Longtime entertainment writer Bill Carter dropped by CBS Sports Radio on Thursday, less than 24 hours after arguably the greatest television host of all time decided to call it a career. Yes, David Letterman, who hosted the “Late Show” for 33 years, bid a bittersweet farewell to viewers Wednesday night, surrounded by some of the most recognizable celebrities from the last quarter of a century and beyond.
It was a special night.
Letterman, 68, may have transformed talk-show television as we know it, but that hardly seemed his destiny when his career began in the early 1970s.
“Letterman started out doing weather reports in Indianapolis,” Carter said on The Doug Gottlieb Show. “He went West just because he really wanted to try comedy. He just basically went to The Comedy Store as an amateur one night and did well and was invited back. That’s how he started his career. At that point, Jay was kind of already kind of established as a standout, and Dave acknowledged that Jay was a master at it and he learned a lot from watching Jay. But he quickly got very, very good.”
Letterman eventually hosted a morning show on NBC. It didn’t last long, but it led to something very important: a following. Even better, it was a young following.
“It was wildly popular among young people because it was so crazy and inventive,” said Carter, the author of The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno & the Network Battle for the Night. “And they brought him back in 1982 to create a show after Johnny Carson. So he created that ‘Late Night’ show that was subsequently hosted by Conan O’Brien and then Jimmy Fallon and now Seth Meyers. That was Dave’s creation, and it was a revelation to people because it was so original and inventive.”
Within a few years, Letterman was the hair apparent to Carson.
“Everyone assumed he was going to get the Carson job, including Dave,” Carter said. “And Dave didn’t really do anything to guarantee that. He didn’t (put anything) in his contract or anything because he didn’t want to look like he was pushing Johnny out.”
Leno, meanwhile, kept ascending.
“When the time came for Johnny to leave, NBC had this choice and they went with Jay,” Carter said. “They felt like Jay was more mainstream and more controllable – because we all know Dave could stand up to authority rather willingly. So it really came down to that and they made that choice. Dave went off to CBS and created the first franchise to take on ‘The Tonight Show’ successfully.”
Any great host will tell you how important writers and producers are to a show’s success – and Letterman had that. But he also had something that was uniquely . . . him.
“Dave’s sensibility was what made that show,” Carter said. “Dave brought this sort of ironic detachment to the show, which made it really instantly different from any talk show that anyone had seen before. He was almost doing a parody of the talk show even while he was in the talk show. People just really attached to that sensibility. It just hit that right zeitgeist at the time because there was a whole lot of young people in college and they were looking for something different, an iconoclastic approach, and here was this crazy stuff on the air every night. And also, if a guest wasn’t really sharp, he went after them. He was real. There was something authentic about him. It wasn’t just a showbiz act. It really was Dave that made a difference – not just the writers.”