David Letterman Announces His Retirement During Late Show Taping | Adweek David Letterman Announces His Retirement During Late Show Taping | Adweek
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David Letterman Announces His Retirement During Late Show Taping

Host will step down when contract expires in late 2015

David Letterman Photo: Getty Images

Wake the kids and phone the neighbors, because David Letterman is hanging it up after his contract expires at the end of next year.

The 33-year late night veteran and host of CBS’ flagship Late Show with David Letterman broke the news to his studio audience during the taping of Thursday night’s show.

Letterman in October extended his contract with CBS for a single year, committing to the show through 2015. At the time, Letterman joked that he needed the extra year to ensure that his final bridge was burned behind him.“[CBS Corp. CEO] Les [Moonves] and I had a lengthy discussion, and we both agreed that I needed a little more time to fully run the show into the ground,” Letterman cracked.

The duration of the new deal seemed a sure sign that the clock was ticking on Letterman’s late night tenure. Two years prior to signing the extension, the host had agreed to a two-year deal.

In a nicely odd twist, news of Letterman’s announcement was tweeted out by former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, who is a guest on tonight’s show. R.E.M. made its first national television appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983. The band played “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” which would later be released as the first single from its second studio album, Reckoning.

UPDATE: Moonves confirmed the news at approximately 5:15 EDT, or about an hour and 15 minutes after Mills’ tweet began circling the globe. The text of his full statement is as follows:

“When Dave decided on a one-year extension for his most recent contract, we knew this day was getting closer, but that doesn’t make the moment any less poignant for us. For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes—including me. There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business. On a personal note, it’s been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won’t have to do that for another year or so. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.”

UPDATE II: Letterman’s announcement, word for word:

“The man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves, he and I have had a relationship for years and years and years, and we have had this conversation in the past, and we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance. And I phoned him just before the program, and I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring,’” Letterman said.

“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. What this means now, is that [bandleader] Paul [Shaffer] 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,” he added.

When he had finished saying his piece, the audience gave Letterman a standing ovation. 

The 66-year-old Hoosier hinted that he was coming to the end of his run back in January, when he appeared on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM radio show.

“If it were up to me I would not quit; on the other hand, it’s not always up to me, and you can’t go on forever,” Letterman told Stern. “I mean, it really is stupid that I’m still doing this show.”

The emergence of Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel in the 11:30 p.m. hour has made the demo game a losing proposition for Letterman. Last week, the Late Show averaged a 0.5 in the 18-49 demo, trailing Kimmel’s 0.7 rating and Fallon’s 1.3.

Following a short-lived stint on an NBC morning show in 1980, Letterman moved to the witching hour. Late Night premiered on NBC in February 1982, where it quickly earned a cult following among comedy nerds and college kids.

Letterman’s deadpan subversion of the norms of late night chat—just try explaining the Dada brilliance of Larry “Bud” Melman to someone unfamiliar with the man’s oeuvre—and a dazzling bullpen of writing talent (Merrill Markoe, Chris Elliott, Steve O’Donnell, Fred Graver, Andy Breckman, James Downey, et al) forever changed the face of late night.

Letterman famously jumped to CBS and the Ed Sullivan Theatre in 1993, after NBC’s The Tonight Show jilted him in favor of Jay Leno. His friend and mentor, Johnny Carson, had lobbied on Letterman’s behalf, but to no avail.

Leno left The Tonight Show for good in February.

Should CBS be interested in acquiring his services, Jon Stewart could be available to take over the Late Show after Letterman steps down. The Daily Show host’s current contract with Comedy Central expires in mid-2015.

If not, there’s always Louis C.K.

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