If going out on top didn’t appear to be in the cards, at least David Letterman — unlike his longtime rival, Jay Leno — will get to leave on his own terms, announcing his retirement plans for next year.
Letterman spent so many years chasing Leno in the ratings that he must have felt a little bit like Javert to Leno’s Jean Valjean. But “The Tonight Show’s” baton pass to Jimmy Fallon opened the door — at least temporarily — to the prospect that NBC’s ratings might again sag, as they did with Conan O’Brien behind the desk, creating an opportunity for Letterman to retire as latenight’s reigning champ.
So far, though, Fallon appears to be holding up well as “The Tonight Show’s” new host, and even if he drops, the demographic advantage appears too vast to close. So with Letterman about to celebrate his 67th birthday on April 12 — making him a year older than his idol, Johnny Carson, was when he retired — it made sense that Letterman would decide there were no mountains left to climb.
Through all of this, give CBS and its CEO Leslie Moonves credit for treating the prickly Letterman with the respect he deserved — and which Leno, notably, was twice denied. (Granted, Leno said NBC was more solicitous when they approached him about promoting Fallon, but it’s still clear the network set those wheels in motion, not the host.)
With all the pressure to attract younger demos in the daypart, CBS had the incentive to consider options for a hand-off. Yet Letterman is rightfully the most admired creative talent latenight has ever produced — and certainly the most influential in terms of other comics, as former NBC exec Rick Ludwin not long ago noted. Whatever might be gained ratings-wise in hastening Letterman’s departure, in other words, simply wouldn’t have been worth the grief or ill will.
Now Letterman can take what amounts to a protracted victory lap (he left the exact date vague, based on a transcript of the show), to be followed by perhaps the most interesting question about the intensely private comic’s plans: Will Letterman emulate Carson one more time by walking into the sunset, hanging up his spurs and essentially disappearing from public life, or will he continue to perform in the way, say, Bob Hope did?
Despite a 22-year run at CBS (and more than 30 years as a host including his NBC days), enormous wealth and the esteem in which he’s held in the comedy community, one suspects Letterman will always see “The Tonight Show” as his white whale — the one that got away.
It’s easy to think of, oh, 10 reasons why that isn’t true, but this much is: Latenight will go on without Letterman and Leno, but like a lot of things involving the TV business, it’s going to look — or at least feel — a whole lot smaller.