With CBS’ Late Show leaving the air on May 20 after a 23-year run, David Letterman has entered what could be termed the King Lear phase of his storied, three-decade career in late night television. At 68, the broadcaster who brought his audience Stupid Pet Tricks, Top 10 lists, and Larry “Bud” Melman is leaving the only steady job he has known since the Reagan administration for an as-yet-undetermined future. Now is as good a time as any for introspection and reflection, and Letterman meditates upon his various successes and failures with characteristic candor and sardonic wit in a revealing New York Times interview with Dave Itzkoff.
The interview is a fascinating if melancholy read for Letterman’s fans, as the comedian speaks bluntly about a number of potentially sensitive topics related to his life and career. On his longstanding rivalry with Jay Leno: “People just liked watching his show more than they liked watching my show.” On his 2009 sex scandal, which he discussed openly on the air: “I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t think of a really good lie.” On the younger men in the talk show game: “I know I can’t do what Jimmy Fallon’s doing. I can’t do what Jimmy Kimmel is doing.” As noted in a Newswire earlier this week, Letterman also reveals that he had no say in choosing his successor, Stephen Colbert, and admits that this briefly irked him. And, naturally, Letterman’s hero and mentor, Johnny Carson, is never far from his thoughts. Although the article’s tone is largely upbeat, there is a certain haunted quality to Letterman’s words as he describes what it was like to become, like Johnny before him, a living legend, treated with undue reverence by the younger generation:
At some point, all of a sudden, people in show business that I never knew before would say to me on the show, “Oh, it’s such an honor to be here.” And I would think, What are you talking about? It’s just a goddamn TV show. And then I realized, this is what happens when you get to be older and you’ve been around for a while, people succumb to this artificial reverence. It was always kids that had only been in show business a couple of years. I just thought, Oh. I know. Your grandparents used to watch.