End of an era: David Letterman, the longest-serving late-night host in TV history, announced he’s retiring next year.
The iconic CBS host revealed the news during the taping of his Late Show on Thursday. He said he informed CBS president and CEO Les Moonves that he will step down as the host of the show in 2015, which is when his current contract expires.
“The man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves, he and I have had a relationship for years and years and years, and we have had this conversation in the past, and we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance. And I phoned him just before the program, and I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring,'” Letterman said.
“I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much. What this means now, is that Paul and I can be married. We don’t have the timetable for this precisely down – I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, Paul and I will be wrapping things up.”
Letterman then received a standing ovation from the audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater.
The 66-year-old host has been a late-night staple since he launched Late Night with David Letterman on NBC in 1982. The exit follows the departure of his longtime Tonight Show rival Jay Leno, who stepped down this year.
The announcement was both broadly expected and immediately surprising. Last year, Letterman renewed his deal for only a single year — the first time he has ever done so — which increased speculation he was preparing to step down. Yet after all these decades on the air, the news is startling as it’s difficult to imagine the CBS airwaves without him.
The unexpected announcement left the media scrambling to confirm the news, which leaked out quickly via Twitter. Sources say only Letterman and Moonves knew of his plan to announce his retirement before the show. Shortly before he took the stage, Letterman also informed his staff.
Moonves released the following statement: “When Dave decided on a one-year extension for his most recent contract, we knew this day was getting closer, but that doesn’t make the moment any less poignant for us. For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me. There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business. On a personal note, it’s been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won’t have to do that for another year or so. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.”
Sources say Letterman has no specific post-exit plans yet. Speculation has already begun about who might replace Letterman, with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert as one oft-mentioned possibility by industry insiders.
The first tweet breaking the story may have come from Mike Mills, the bassist for REM, the musical guest on Thursday night’s show. CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter first confirmed the news.
UPDATE: See our poll: Who should replace Dave?
UPDATE II: Celebrities react
Watch an extended clip of Letterman announcing his retirement on the show below: