When David Letterman Returns To 'The Late Show,' Can He Just, Like, Stay There?
Later this month, David Letterman will return to the Ed Sullivan Theater for the first time in almost a decade – I invite him to make himself comfortable.
When Letterman left The Late Show in 2015, the world of late-night was a drastically different landscape than the one he found during his debut on Late Night in 1982. Letterman, himself, was largely responsible for that shift, as his sharp elbows and indulgent iconoclasm jump-started late night’s punk rock phase that paved the way for more pointed projects – such as Comedy Central’s The Daily Show – to take the medium seriously as an avenue for biting satire. Today, one of the many beneficiaries of Letterman’s paradigm-shifting performance sits at his old desk, and, on Monday, Letterman will find himself across from his successor Stephen Colbert in a place he isn’t used to being: the guest’s chair.
At 76 years old, any appearance from Letterman in a public setting should be accepted with gratitude and an EMT on staff, but, if it’s not too much to ask, I have an early Christmas wish for the man Zach Galifianakis once called “crystal meth Santa Claus” – could you, perhaps, come on The Late Show every night? Maybe without Colbert?
On paper, Colbert was an obvious and excellent choice to succeed Letterman on The Late Show back in 2015. Colbert’s nine years on The Colbert Report were perhaps the only other late-night series that could hold a candle to the wry genius of Letterman’s Late Show as the Daily Show veteran arguably eclipsed even Jon Stewart as the sharpest satirist in comedy news. Colbert’s performance as a Bill O’Reilly-esque conservative loudmouth was the perfect parody for a late-Bush-into-Obama era media landscape, and audiences were eager to hear what he would have to say once the character was dropped and a band was added to the mix.
However, Colbert’s stint as Late Show leader started on an unexpectedly muted note while fans of both Colbert and Letterman wondered whether the former left both his bark and his bite back at Comedy Central. Then, the 2016 election derailed not just the supposedly comedic tone of The Late Show, but late-night as a whole while hosts struggled to come up with satire’s answer to Donald Trump’s presidency. Since then, late-night has been in a dark age as the entire medium flounders in the face of massive societal shifts. While Colbert was making headlines for his humorless monologues about Trump’s fascist tendencies, James Corden was arguably the most influential late-night host of the last decade simply for bringing the format into the internet age.
A septuagenarian Letterman might not be able to save late-night from the death spiral it seems to be halfway through, but The Late Show – and all other shows like it – could use his edge, his delighted cynicism and his mischievous mind to save them from the sullen and toothless product they put out on a nightly basis. Obviously, Letterman likely has no interest in ever returning to nightly hosting duties, nor would CBS acrimoniously end Colbert’s contract to clear room for his return. However, if another opportunity arose that Colbert couldn’t turn down, perhaps there’s some outside chance that Letterman could fill his former role for a couple months, just for old time’s sake – we hear The Daily Show is looking for a host.