Retiring David Letterman brought something special to Ed Sullivan’s stage

David Letterman - Wikipedia
David Letterman - Wikipedia

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2014  – David Letterman has announced his retirement.  No joke. The announcement pegs the ending of the show sometime in 2015. Thirty-four years and 5,914 shows later, the soon to be sixty-eight year old host is bidding a’dieu.

With his usual humor, the host tells the story of fishing with his son Harry, who snapped a picture of a large bird.  Coming into the studio to work, he spent the day with his staff trying to identify the bird, which it turns out was an immature bald eagle.

The conclusion being that it is time to step down and do something else.  Watch to the end for the surprise announcement.

David Letterman has been the reigning prince of Late Night talk shows for more than thirty years, only at times he seemed to channel more of his theater’s namesake than the King of Late Night Johnny Carson. Like Sullivan he is a nice enough looking man, but Sullivan with his slight stooped stand and easily mimicked vocal cadence and Letterman, tall, lanky, self-effacing and with a gapped tough smile that was brought out in appreciation of the joke that he got but that left the audience behind just a beat.

The Ed Sullivan show ran from 1949 until 1971. Over that two decades he brought plenty of controversy to the very edge of his stage.  Elvis Presley was a guest on Sullivan, but only after he had already appeared on shows hosted by competitors like Milton Berle and Steve Allen.  When Allen’s rating trounced Sullivan he relented – though he was not there for the first of Presley’s two appearance.  Charles Loughton guest hosted for Sullivan who was recovering from an auto-accident.

Sullivan launched The Beatles to the television audience with not one, but three consecutive Sunday appearances in February 1964, playing both the opening and closing spots on each show.

The Supremes, whom he called The Girls, were a personal favorite of Sullivan having the group on frequently in an era that did not provide many national television opportunities for African American performers.  In an NEA interview, Sullivan said:

“The most important thing [during the first ten years of the program] is that we’ve put on everything but bigotry. When the show first started in ’48, I had a meeting with the sponsors. There were some Southern dealers present and they asked if I intended to put on Negroes. I said yes. They said I shouldn’t, but I convinced them I wasn’t going to change my mind. And you know something? We’ve gone over very well in the South. Never had a bit of trouble. “

Breaking into the rock n’ roll era, The Doors were a guest only once, infuriating Sullivan when they sang the original lyric “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” after Sullivan demanded they change the lyric.

The Stones, however, appeared six times, changing the lyric of “Let’s spend the night together” to “Let’s spend some time together” and wearing jackets when asked.

Letterman offered his own share of edgy bits and first. Starting out at NBC in 1982 the group R.E.M. made its first American Network appearance on Letterman (October 1983).

Confrontational guest segments on Late Show were not rare but they were fun.  Crispin Glover, wearing oversized shoes, attempted to kick Letterman in the head, leading Letterman to abruptly end the segment and American Splendor comic book artist and curmudgeonly media personality Harvey Pekar called Letterman a shill for NBC parent company GE (August 1987) keeping him off the show until sometime in the early 1990s are two such incidents.

Probably the most famous of all uncomfortable guest segments was Andy Kaufman who appeared  with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, whom Kaufman had challenged to a match. Kaufman appeared in a neck brace goading Lawler until finally the wrestler slapped him across the face and leading to Kaufman letting loose a tirade of profanities. After Kaufman’s death, it was revealed that the segment was staged.

Letterman and female guests are legendary stories. Letterman and Cher got into a verbal fisticuffs (May 1986) during which she called Letterman an asshole only to boycott (or be boycotted by) the show until November of 1987 when Sonny and Cher reunited, singing – for the last time – “I Got you Babe.”

Madonna’s March 1994 appearance was the most censored show in television talk-show history including fourteen f-bombs and a show that sits among the highest rated. That show led to a bit of a feud between the two, however they did eventually make up and break bread in the form of  (cheese-less) NY style pizza.

Dave claims to still have her underwear, a gift, in the safe “upstairs.”

Letterman and Oprah Winfrey buried the “hatchet” in 2005 with Oprah Winfrey stating “Could you tell me please what has transpired?” Oprah asked Letterman. “I have never for a moment had a feud with you….I want you to know, it’s really over, whatever you thought was happening.”

Winfrey had been the subject of numerous jokes and the media mogul told Time Magazine (2003) that we would not go on his show due to being uncomfortable being the target of his jokes.  Their feud lasted 16 years and there are numerous reasons bandied about, including Oprah’s discomfort at Letterman’s albeit hilarious 1995 Oscar “Oprah, Uma. Uma, Oprah” joke at her, and Uma Thurman’s, expense.

Dave and Oprah had a heartfelt conversation, discussing the genesis of the “feud” with Letterman and you can see Dave’s obvious discomfort upon learning from Oprah what really happened from her perspective.

When she did appear on the show Letterman made an effort to discuss Winfrey’s efforts in Africa and the good intentions of her syndicated program, “The Oprah Winfrey Show saying “You have meant something to the lives of people,” Letterman said. “We’re just a TV show.”

To which Winfrey responded “I can’t believe you’re being this serious!”

Letterman, it was assumed, would take over for Johnny Carson only assumptions are often wrong. Instead of the sometime ascorbic host, The Tonight Show went with the affable Jay Leno, a feud played out in the television biopic Late Night and Letterman headed to CBS and the Ed Sullivan Theater in August of 1993.

Now the question is who will take over from Letterman. Short list includes Jay Leno, Steve Colbert and Neil Patrick Harris .

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