STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're going to hear the biggest voice in late-night on this early morning. David Letterman is preparing to leave his chair. His 33-year run on late-night TV is the longest in American television history. The final episode of the "Late Show With David Letterman" will air next Wednesday on CBS. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans sat down with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")
DAVID LETTERMAN: We got to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Minutes after David Letterman ended one of his last shows at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, I met him upstairs in his offices. He'd already changed out of his suit and into a long-sleeve T-shirt, khakis and hiking boots. He looked relaxed and at ease. He says he's finally at peace with the approaching end of his show.
LETTERMAN: It's all but over, so I kind of feel like it is over now. I feel like these next two or three days are just cleaning up paperwork, and we're done.
DEGGANS: This comes after years of indecision about when he might stop making his show. But when Jay Leno left NBC's "Tonight Show" last year, Letterman knew it was time for him to leave his CBS show as well.
LETTERMAN: You know, you just think, oh, jeez, do I want to go to work? Do I want to go to work? I wish I didn't have to go to work. But then when Jay left, 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. So that's when it became an inevitability.
DEGGANS: Letterman says he gets uncomfortable when other people say he re-invented late-night comedy. Most years, he says, he was just trying to keep the show on the air.
LETTERMAN: I was more concerned about it getting canceled. It was hard to believe that it ever went out of the building. You know what I mean? I don't know if others were, but I certainly was not aware that there was anything greater going on than just trying to hit a number that the network could live with.
DEGGANS: Funny thing is David Letterman never thought he'd be doing it this long anyway. Back in 1991, he'd already been hosting a different show, NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman," for nearly 10 years. Letterman's show aired after Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and he was considered Carson's likely successor. But when NBC named Jay Leno to take over "The Tonight Show" instead, Letterman went on Carson's show to answer a question about his future.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")
JOHNNY CARSON: Can you envision yourself 20 years from now doing the - your late night show?
CARSON: I'll put down as a...
LETTERMAN: Good one, John.
CARSON: I'll put down - I'll put that down as a hardly no, right?
LETTERMAN: I don't how you've done it. I don't.
LETTERMAN: You know what, 10 years to me seems like - some nights it seems like it's been 10 years.
LETTERMAN: When you have a job, often you forget how lucky you are to have a job. When you don't have a job, every day is a reminder how unlucky you are not to have a job. And in those days, I was probably being smug about it because I used to say, oh, jeez, no, you can't do this show if you're over 40.
DEGGANS: Letterman stayed on the job long past age 40, moving to CBS, creating the "Late Show," and pushing his staff hard.
LETTERMAN: I think I just burned out, and people burned out. And some people left, and some people changed jobs. And so I think I went through a several-year period of, well, what exactly do I do now? I don't have the same tools, but I still have the same mentality about it. And I think that was hurtful to both the show and to myself.
DEGGANS: Then in 2000, Letterman had quintuple bypass surgery on his heart, and his priorities changed.
LETTERMAN: I said, that's it. I'm not going to rehearsal anymore. I'm not going to meetings anymore because I have the ADD or the HDAC or whatever you have, and I can't sit through another damn meeting. So when it came time for the last show, I said, you guys -speaking to the producers - you guys, just you start doing it, and I'll just do what I think I'm responsible for. So that's what's happened. And from what I've seen, they're doing a very nice job.
DEGGANS: We'll have to wait to see exactly what Letterman delivers in that last show. And after it's over, he says he'll spend more time with wife, Regina, and his 11-year-old son, Harry. Letterman doesn't seem like the kind of guy who will fade out of show business like his mentor Johnny Carson did, but he's not counting on a second career either.
LETTERMAN: I'm 68. Who the hell is going to say, let's get a really old guy in here and see what he can do?
DEGGANS: Maybe nobody, or maybe David Letterman is underestimating his legendary impact once again. I'm Eric Deggans.
INSKEEP: He's NPR's TV critic.
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