Team Dave: Philbin, Letterman, Murray. John P Filo/CBS

Tonight marks 30 years since David Letterman woke up late night. Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC on Feb. 1, 1982; The Late Show with David Letterman began on CBS in August of 1993. Time flies.
Is he still The Man? He will be tonight, ratings-wise, with Howard Stern guesting. Jay Leno and The Tonight Show–remarkably after everything that happened–still draws more viewers most nights, most weeks, on NBC. Jon Stewart is now more relevant, even though his Comedy Central series has only a fraction of Letterman’s network audience.
Stewart, who turns 50 this year, is hardly the “new kid,” having helmed The Daily Show for 13 seasons. His act just seems fresher without the 60-year-old trappings of The Tonight Show–the same desk, couch, band, sidekick formula Steve Allen introduced in the ’50s.
Letterman, as his long-time producer Rob Burnett points out, is remarkable for evolving with the times. His hero, Johnny Carson, pretty much always did the same show. Letterman started out as a punk outsider, goofing on everybody and everything, taking an ironic stance at established talk show conventions. His show felt more live and dangerous, even though much of his early shtick was heavily influenced by Allen’s original Tonight.
Later, Letterman made a remarkable transition as the voice of America, the New York host a nation turned to to get them through 9/11. He changed again after his open heart surgery, a health scare that brought new urgency to the show and, naturally, to its iron man host. He changed when he became a father, finally allowing viewers a slight peek at his private world.
When he got caught with his pants down he put on a clinic on how to react to a public relations nightmare. The night of the admission, Oct. 1, 2009, was one of the most riveting moments in the history of late night. Letterman took his case directly to his viewers, admitting to affairs with a young woman or two on his staff. The admission damaged Letterman to the extent that those jokes about Clinton and other politicians and their infidelities no longer held. It got a bit creepy there for a while when young starlets he used to flirt with came on the show. Still, remarkably, Letterman held much of the high road. Viewers quickly forgave him and sympathized as he steered around an extortion attempt.

Dave and Billy from Tuesday night’s Late Show

Have to admit I miss a lot of what Letterman used to do on Late Show. Know Your Current Events got old for Letterman, who probably felt the segment had become too identified with Stephanie Birkitt, the former assistant named as one of the women Letterman had had sex with. But I loved it, and really miss it. It became a late night ritual, a touchstone.
There are nights when Letterman, who turns 65 this April, seems less into his show. He skips rehearsals now, and for a while taped two shows Monday, airing one Friday, in order to enjoy the longest possible weekend. (He’s now back taping two on Thursdays). He makes no effort to hide how bored he is with young guests he could care less about. His bit where he complains to bandleader Paul Shaffer about being forced to tweet just makes him seem older than Wilfred Brimley.
He still shines when he has smart guys on, Bill Clinton, Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly (funny how I identify guys named Bill as smart.) He’s more relaxed now, having nothing left to prove, even sentimental as he hangs with old pals such as Regis Philbin and Bill Murray (also smart).
His current contract is up at the end of August. Burnett hinted talks with CBS are on-going and a new two year deal is imminent. Letterman deserves a fabulous victory lap, and should take it, declaring this his last two years. He’s still great at what he does, and it has to be hard to stop being The Man.
Still, better to leave late night before late night leaves Letterman. Carson showed them all how to exit with class and look for Letterman to emulate the master. Do I still hope to interview him before one of us goes? That would be yes.

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