David Letterman, the longest-tenured host in late-night TV history, announced Thursday he will retire as host of CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman in 2015.
The news, which came during a mid-afternoon taping of the show, came as something of a surprise despite Letterman’s age (66) and his long run on the air. Musician Mike Mills, formerly of R.E.M. and a guest on Thursday’s show, tweeted, “Dave just announced his retirement #2015 #muchlovedave.”
Last year, Letterman signed a contract extension keeping him at CBS through 2015, ending speculation about a potential return to NBC, which was then undergoing its own late-night transition period.
“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,” CBS Corp. President and CEO Leslie Moonves said in a statement. “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.”
Using the same conversational approach he has taken in discussing his legal battles, heart surgery and 9/11 from the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, Letterman didn’t offer a lot of detailed reasoning, suggesting that he just felt the time was right. “I phoned (Moonves) 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,’” he 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.”
The announcement carried echoes of Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson, who retired in 1992 and largely faded from view, though Letterman’s next moves are not yet apparent. It is also far from clear who will be asked to fill the gap he leaves in 2015, though that did not stop the guessing game – Stephen Colbert! Louis C.K.! – from escalating Thursday.
In more than 32 years in late night, beginning with his upstart, frizzy-hair-and-wrestling-shoes beginnings and progressing through the more staid recent years, Letterman has hosted nearly 6,000 episodes. The gap-toothed former TV weatherman from Indiana started on Late Night at NBC in 1982 and stayed until 1992. The show, which married Letterman’s acerbic wit with then-gonzo sketches such as Stupid Pet Tricks created a new sensibility for latenight, one that successive hosts such as John Stewart and Conan O’Brien have openly admired. He venerated the steady, chatty form that Carson created, but added his own post-modern flourishes, heaping scorn on his own monologues and inviting Chris Elliott or Bill Murray on the show to do abstract impressions or play surreal pranks.
Letterman moved to CBS after the bitter disappointment of being passed over for Carson’s chair in favor of Jay Leno, whose last Tonight Show not even two months ago occasioned similar latenight nostalgia. He has been the only host of Late Show, which he created on CBS in 1993. The two shows have been nominated for 108 Emmys, winning eight. Late Night received a Peabody in 1992, and Letterman became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2012.
Letterman’s show consistently beat Leno’s in the ratings for the first two years of their rivalry, with Leno beginning to outdraw Letterman regularly in 1995—an edge Leno would retain for most of the rest of their respective runs. In recent years, the show regained strength and, with CBS reigning atop the broadcast ratings heap, relations grew warmer between the often combative host and Moonves’ executive team. At the network’s May 2013 upfront presentation, Letterman put in a rare appearance to show appreciation for his two-decade on-air home.
The retirement is the latest major shift in a rather dynamic network late-night landscape. In 2013, ABC moved Jimmy Kimmel Live from midnight to 11:30 p.m., putting the show for the first time in head-to-head competition with The Tonight Show and Late Show. In February, Jimmy Fallon took over as host of The Tonight Show following Leno’s retirement, with Seth Meyers taking Fallon’s former spot.
Letterman—who is a generation older than both Kimmel, 46, and Fallon, 39—has found himself placing third in the ratings race with his new competitors. For the week of March 24-28, Late Show drew a 0.53 rating among adults 18-49, behind Kimmel’s 0.65 and Tonight’s 1.33.
Even so, there was a resonant trace of the familiar in the way Letterman chose to break the news. He gave a shoutout to his eternal sidekick Shaffer and revealed the aw-shucks Midwestern roots that have always served as a counterpoint to his sardonic New York bite.
“Sometime in the not-too-distant future – 2015, for the love of God, in fact – Paul and I will be wrapping things up,” the host said.