We’re in the season where people are going home for the holidays, which in recent years has been more sporadic than it used to be. It’s not cheap, way too many people have “safety” issues and, sometimes, it’s not all that desired an experience on either side. For those reasons, sometimes years can go by between visits.
Well, at least one reunion of consequence will be taking place tonight, and, fortunately for fans of late night TV, it’s in the form of David Letterman making his first return to the Ed Sullivan Theatre which his talk show called home for nearly 22 years. Since he turned over the hosting chores of THE LATE SHOW to Stephen Colbert in 2015, Letterman has, much like his idol and one-time boss Johnny Carson did, moved on in life, initially leaving the limelight almost completely as Carson chose to. During the earlier part of his self-imposed exile, Letterman prioritized the raising of his son Harry, who was born when he was 56 back in 2003. He chose to grow an “unemployment beard” the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Papa Hemingway or Grizzly Adams and stayed off TV until Netflix was able to lure him back with a well-received short order of taped one-on-one interviews, MY NEXT GUEST NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION, a far less demanding grind than the five-a-week runs he had on NBC and CBS since his groundbreaking 12:30 AM show began in early 1982.
And I’m especially looking forward to it because I’ve been a fan of both Letterman and his former home even before that. The Ed Sullivan Theatre was CBS’ largest and most readily accessible audience taping venue during my youth, the survivor of a series of converted stage theatres the network owned and where a majority of its game and talk shows eminated from in the 70s, soon after the eponymous variety show that gave what was once CBS Studio 50 its name left the airwaves. It was even the home of some shows from other networks, including Howard Cosell’s ill-advised attempt to bring back the format from the same stage for ABC in the fall of 1975. I spent many days and nights inside that theatre, and because of its location right on Broadway would almost never miss a chance to see it evolve every time I visited New York. But I haven’t been inside it for a taping in decades, and, frankly, I miss it. I never did get a chance to see a taping of Letterman’s shows live, even though at one time I personally knew many of his staffers and associates.
But now Harry’s an undergraduate at Brown and, thankfully, Dave’s choosing to get out into the world more often. Last February, he made a triumphant return to the sixth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the debut of his NBC LATE NIGHT franchise with current host and unapologetic fanboy Seth Meyers. It provided a rare opportunity for Meyers to put aside his rambling Trump impersonation and engage in an insightful interview with Letterman, who was clearly more open to talking about himself than he had previously been. VARIETY’s Daniel D’Addario was especially effusive in his praising of the event:
Letterman brought to bear the askew humility that, even after some seven years largely out of the spotlight, felt instantly familiar. To wit: Among the loveliest moments of the interview was Letterman paying tribute to the show’s in-house band, noting how bolstered he had felt to hear live music daily. This was Letterman in a reflective mood — wistfully describing the changes in his son, now a teenager, and praising Meyers’ work on the show. This latter point suggested how strange it may have felt for Letterman to be out of the game himself.
It was certainly a more engaged reunion than previous late night hosts have demonstrated in recent years. Jay Leno did appear on Jimmy Fallon’s TONIGHT SHOW in 2019, but only to deliver an “angry man” monologue and fist-bump his host. Well, he never did actually work full-time in 30 Rock himself. And Conan O’Brien did visit Fallon’s LATE NIGHT show in 2011, another largely uneventful event, which was almost understandable considering Conan was not far removed from his unceremonious departure from NBC a year before after the network’s reluctance to part with Leno completely led to O’Brien being given the TONIGHT SHOW as basically a second position show behind a new Leno show that nearly destroyed the 10 PM time slot in prime time.
And both of those reunions offered more interaction that Carson’s last TV appearance did when he briefly visited a Letterman road show taping at Television City shortly after his CBS run began. OUTSIDER.com recalled that May 1994 event with more than a bit of disappointment:
The audience gave Carson a standing ovation as the Letterman band played the theme music from the Tonight Show. Letterman nodded for Carson to sit at his desk, as the host took a seat on the couch. So viewers were going to get some Carson-Letterman banter, right? That would be a no.
Johnny Carson sat at the Letterman desk. He soaked in the adoration of the audience. Carson smiled and, with hand gestures, asked the audience to sit. He then lovingly stroked the surface of the desk. He abruptly got off and walked out, waving one final time to the crowd.
But since Letterman’s got something to plug, it’s expected this CBS reunion will be more satisfying. In fact, Letterman’s bringing along some of what he apparently took home before he left, and is now giving folks a chance to take it off his hands. An aggressive social media campaign dropped over the weekend, featuring that familiar banter between Dave and his longtime cohort Paul Shaffer (you know him, you love him, you cant live without him) that set up the details that the accompanying website provided:
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Late Show with David Letterman. To celebrate, Dave is offering TV enthusiasts a chance to own a piece of late-night history. One lucky individual will have the opportunity to take home the original 20X8 ft marquee sign from the Late Show with David Letterman. Could you be that lucky winner?
But wait, there’s more! Dave will also fly you and a guest to New York City, where you’ll be featured as a guest star on the popular YouTube internet show, The Barbara Gaines Show. During your visit, you’ll even get the chance to meet the iconic Barbara Gaines herself. And who knows, you might even have a surprise encounter with the one and only Paul Shaffer while you’re there.
The best part is that your entry will support Habitat for Humanity. Dave is a longtime supporter of Habitat, where he first began volunteering in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. By donating $10 or more, your entry will support Habitat for Humanity and its mission to transform lives and communities by providing equitable access to affordable housing.
I’m entered, though considering that paid entries are basically a dime each and most people are donating much larger amounts than I did, I kinda doubt I’ll wind up winning the sign or the trip. Not that I have the room for the sign these days anyway, though I know someone quite well who does, and let’s just say it would complement that person’s decor beautifully.
But I would love to somehow, someday, return to The Ed Sullivan Theatre myself. I’m a big fan of Colbert and began to make his show a nightcap again when he recently resumed tapings post-WGA strike. I’m told the old studio has been remodeled to restore its classic glory, the likes of which I never even saw when I was a more frequent visitor. In 2016 I got the chance to see THE TONIGHT SHOW in New York in another studio I haunted as a youth, and I was stunned at how beautifully the art deco look of the 30 Rock of classic New York production has been resurrected. That taping was one of the better days that I’ve had in recent years.
I really could use another day like that, especially since I’m once again not going anywhere for the holidays. I’ll be watching Dave’s visit and wishing intensely I could have been there myself. Or at least in New York itself. But hey, if Dave can find his way back after all this time, maybe I’ll be able to as well, hopefully before I’m Dave’s age. Perhaps someone reading this knows someone at CBS who could help make this happen? This is how I remember the Ed Sullivan Theatre marquee. As you can tell, it’s been a loooooong time.
Call it a holiday wish if you will. Dave’s got his. I’ve got mine.
Until next time…