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David Letterman After Leno: Last Man Joking?

Although you can find David Letterman’s comments about Jay Leno leaving “The Tonight Show” — again — online, the printed jokes (“NBC announced the official date for Jay Leno’s departure. No mention of his official date of return, however”) didn’t really capture the tone.

Letterman sounded almost wistful, as well as mystified, that Leno — the guy who’s been beating him in the ratings all these years — could face such an indignity — again,  no less.

“How many times can a guy be pushed out of a job?” Letterman asked, wondering what was wrong with NBC. Letterman wished Leno well, congratulated him for his long run, and mentioned knowing him for 38 years. For all the ill feelings brought about by Leno getting “The Tonight Show” instead of Letterman (a joke both of them told on Wednesday), there seemed to be a common bond — a sense of injustice to the whole thing — that superseded it, even beyond Letterman’s somewhat mellowed take on Leno in an Oprah Winfrey interview.

The question now is with Leno leaving in 2014, what will Letterman do? His contract extends through next year, which will allow him to surpass his idol, Johnny Carson, as latenight’s longest-running host — and leaving him around the same age Carson was (66) when he retired. Will he want to hang around long enough to see if he can go out on top (as he applauded Leno for doing), or be content to pass that milestone and then emulate Carson by slipping out of the spotlight, after having been perhaps the most public figure in entertainment.

CBS has been smart enough to sit back and let the other guys make all the mistakes. And even if Letterman looks his age and sounds cranky and occasionally seems to be phoning in interviews with guests who don’t intellectually engage him, he’s still the guy all the other comics admire. As Ray Romano told him at the Kennedy Center Honors in December, “What Johnny Carson was for you, you are for the rest of all of us.”

He is that, indeed, for a generation of comics who were in their teens or 20s when “Late Night” premiered on NBC over 30 years ago. The problem is those folks have either aged out of the 18-49 demo, or are close to it. In dog years, he’s survived about three generations of Stupid Pet Tricks.

Letterman has obviously thought about retirement, and discussed it with Charlie Rose on “CBS This Morning” in connection with the Kennedy Center event. “I know I would miss it. But I’d find other things to do,” he said.

Like me, Letterman sounded skeptical about Leno’s ability to actually walk away from it, perhaps because aside from their lust for “The Tonight Show,” the two men share what has historically been a near-unique ability to hold an audience for an hour five nights a week, regardless of who’s in the chair next to them.

Letterman is no longer the young guy, the cool guy (that mantle passed to Jon Stewart about seven Emmys ago) or the hip guy. But in the one race that has always seemed to matter to him, it now appears possible he’ll be the last guy standing. And joking about it.

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