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Skepticism of course is warranted: Barbara Walters retiring? No she's not. But she says she is... then she says she's not. Last night on "Late Show with David Letterman," she and that other legend declared that they would walk off into the sunset together.... After first declaring that they had no desire to leave at all.
What's going on here? Shrinks have terms for this -- "inner conflict," is certainly one. "Lapsus linguae" may be the other -- a slip of the tongue that reveals the true inner emotions... Barbara's had those recently.
Wednesday night, watching her glide through the movable feast of power brokers in the Pool Room of the Four Seasons -- all gathered to fete this spectacular 50-year run which may or may not be coming to an end -- someone was overheard to say: "I give her three weeks."
That may be generous. I give her three days. (By the way, you may want to watch the tribute Friday at 9. It's quite good.)
Everyone says the same thing about Walters: She looks great, vital, beautiful... a Dorian Gray in a red suit who defies the clock. They also say she can't retire, anymore than Mike Wallace or Walter Cronkite could. It's not just the push and pull of a great career - which always seems to exert a magnetic pull over any avowed intention to back out, drawing them back in, over and over again... It's something much deeper: An identity bound tightly to that career, as if one cannot be separated from the other. The obvious benefits of work are one thing -- keeping active, remaining vital, doing everything you are so good at doing. But it's that deeper power the legends never have control over - the one that says they have to keep going because if they don't, they stop becoming what they were all along.
Johnny Carson was the only singular legend in TV history that I'm aware of who could bodily remove himself from that strangely human paradox -- though hard to say how successful he was because he died a mere ten years after leaving "Tonight": A recluse in a Malibu compound who swung a tennis racket and had no wistful glance back to the glory days... Or so one is lead to believe. We are all still waiting for the Bill Zehme biography.
But Barbara's different. Wednesday night was Her Crowd: Oprah, David Geffen, Woody Allen and every other luminary you could care to think of, all elbow-to-elbow in a packed room that parted only when the queen moved through. She looked happy, and sad; in the moment and also wistful. She made jokes because jokes are always a nice way to diffuse complex emotions: "At least now I have time for Botox. But since I'm not going to be on TV anymore, I don't need the Botox."
She explained (redundantly): "I don't know how to say goodbye. So I won't, and instead say, 'à bientôt...'"
That means "see you later." Or to quote that overquoted Hallmark-like saying, "A good-bye is never painful unless you're never going to say hello again."
You may have heard that David Letterman announced his retirement yesterday, and as any Letterman fan well knows, there's nothing like material that's generated by your own life (or in this instance, Dave's...). He taped his Thursday "Late Show" Retirement Edition yesterday at 3:30 p.m., and then promptly taped the Friday edition at around 5 (or thereabouts...). Here's a clip from tonight's show, and yes -- expect retirement jokes, good ones...Billy Crystal appears tonight as well; as has been noted, Crystal appeared on Jay Leno's last "Tonight.:"
David Letterman in retirement: The very phrase is daunting, an existential conundrum. A riddle without an answer.
We kid, but not by a large margin: Letterman in retirement does not compute. He is devoted to his show, his staff, and the daily routine of putting out broadcast television's best talk show, late night or otherwise. He does not have, or is not known to have, hobbies, or anything that would comprise a time-consuming pastime which people in retirement are supposed to typically consume their time with: Golf, tennis, travel, the grandkids, Myrtle Beach . . . Mowing the lawn at the North Salem place? Hard to imagine.
But that doesn't mean he has no outside interests -- those are well-known and well-established. He has an LA-based charitable foundation, has close ties to his alma mater, Ball State; there's a budding record company and, of course, Worldwide Pants.
Probably the most exciting outside venture is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing -- his IndyCar team that he owns with former racing great Bobby Rahal and which had considerable success in the middle of the last decade, and only recently returned to full-time competition, and is also involved with the American LeMans circuit (they race a custom built BMW).
Letterman is every bit the motor head Jay Leno is, absent the compulsive need to buy everything on wheels. Dave is not exactly a collector by nature.
But these ventures are already operating concerns -- successful side-businesses with their own staffs. Does David want to become involved more fully with each of those when his absentee ownership status has sufficed nicely all these years? Presumably a question only he can answer.
Then, there is this question: What about a return to television in some capacity? That presumes the old saw that great TV talents just can't stay away from the hot light -- that Bill Cosby just has to get back in the game, or that Oprah can't be far from TV so she'll just buy a network instead, or that Jay really will go to Fox, and so on.
Of course I don't buy it. Letterman really doesn't need it. He really doesn't need the fame or fortune -- he doesn't have that burning desire to be loved, to hear the audience applause or to be fulfilled -- as part of some sort of deep-seated narcissistic impulse -- by the omnipresence of cameras and that blinking red light.
He's long had a curious ambivalence to fame -- which is part of his appeal, certainly. I can take this stupid job and shove it has long been implicit in the Letterman MO -- a sense that the world is mad, television is madder and there's certainly no reason to go completely insane along with it.
For that reason, don't bet on a TV future in retirement. But that doesn't mean there couldn't and shouldn't be one. A Charlie Rose-like show, hosted by the Thoughtful Dave, with thoughtful questions offered in the spirit of thoughtfulness . . . a deeper exploration of his interests absent the quips or jokes or Paul Shaffer one-liners over to the side (not that there's anything wrong with any of that . . .)?
Something a little more PBS-like, or fringe-cable-like? Once a week even?
Only Dave has the answers to these questions. We'll see how he answers them.
Here it is, a bit of TV history: David Letterman telling the world that he'll end a remarkable 32-year run in 2015.
David Letterman announced his retirement last night, but why now? Quickly, some background: Here's what I wrote a couple weeks ago., but to add to this -- there's no indication this was any decision other than Dave's.
What about Dave? Letterman turns 67 April 12. He is -- yes -- the second greatest late night talk show host in TV history, and also the second oldest: Johnny Carson was 66 when he retired in 1992.
The rule in television is, just to restate, ironclad -- older audiences mean reduced profits, and with younger crowds at ABC and NBC, there will also be pressure at CBS to lower its average age, by grooming a new generation of "Late Show" viewers with (alas) a new "Late Show" host.
Letterman, who has a contract through 2015, has given no indication that he plans to step aside -- or as he put it to Oprah during an interview a year or so ago: "When it’s time to go, somebody else tell me. Because I don’t know when it’s time to go.”
No one wants to see Letterman go. I never want to see Letterman go. He is the greatest, most entertaining, most inventive late-night host in my lifetime. He is Dave. There is no other Dave and never will be.
That said . . . reality is reality. Letterman will be moving along someday. For whom? Replacement possibilities remain the obvious ones -- and Craig Ferguson is not among them.
Because "The Late Late Show" host lost regularly to Fallon's "Late Night," there's appears to little chance he would succeed at 11:35 opposite Fallon again, or so the logic goes. A shame: Ferguson's "Late Late Show" is endlessly amusing, his monologues funny and his sidekick, Geoff, probably the single finest animatronic skeleton in late-night history. But still. Stephen Colbert's contract at Comedy Central ends this year, Jon Stewart's next year.
There now appears to be growing industry consensus that Colbert may now be the heir apparent. Is it the CBS consensus? The Colbert one? By the way, the average age of "The Colbert Report" viewer is 43. My kicker:
Stephen Colbert could well be the next host of "Late Show."
And of course, this: We'll see.