DAVID LETTERMAN, the host of “The Late Show” on CBS, dropped the first Florsheim shoe in his own inimitable fashion on April 3, recalling a conversation with CBS president Leslie Moonves. “And I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring.’”
“I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much,” Letterman said.
“What this means now, is that Paul and I can be married ... we don’t have the timetable for this precisely down – I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, Paul and I will be wrapping things up."
By the time Letterman hangs ‘em up, he will have hosted CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" for 22 years. He held down a similar gig at NBC's "Late Night" for 11 years before then. And make of this what you will: According to The Wrap, April 4, Letterman’s announcement that he was leaving won the show its best ratings since October 2012.
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But even then, Letterman knew better. In its five seasons, “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” won Emmy nominations every year since 2010. Fallon, simply put, is an overachiever’s overachiever. A “Saturday Night Live” veteran, Fallon is already a walking multihyphenate: actor, singer, guitarist, pianist, production company chief, and (as I noted back in January) “altogether a more kinetic television presence than Letterman has been in years.”
The generational shift of Fallon’s rise and Letterman’s departure was only partly complete with Dave’s announcement. The other shoe dropped on April 10 when CBS announced that Stephen Colbert, namesake of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, would replace Letterman, in a five-year deal worth eleven boatloads of money.
Making his own announcement, Colbert said, "Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career. I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead. I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”
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BEFORE COLBERT was announced, some in the media wondered if CBS had the stones to make a daring new hire for one of the more coveted positions in television. An abundance of names were floated: Chelsea Handler, Ellen DeGeneres (fresh from her Oscar-host gig), Craig Ferguson, Conan O’Brien, Neil Patrick Harris — even Louis C.K., for the love of God!
Eric Deggans, writing Saturday in “Code Switch” on the NPR Web site, asked the inevitable question:
“Now that David Letterman has finally confirmed plans to retire, it seems necessary to ask the same question which surfaces every time there's a shuffle in the late night TV lineup: “Why are there so many white guys dominating late night talk show television?
“The simple answer is that TV programmers mostly cast for their target audience. So daytime TV is bursting with Ellens and Oprahs, Latifahs and Katies, Barbaras and Julies, while nighttime runneth over with Jons, Jimmys, Davids, Conans, Stephens, Craigys and even a Carson or two.
“But while daytime has the occasional Steve Harvey, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, late night has mostly been the province of the smart-alecky white guy. I don't expect CBS to change this, given how important the Letterman succession will be for them.”
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What would account for the fact of African Americans staying up to watch late-night show guests that matter to them, like Denzel Washington and Will Smith, Steve McQueen and Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Hart and Michael Strahan, Lupita Nyong’o and a certain African American president of the United States? Late-night TV matters to blacks and browns. The problem is that late-night TV viewing by blacks and browns doesn’t matter to the risk-averse suits making the programming decisions at the networks.
Comfortable with a proven template for success — proven over generations — Big TV is loathe to tamper with a solidly established formula. This probably goes double for CBS, the Tiffany network whose polished, procedural, traditionalist culture is a cornerstone of its public identity. That entrenchment into the familiar ground of the status quo could have been a setback for CBS. The Colbert hire negates that.
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CBS SUFFERS by comparison with NBC in not having a tradition of late-night comedic talent — a farm team, if you will — from which to draw a successor to a standing program. NBC’s had that luxury for generations with “The Tonight Show” (in incarnations going back to 1960), “Saturday Night Live” (which first aired in 1975) and the “Late Night” franchise, just taken over by Seth Meyers.
So whoever CBS got to replace Letterman had to be a poach from another network. But ironically enough, the news of Letterman’s departure was an opportunity for CBS to undertake a departure from popular expectations. Whoever they brought in would inevitably be compared to Letterman anyway; why not make the most of it? That’s exactly what CBS did.