Wednesday not only marks the end of another sweeps period, but also the end of an era.
68 year-old David Letterman hangs up his mic tonight, after 33 years in the late fringe daypart – 22 of those years at CBS, where he moved to in August 1993.
The Indianapolis-born comedian went from bagging groceries to a weatherman for the market’s ABC affiliate to late-night legend. After his NBC daytime show came and went after three months, Letterman took over the 11:35 p.m. (CT) time slot after Johnny Carson on February 1, 1982. Late Night With David Letterman became a showcase for the wacky, the absurd, the funny – you can see Dave in a Velcro suit, or Chris Elliottt under the audience seats, or throwing stuff off the roof of 30 Rock, and of course, the world-famous Stupid Pet Tricks.
And when General Electric bought NBC in 1986, Letterman couldn’t resist the opportunity for them to be the butt of his jokes.
And don’t forget those Top Ten Lists, whether it came from the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska or Grand Rapids, Michigan (for those who don’t know, the lists began in 1985, three years into the show’s run.)
When David Letterman was passed up as host of The Tonight Show for Jay Leno, it was a huge once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for CBS to grab a proven commodity, and to turn around a daypart the network hasn’t had much luck in (remember Pat Sajak?)
Letterman left Late Night on June 25, 1993 and moved to CBS on August 30, 1993 in a very lucrative deal made during the Larry Tisch era – a guy who wasn’t known to be a big spender. Letterman worked with many local affiliates – some who hadn’t cleared CBS’ late-night schedule in years – to help launch the show. The result were blockbuster – Letterman instantly became no. 1 in late night, surpassing Tonight’s Jay Leno. In his first two CBS years, he had a rather unlikely stable of co-stars – his neighbors at the Ed Sullivan Theater (such as Rupert Jee of the Hello Deli, who appeared in a few Letterman skits) and of course, his mother Dorothy, who reported from the 1994 Winter Olympics for her son’s show.
But the success was short-lived: Leno took the lead by the end of 1995, thanks to several factors: nabbing Hugh Grant (who was busted for soliciting a hooker); O.J. Simpson jokes (complete with the Dancing Itos); and NBC’s surging prime-time lineup, which fed into Leno’s audience. Letterman didn’t know how to respond, and by the end of the decade, Letterman fell to third place, behind Tonight and Nightline – though Letterman closed the gap briefly when Conan O’Brien took over the Tonight Show.
In recent years, Letterman’s ratings have stabilized, though they remained behind Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, whose show moved to compete head-to-head a few years ago.
Letterman’s show has hit the road several times – stopping in Los Angeles, London, and here in Chicago. In May 1989, he spent a week in the Windy City, and featured local icons Haray Caray, Jonathan Brandmeier, Bozo, and Oprah Winfrey, in an infamous interview that went wrong (Letterman would later urge Winfrey to contact him in a “Call Dave” campaign.) The week Letterman spent in Chicago was a hit, smashing late-night ratings records.
His second trip to Chicago was less memorable: Letterman taped only one show at the Steppenwolf Theater on November 15, 1996 with Anthony Edwards as guest.
In his later CBS years, Letterman had numerous landmark shows – his first show after the 9/11 attacks; his first show back after heart surgery; and was Bill Cosby’s first stop after his son was murdered. Letterman has also gotten into hot water – he received backlash after a harsh interview with Bill O’Reilly and came under fire for jokes about Bristol Palin. Then his private life went into turmoil after an extortion attempt forced him to reveal he had an affair with a few Late Show staffers.
Despite this, Letterman has remained strong and continued to thrive, keeping his loyal audience in his later years intact. Letterman is known as a master interviewer – instead of the fawning style other hosts are known for, he wasn’t afraid to ask questions that made his guests nervous and then some. For many, it was rude but made for great television.
When Letterman leaves for good on Wednesday night, it not only marks an end of an era – it’ll leave a void nobody can possibly fill, not after 33 years. Late night television won’t be the same.