the program has generally been rare in recent years, though he did produce a special promo for CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII in 2013 and made an appearance at the network’s upfront presentation to advertisers last year.
In the latter part of his career, Letterman has typically opted to do his talking on “The Late Show.” That’s where he discussed, in April of last year, his decision to retire; in 2009 his being made the victim of an extortion plot in which a former CBS News producer threatened to make public romantic liaisons between himself and female staffers on the show; and in 2001, his reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11 of that year, often cited as a seminal moment in helping the nation return to a more normal routine.
Whether Letterman leaves in a hail of publicity or in more simple fashion, chances are it will make for memorable TV.