Letterman leaving “Late Show,” a new era in late night

Matt Collette/ Uptown Radio
Matt Collette/ Uptown Radio

Host: David Letterman has been a fixture on late night TV show for more than three decades. He’s spent the last 21 years hosting CBS’s “The Late Show” at Broadway’s iconic Ed Sullivan Theater. Last night Letterman announced that he’ll be retiring sometime next year. And Matt Collette says the departure marks an end to the long-running late night wars between Letterman and rival Jay Leno — and could be a turning point in television history.

Collette: Just before taping last night’s episode of CBS’s “The Late Show,” David Letterman called his boss, network president Les Moonves.

LETTERMAN: And I said, Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, the network has been great, but I’m retiring.

SCHAFFER: Really — this is — this is — you actually did this?

LETTERMAN: Yes I did.

SCHAFFER: Wow. (0:11)

Even bandleader Paul Schaffer didn’t seem sure that the whole thing wasn’t just another bit. But Letterman said, yes, he’s retiring. Not immediately – sometime in about a year – his current contract ends in 2015 anyway.

SCHAFFER: And what this means now is that Paul and I can be married. (0:06)

HOLD LAUGHTER AND WEDDING MUSIC THROUGH NEXT LINE.

OK, it was kind of a bit. But Letterman is retiring, so the question stands: What does this mean now?

DB Gilles teaches classes about writing for late night TV at NYU. And he says the first order of business is for CBS to change course.

GILLES: If I was running the network, I would say ‘We do not want another Letterman.’ We want somebody different. Now, how would that work? Who the hell knows? It’s going to be a big mystery. (0:11)

The one thing that is clear is that CBS needs something big to challenge the rating juggernaut a few blocks over, at NBC’s Rockefeller Center.

HIGGINS: And now, here’s your host: Jimmy Fallon! (0:09)

SLOWLY FADE OUT THE ROOTS’ “TONIGHT SHOW” THEME

The late night wars are different now. Gone are the two armies — Letterman on one side, Leno on the other — meeting on a great 11:30 battlefield. Today it’s a modern war between Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel, and the fight’s happening all over the place: on network TV, yes, but also on Twitter and YouTube and Hulu.

With the Jimmys changing the the formula — and drawing in huge audiences because of it —  late night’s appealing to a new generation of viewers. And that means Letterman’s ratings are sliding, sometimes even falling behind cable fare like Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” or Stewart and Colbert on Comedy Central.

Diane and Ollie Larson are visiting New York from Minnesota. They’re huge Letterman fans, so this afternoon they took a picture outside the Ed Sullivan Theater.

LARSON: My husband is just falling off his chair. He just thinks he’s a hoot. His humor, his craziness. (0:05)

The other big thing viewers like the Larsons? They’re not young viewers. Ollie and Diane are in town for their 50th anniversary. For “The Late Show,” younger fans are hard to come by

COLLETTE: So I hear you’re a Letterman fan?

HODGES: Oh I’m not. Those jokers are. I don’t watch Letterman. (0:07)

For Jason Hodges and his friends, all twenty-somethings up from Georgia, the idea that you’d be a Letterman is actually kind of a joke. It’s the show their parents, or their grandparents, watch.

HODGES: I watched him growing up. But then Jimmy Fallon came along and he’s just more entertaining and engaging. Dave seems really stale. (0:07)

Age isn’t the only issue when it comes to replacing Letterman. Emily Shire writes about women and media for The Daily Beast and calls late night TV a boys’ club. And the only woman who does have her own late night show, Chelsea Handler, announced this weekend she’s going to leave E at the end of the year. Shire — and a lot of other people on the Internet — think the outspoken, crass, and frequently boozy host might be the perfect successor to Letterman.

SHIRE: She’s been an incredible popular host. She always delivers a consistently funny and engaging monologue that fires up her audience. And I think she’s a very, very strong interviewer, which a lot of late night shows don’t have. (0:13)

Late night expert DB Gilles said it maybe used to make business sense to have a man host late night. But that’s not what audiences necessarily go for these days. Take Amy Poehler and Tina Fey hosting the Golden Globe the last two years. Theirs jokes blew audiences aways, and set ratings records. So at this point, Gilles says there’s not really an economic argument against a female host.

GILLES: In my opinion, it’s just — it’s just sexism. (0:05)

Gilles says CBS has to seriously consider what audiences want — not just do what the the network’s always done. That’s even how Letterman kicked off his first show as a late night host.

LETTERMAN: What would you like to see on late night television?

VOX: Various ways of joining metal.

LETTERMAN: OK.

VOX: Something about how to join metal. … I would like to see how the metal is joined. (0:12)

Yeah, that one was a bit, too. But that question — “What does today’s audience want?” — is the one CBS executive are going to have to answer again. And they’ll need to be ready for an unexpected answer, just like Letterman was from that very first show. He gave the people what they wanted. Welding.

SOUND: Welding sound from Letterman’s first “Late Night”

Matt Collette, Columbia Radio News.

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