“I wake up in the morning, have coffee, start reading the newspapers-and then I reach for a pencil. I start circling items: ‘This would be perfect for the monologue.’ Turn the page: ‘That could work for a sketch.’ And by the third page, I realize: Who the hell am I going to do this for? The fish? Am I going to stand out here on the cliff and yell jokes over into the ocean?”
This is not a quote from David Letterman, the subject of this essay, but one from Johnny Carson in a 2002 interview (his last ) with Esquire. It’s almost as if the purpose of the interview was to assure anyone who cared that Carson was doing just fine and didn’t miss the limelight, yet his words betrayed him. Reading this interview today (and you should because it’s fascinating), there’s no sense Carson missed the daily grind of a network talk show, but he did miss having a public point of view on contemporary issues – which kind of blows up the whole notion that Carson just drifted into the sunset after he left The Tonight Show. It feels less like that was “the plan” and more like “that’s just the way it turned out.”
In retirement, Carson would famously write jokes and submit them for David Letterman to use. In 2000 Carson wrote a piece lampooning Dennis Miller for The New Yorker; in retrospect, it’s kind of crazy it even exists. (This would kind of be like if Terrence Malick all of a sudden dropped an article lamenting about Bill Maher, and even that’s a bad comparison. There’s no good comparison to this Carson piece and I find it both highly unusual and remarkable.) Carson’s executive assistant at the time, Helen Sanders, is quoted as saying, “He fully intended to do new projects, but once he got here, nothing appealed to him. After a while, he said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to do anything.’”
Two and a half years after this interview Carson would die from complications from emphysema without ever having a second act.
David Letterman’s love for Carson has been well documented – and it wasn’t too far of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which Letterman followed in the footsteps of his mentor and just kind of disappeared after leaving The Late Show. But (as we wrote about a couple of months ago), Letterman has kept popping up to host events, give interviews, and induct Pearl Jam into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was certainly not the Carson plan – but then again “the Carson plan” wasn’t a real thing.
In 1992, Carson ended his final show saying, “I hope that when I find something that I want to do, and I think you will like, and come back, that you will be as gracious inviting me into your home as you have been.” These are not the words of someone who is thinking he’s going to disappear from public life. I do wonder if Carson had the unlimited scope of what can be done today in the current media structure if things would have played out the way they did. I suspect they wouldn’t have. Carson’s options back then were pretty much just “do a special” – which is why NBC gave him a holding deal he never used.
When Letterman left The Late Show, he told Rolling Stone, “I would like to do this show maybe three days a week, two weeks out of the month. Do they have shows like that?” Well, yes, they do now. And it sounds like that’s precisely what Letterman will be doing with his new Netflix show. And it’s with this Netflix show that Letterman can finally do what he would never be able to do at The Late Show – which is surpass the career of Carson. (I am well aware Letterman would instantly scoff at this. But, hear me out.)
Letterman’s esteem has swelled since he left The Late Show. The day his Netflix series was announced, I saw people on Twitter praising his return with delight – and some were the same people who in 2015 couldn’t wait for him to be off the air so a new, fresher face could take his place. Oh, things have changed a lot since 2015. And right now someone like Letterman, a comedic authority figure who can speak truth to power and have the weight to back it up, is in high demand. In fact, he might be the only living person who fits that exact bill right now. And Letterman is savvy enough to realize this. And what’s funny is if Letterman were still doing The Late Show, we’d probably still be taking him for granted. It’s only after he left did we all realize how much we missed him. And then the craziest thing happened: he listened to us and decided to come back.
Like Carson in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Letterman still has a point of view and obviously misses being able to express it publicly. The difference is Letterman has decided to act on it. So much of Letterman’s career was based on “What would Johnny do?” It’s fascinating that, now, Letterman is looking at the later years of Carson’s life and has decided to do the opposite. The thing is, Carson could have given us so much more. Look at this quote from producer Dan Melnick (All That Jazz, Footloose) in the Esquire piece: “He constantly says that’s the only frustration in giving up the show, that when something huge breaks in the news, he can’t jump on it. During the  election, with the chads and the recounts, he was going crazy.”
Carson could have given us more, but his obsession with “going out on top” (a theme mentioned many times in the Esquire piece) took that from us. The reason Letterman can now surpass his mentor is because he has decided to not keep that from us. He’s decided to give us more of his gift to entertain and enlighten. We probably don’t even deserve it, but he’s going to give it to us anyway when he certainly doesn’t have to. He’s giving us the second act we don’t deserve, but desperately need.
“It was sort of like a doctor telling you, ‘Well, we’ve looked at the x-rays and your legs are perfectly healthy, but we’re still going to amputate them.’ You think, ‘Whaaa? Why is he going?'”
This is David Letterman quoted in the Carson Esquire piece about Johnny Carson’s retirement. Letterman is correct, there was no real reason for Carson to retire and certainly no reason at all for Carson to disappear from public life. But the good news for all of us is that when faced with the same options, Letterman has taken his own advice and finally stopped following the example of his mentor.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.