David Letterman Goes Out On His Terms -- And the Timing Is Right

The legendary late-night host had nothing left to prove -- and maybe nothing left to give.
Let the victory lap start for David Letterman.

I have two letters from David Letterman, both delivered over a span of years and both in response to pretty much the same idea voiced in columns I'd written: He's brilliant, and let's not forget him.  I guess this will be the third such column, also written a number of years after the last.

But this time, it's not about respect or legacy or why everybody else pales in comparison -- not a veiled plea for him to stick around and see it through for the betterment of, if not mankind, then television. This time it's just to say, whatever you want to do, you've earned it and Godspeed.

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Letterman already has a legacy -- and that's pretty much everybody else currently working in late-night television. They were (and maybe are) doing Dave. They were never doing Jay Leno. And Letterman will always be brilliant. He never needed to be measured by ratings because, unlike Leno, he never wanted everybody to love him. He knew early on that, besides comedy being subjective, what people are looking for in a talk-show host just might be different from what he wanted to do as a talk-show host. There's plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree on who they like to fall asleep watching.

It's different this time for another reason -- because the time feels right. Leno is gone and 11:30 p.m. is turning into a younger man's game. Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have reinvigorated things. Maybe now -- but don't go getting your hopes up -- it could be a younger woman's game as well.

When Letterman leaves after his current contract ends in 2015, it'll feel right. Viewers will get a victory lap and a farewell tour, though Letterman probably loathes the idea of both. If it wouldn't completely crumble CBS late night and put CBS affiliates in a dither, I could see a scenario where Letterman just doesn't return.

As in, hey, I'm retiring and -- poof -- he's not there on Monday. Something tells me he'd quite like that.

But protocol being what it is, CBS will find a replacement in time to slide him or her right into Dave's chair -- it might even be Craig Ferguson, thus changing the him or her seat-swapping scenario until later in the evening. But it will get done. We will review that person's first night, we will wait until the honeymoon ends (as it always does), and then come back to assess this crowded field for -- what? -- the fifth or so time in very recent memory?

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We'll all be following the game plan -- something Letterman never did, which is why he's so special and why he'll always be remembered for his willingness to be silly (his skits and taped bits especially) and, in later years, cantankerous (as was often necessary, since it mimicked the national spirit so often). He might not have completely rewritten the late-night book, but he certainly altered it and added to it -- just look at everybody essentially copying his bits, past and present (even Leno).

This retirement announcement seems about right, though. You could scan the last few years and find a notable number of times where Letterman didn't seem thrilled to be there (and yes, as a die-hard fan, I understand that element has always existed within him and became, in many ways, another shtick). Had he become bored? Well, hell, he's been doing it a long time, now hasn't he? Of course, he must have been bored some nights.

A notorious loner, Letterman has always been that odd duck who goes out of his way to be private, but has a public life that literally takes place in a spotlight. It's not hard to imagine that whatever pushed him into the spotlight, whatever kept him there when he had more money than he needed, more competitors than he wanted and less interest in what he was doing, would finally let up.

This might be the least surprising retirement announcement in recent showbiz history. As a long time admirer, it goes without saying that I'll miss him when he's gone. But at least the leaving seems right and good -- and on his terms.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine