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David Letterman Looks Back On Career As TV's Longest-Serving Late Night Host
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David Letterman Looks Back On Career As TV's Longest-Serving Late Night Host

Television

David Letterman Looks Back On Career As TV's Longest-Serving Late Night Host

David Letterman Looks Back On Career As TV's Longest-Serving Late Night Host
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NPR's Eric Deggans interviews David Letterman about his career as a late night host. Letterman will retire from CBS' Late Show next Wednesday.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

He is TV's longest-serving late-night host with more than 6,000 shows on two networks. David Letterman retires from CBS's "Late Show" next Wednesday. Letterman has only done a handful of interviews since announcing that he was stepping away from the desk. One of them was with NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. They spoke about the show and about Letterman's legacy.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As David Letterman sits in his offices, days before he'll leave CBS's "Late Show" for good, the host says he's finally at peace.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Up until this weekend, I was feel everything you might feel - nervous, uncomfortable, out of sorts, concerned. And now I kind of feel like, you know what? I have spent enough time feeling this way. It's all but over, so I kind of feel like it is over now.

DEGGANS: That ease was obvious hours earlier when Letterman taped a raucous show with shock jock Howard Stern. He had to fight to keep Stern from making out with him on national television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

HOWARD STERN: Is this our final time together?

LETTERMAN: No.

STERN: Come here. Come here.

LETTERMAN: No. What are you going to do?

STERN: Come over here.

(LAUGHTER)

STERN: Kiss me.

LETTERMAN: No.

STERN: Kiss me. Kiss me now.

LETTERMAN: No.

DEGGANS: Letterman didn't always have this much fun. But he relaxed a bit last year after his longtime rival, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, left to make room for Jimmy Fallon. That's when Letterman knew it was time for him to go, too.

LETTERMAN: Because now I realized, oh, yeah, you got to be younger, really, to do this job. And so I thought I don't want to be the old man left out here, you know, fighting for scraps and crumbs.

DEGGANS: When Letterman leaves the "Late Show" next week, he'll leave a lasting legacy in late-night television. Older hosts like his mentor, Johnny Carson, were slick and glamorous. But Letterman loved pointing out how much fun TV could be when it was stupid. Throwing things off a roof...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: I love the sound of that bowling ball hitting concrete. Okay, Corinne (ph), that's all right.

DEGGANS: ...Presenting stupid pet tricks...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: What are you guys going to do for us tonight, Abe?

ABE: Well, Sparky's going to act like a dog possessed by the devil.

LETTERMAN: Woah.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: ...Or putting on a Velcro suit to stick on a wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: Now, theoretically, I'll - I'll hit the wall and stay there, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, theoretically.

LETTERMAN: OK.

DEGGANS: Critics and fans call Letterman an innovator, but he says he was just building on the work of the great comics who inspired him.

LETTERMAN: I never thought that it was anything new. It was just - I used to like what Steve Allen did. I used to like what Johnny Carson did. I used to like what - good Lord, you know, anybody did when I was a kid. And so we just put them on the show.

DEGGANS: Letterman was born in Indianapolis. He moved to Los Angeles in 1975. Three years later, he was on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and by 1980, he had his own morning program, "The David Letterman Show." But the morning show was canceled after four months, a crushing failure that pushed Letterman to work obsessively when he got another shot two years later, a late-night show on NBC.

LETTERMAN: I thought it had to be nose-to-the-grindstone, 24/7, as the kids say because all I remember was, holy God, we've got to keep this going. We've got to keep this going, or we'll be canceled because I had a show that was canceled.

DEGGANS: If Letterman pushed his staff hard, he also provoked his guests. After making fun of Cher behind her back, he finally got her on his show in 1986, and she gave it to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

CHER: I thought that I would never want to do this show with you.

LETTERMAN: Now, why?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Now let's explore this a little. Why, because you thought I was a...

CHER: An [bleep].

DEGGANS: When doing guest interviews, Letterman insists he has no motives beyond asking guests obvious questions. When an actress named Nastassja Kinski came on stage with her hair arranged in a giant pillar over her head, Letterman took note.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: Looks like you've interrupted a class at beaty college.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: If you're just tuning in, ladies and gentlemen, getting ready now for the rinse and set, so - and again, we're just joking here. That's all we do. We just...

NASTASSJA KINSKI: Very funny.

LETTERMAN: We just like to joke. That's all we're doing. Now...

I thought she feigned embarrassment and anger, but it - she wasn't. She was really angry, and I just thought, how can you leave the dressing room and somebody says, what's - you know, what are you building on your head?

DEGGANS: When Johnny Carson retired, NBC passed over Letterman to give "The Tonight Show" to Jay Leno. Letterman moved to CBS where he commenced his curmudgeonly ways again by insulting top executives. Here, he had comedian Bill Murray prank call CBS president and CEO Les Moonves.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

BILL MURRAY: Hi, I'm Dave's brother, Bill.

(LAUGHTER)

LES MOONVES: Dave doesn't have a brother Bill.

DEGGANS: Moonves said he had to earn Letterman's respect.

MOONVES: Well, it was a little rocky at first. He would take shots at me. And then he put me on the air, you know, on this phone call. He did this bit, and he thought the bit was, like, going to be putting me down. But I was quicker than he thought I was, so I gave it back to him, and he really liked it.

DEGGANS: Executives soon learned to let Letterman do what he wanted. When the program aired its first show after the 9/11 attacks, Letterman faced the camera and talked directly about the tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: It's terribly sad here in New York City. We've lost 5,000 fellow New Yorkers, and you can feel it. You can feel it. You can see it. It's terribly sad.

DEGGANS: Now that he's near the end, Letterman says he's left most of next Wednesday's finale up to his producers. But he knows how his segment, the final one, will end.

LETTERMAN: It will be a variety of visual images, you know, in various presentation, and then just me saying thanks and good night.

DEGGANS: During our talk, Letterman often resists the notion that he's changed to TV. Perhaps that's because he was just being himself, puncturing pretension and reacting honestly. But his legacy can be seen in most hosts on late-night TV, and that just might be the best tribute possible. I'm Eric Deggans.

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