×

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joke both of them told on Wednesday), there seemed to be a common bond — a sense of injustice to the whole thing — that superseded it, even beyond Letterman’s somewhat mellowed take on Leno in an Oprah Winfrey interview.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.

More TV

  • Bristol, CT - March 13, 2017

    Mina Kimes Helps ESPN Kick Off 'Daily' Podcast

    Mina Kimes is preparing to take ESPN into a new frontier. The sports-media giant has launched a “SportsCenter” for Snapchat and tested baseball telecasts for kids. Now it’s hoping to set up shop in another media venue. Starting tomorrow, the Disney-backed company launches “ESPN Daily,” a weekday morning podcast that aims to tap its vast [...]

  • MIA Wrap

    Rome MIA Market Wraps With Stronger U.S. Presence, Boosts Italy's Industry Standing

    Rome’s MIA market for TV series, feature films and documentaries wrapped positively Sunday with organizers boasting a bump in attendance just as some 2,500 executives departed in an upbeat mood after four days of dealmaking and presentations of mostly European fresh product, which elevated Italy’s global standing in the industry, especially within the TV sector. [...]

  • NETFLIX ZERO SHOWRUNNER

    Showrunner Stefano Voltaggio on Netflix's 'Zero' About Black Youths in Italy (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix recently announced a new Italian original titled “Zero” that will mark the first Italian series centered around the present-day lives of black Italian youths. “Zero” is based on several books by young writer and TV music show host Antonio Dikele Distefano, who was born in Italy from Angolan parents. The project was originated by [...]

  • Content-is-King

    Top TV Execs Tackle New Distribution Landscape in Rome

    ROME – In an increasingly complex TV market, with a host of new big-ticket streaming services preparing to enter an already crowded arena, both buyers and sellers are rethinking some of the fundamentals of the TV business as they grapple with the best way to reach global audiences. A host of top producers, network executives, [...]

  • MIA-MARKET-2019_Europe-Producers-Club_4

    European Producers and Broadcasters Debate How to Weather Streaming Storm

    ROME – The impending rollout of Disney Plus, HBO Max, and other new streaming services promises a new era of uncertainty—and opportunity—for broadcasters and producers in an industry already disrupted by the likes of Netflix and Amazon. At a panel hosted by the European Producers Club Friday afternoon during the MIA market in Rome, executives [...]

  • Kevin-Beggs

    Lionsgate TV Chairman Kevin Beggs on Streamers and TV’s ‘Platinum Era’

    ROME – Over the course of two decades in the industry, Lionsgate Television chairman Kevin Beggs has witnessed the ups and downs of a business that has frequently found itself confronting both dizzying new possibilities as well as existential threats. But these days the veteran exec, who oversees the development of all scripted and non-scripted content [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content