Monday, April 14, 2014
You Know Him, You Love Him But Can We Live Without Him?
Two weeks ago, late night talk show host David Letterman announced his retirement and that he would be stepping down as the host of The Late Show on CBS in 2015. You know how something can be expected but still be a blow when it comes? Letterman had recently signed an extension of his contract with CBS for only 1 more year. And the landscape of the late night TV talk shows has fundamentally changed in recent weeks with the ascendancy of Jimmy Fallon as host of the Tonight Show on NBC. And Dave, God bless him, is not getting any younger.
David Letterman was in the impossible position of doing a job that he was exceedingly good at but clearly no longer had his heart in it as much anymore. But what else was he to do? Hosting a late night talk show is in his DNA. But sooner or later, Dave was going to have to move on. The question became less of when but how.
If nothing else, Letterman and CBS only need look at their brethren over at NBC for a detailed diagram of how to NOT handle a talk show transition. Going back to Johnny Carson stepping down as the host of the Tonight Show, NBC seems to have a knack for making things worse.
The whole Leno vs. Letterman debacle was poorly handled. Jay Leno was already doing the job as Johnny’s permanent guest host and NBC liked what they saw. The numbers were good and Jay was a congenial, affable host. But there were equally strong voices that David Letterman was Johnny’s heir apparent and he had done his time as the host of Late Nite at 12:30; it was time for Dave to play in the big leagues.
Now I will state my bias as being a Letterman guy over Jay Leno. That being said, NBC needed to step up and make a choice and stick by the choice. While the Tonight Show job went to Leno, NBC offered Letterman deals like if he agreed to stay with the network, he could have the Tonight Show 18 months later. Hardly a ringing endorsement for Leno OR Letterman. “Jay, you’ve got the job. But before you start, here’s your 18 month notice.” “Dave, you deserve to host to the Tonight Show…but not right now.” Once NBC picked Leno to replace Carson, they needed to show confidence in their decision and their anointed star. As for Letterman, “well, we wish you would stay on at 12:30 but if you need to go, we understand.”
Of course NBC didn’t want Dave bolting over to CBS, ABC or Fox to put any dings in the shiny new Tonight Show With Jay Leno but other than giving David Letterman 11:30, there was no way in hell NBC was going to hold to Dave. And loyal company man he may be but Leno had his case for being the Tonight Show host: he was already doing the job and doing it well. If NBC gave the Tonight Show to Dave, Jay would’ve walked. NBC tried desperately to hold on to both men when it was pretty much an assured impossibility that whoever did not get the 11:30 slot was going to move on.
Years later it was time for Jay Leno to move on. Except it wasn’t Jay’s idea. NBC once again faced an issue of not wanting to lose someone, in this case Conan O’Brien. So they made a deal with Conan: you can have the Tonight Show in 5 years. Well, after 5 years, why there’s Conan at 11:30 but Jay Leno isn’t really gone; he’s got a talk show on at 10:00 PM. Some will blame to failure of Conan’s Tonight Show on the 10 PM Jay Leno Show lead in that was getting clobbered in the ratings. Well, that didn’t help but Conan’s numbers weren’t that great before the Jay’s 10 o’clock show debuted. Now, I was rooting for Conan to succeed at 11:30 but he never seemed to find his groove in the role. It wasn't until the writing was on the wall and Conan was on his way out that Conan really took off as host of the Tonight Show. But by then it was too late and Jay Leno was back in his old digs.
The most recent transition from Leno to Jimmy Fallon has gone a lot more smoothly. But still there was the air of NBC forcing Jay out before he was ready to go. After all, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show regularly dominated in the ratings. And Jay seemed to be genuinely enjoying his time as host.
Meanwhile, Letterman’s looking grumpier and the ratings are anemic compared to Leno’s. Letterman had a lot of good will at CBS. After all, before David Letterman, CBS had NO presence at 11:30. Old movies, crime dramas and one earlier attempt at a talk show hosted by Pat Sajak. If well past his peak, Letterman delivered a stronger audience for CBS at 11:30 than anything before. But all things have their time and CBS did not want to pull an NBC and be seen pushing their late night icon out the doors of the Ed Sullivan Theater. But would Dave, doing the only thing he knows how to do, walk away on his own?
The interesting thing in all this that it doesn’t seem like it’s been three + decades since David Letterman began his career as a late night TV show host. David was the standard bearer of the new order, an edgier, snarkier comic sensibility that mocked the celebrity culture even as it was celebrated. I was in college when Letterman started Late Night on NBC and a lot of us collegiate types stayed up late to watch David Letterman deconstruct everything we understood about television and talk shows and comedy.
Now it’s over 30 years later and Letterman bears the flag of the old order. Damn, how did that happen? And David Letterman retiring? Do you know what that means?
It means I am old.
Well, that can’t be right.
So I’ve got a year to make peace with a world that doesn’t have David Letterman hosting a late night talk show. It’s going to be an interesting year as a I watch a part of my pop culture heritage do victory laps before driving off into the sunset with Stephen Colbert settling in the desk chair as the new host. Ah, the perils of an old man watching parts of the world he knew spin away as an uncertain tomorrow moves into place.
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