David Letterman announces retirement from “Late Show”

Jeff Pfeiffer

On Thursday’s installment of Late Show with David Letterman, the longtime host announced that he will be retiring from the show when his latest contract is up in 2015. Letterman has been a fixture on late-night television for over 30 years, helming NBC’s Late Night from 1982-93, and then Late Show on CBS starting in 1993.

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David Letterman retiring

During his announcement, which came following his opening monologue, Letterman sat casually at his desk, interacting with longtime band leader Paul Shaffer and reflecting on how long the two of them have been at this. Letterman opened up the conversation with the fact that his birthday is approaching on April 12, and that he will be 67. He then mentioned he started in late night at age 34 — effectively spending half his lifetime entertaining audiences before bedtime. “You can’t help but think about the passage of time,” Letterman said; not sadly, but realistically.

Letterman detailed numbers: 1,810 shows at NBC; 4,014 shows with CBS. He then related a story about how, last year, he and his 10-year-old son Harry had encountered a unique bird while fishing. They photographed it, then the following Monday at work Letterman spent most of the day contacting people and trying to identify it. That night, when his wife asked how his day was, Letterman said he excitedly told her how they identified the bird. When she asked who the guest was on his show, he could not remember. That was a sign for Letterman, he told the audience.

“When you spend most of the day trying to ID birds, should you really anchor a network TV program?” he quipped.

Again bringing up Harry, Letterman told the audience how he broached the subject of retiring with his son. He said he asked Harry what he would think of him retiring to spend more time with the family. “Which part of the family?” said Harry, according to Letterman.

Letterman then said he called CBS head Leslie Moonves (see his statement below) just before taping Thursday’s program. “I’m retiring,” he said he told Moonves. There was silence from the studio audience initially; with Letterman’s history of deadpan humor, could it be a joke? He did jokingly mention that now he and Paul can be married.

But Letterman continued, thanking his staff and his audience over the years, and telling the audience that his retirement will be in “at least a year or so” and that in “2015, Paul and I will be wrapping it up.”

At that point, the audience erupted into respectful applause and cheers, giving Letterman a standing ovation.

Later in the program, guest Johnny Depp told Letterman, “There’s a lot of weepers back there,” referring to backstage reactions to Letterman’s announcement. Depp joked that he planned to announce his own retirement on the show, but Dave foiled his plans.

So it’s no joke.

Perhaps Bill Murray’s appearance on Wednesday’s show was a clue to the coming announcement. Murray has been on hand throughout Letterman’s late-night career, particularly during notable moments, as Dave’s first guest on both Late Night and Late Show, and making numerous notable appearances on both programs afterward. I would guess that Murray will also make an appearance whenever it is that Dave’s final show airs.

Following the reports of Letterman’s announcement during the taping of his show on Thursday afternoon, CBS Corporation president and CEO Leslie Moonves released this statement:

“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. For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our Network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me. 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. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.”

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© 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: Jeffrey R. Staab