Emmy Awards Contenders 2015
Courtesy of CBS

David Letterman has a new hosting gig – of sorts.

The veteran late-night comedian will in 2016 journey to India to examine how that nation is trying to bring solar power to its entire population within the next decade. It’s a far cry from rattling off the popular Top Ten Lists and Stupid Pet Tricks that were so much a part of his more than three decades of wee-hours television for CBS and NBC. But it’s a chance for Letterman to give voice to the issue of climate change on a new, albeit temporary, home: National Geographic Channel.

Letterman will join Jack Black, Ty Burrell, James Cameron, Thomas Friedman, Joshua Jackson , Aasif Mandvi, Olivia Munn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ian Somerhalder and Cecily Strong in the second season of the documentary series “Years of Living Dangerously,” which explores the issue of climate change and won a 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. The project is the first Letterman has announced since leaving “The Late Show” on CBS last May.

A spokesman for Letterman said the comedian declined to comment.

Working a late-night show for so many years usually ends up with the host being viewed as something of an American institution. For some who hold forth on the programs, that’s enough. Johnny Carson didn’t really tackle any projects of great note once he left “Tonight” in 1992 (though he did contribute jokes to Letterman). Hosts of a more recent vintage seem to want to keep working. Jay Leno is the central focus of a new show about cars slated to run in primetime on CNBC. Jon Stewart turned up unexpectedly as one of the executive producers of the new iteration of “The Late Show” on CBS, hosted by his Comedy Central colleague, Stephen Colbert. Craig Kilborn, Arsenio Hall, Craig Ferguson and Chelsea Handler have all tried their hand at various projects.

Letterman’s new endeavor may have some serious intent behind it. David Gelber and Joel Bach, the series’ producers, said they thought they noticed Letterman become more animated on “The Late Show” when discussion of climate change came to the fore, and decided to reach out to him. “You could just tell. Whenever they would have a climate discussion, he would really kind of perk up,” noted Bach, in an interview. “And it turns out he does, he cares about it a lot,” he said. “He’s definitely invested in this issue.”

Letterman, the producers said, has never visited the country.

The producers never really had to wrangle celebrities in past jobs  – well, except for folks like Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl and Morley Safer. Gelber worked at “60 Minutes” for 27 years, and met Bach when he joined the show as an associate producer. As stories related to climate change came and went, Gelber said he realized “this really is the big story out there. There is nothing – maybe except nuclear war – that compares to climate change as an important story. The big media is basically underplaying it, ignoring it,” he thought as he tackled his regular duties. As much as the pair enjoyed working at “60,” they said, they wanted to devote more time to covering the single issue, and knew they could not do it at the newsmagazine.

So they took a chance, taking time to develop a documentary to explore the topic. Bach reached out to an old college friend who happened to be the niece of Jerry Weintraub, the famous TV producer who died in July. As luck would have it, he expressed interest, advising the pair to forego a documentary and instead envision the project as a TV series.

The lessons of “60 Minutes” are not far from their thoughts. “The voice of Don Hewitt is still in my brain,” said Gelber, referring to the legendary CBS News executive who created the program. “We have to find strong characters, stories that have uncertain outcomes,” he explained. “We try to take it to the next level in terms of cinematography.”

For National Geographic Channel, “Years” is an example of the types of “ambitious projects” the network wants to see more of, said Courteney Monroe, chief executive of National Geographic Channels U.S., in an interview. The company, which counted 21st Century Fox as a backer as part of a joint venture, is now held more closely under the corporation’s umbrella than it is the non-profit National Geographic Society. The network want to work more closely with the creative community to “become a premium network for content around science and exploration and adventure,” she said.

In 2016, one of those adventures will feature David Letterman in the role of explorer and science correspondent.

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