David Letterman has announced that he will be retiring next year. He’s been the star of The Late Show With David Letterman for 21 years.
It’s interesting that Letterman’s retirement announcement came shortly after Jay Leno — Letterman’s chief rival for recognition as the successor to Johnny Carson as the King of Late-Night Television — retired. Letterman is another TV icon whose “top ten list” became part of the national zeitgeist. But I long ago stopped watching either Letterman or Leno, and I can’t remember the last time either of them had something significant or novel to say or do about America or the world. For years, they seemed to be living on past glory, attracting the habitual viewers who had watched them for years but not bringing in anyone new. Their shticks got old. People who were comfortable with them stuck around; people who were looking for something different looked elsewhere.
It will be interesting to see whether the late-night talk show format ends up passing into TV history, just as Jay Leno has done and as David Letterman will be doing next year. As I’ve noted before, it’s amazing that talk shows — a format that began at the dawn of TV, more than 60 years ago — are still around. If you’ve seen the commercial where a guy walks out of his kitchen eating a bowl of cereal or ice cream and finds himself on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, you’ve seen that talk shows are to the point of self-parody. Maybe Fallon’s spoofing of himself is supposed to be one of those new, ironic bits of humor that 50-somethings like me don’t get, but I see that commercial as an implicit recognition that late-night talk shows are trite and banal.
I wish David Letterman the best in his retirement, but maybe his decision to hit the road will allow the networks to finally come up with a new approach to late-night programming.