First Jay Leno, now David Letterman: Is the golden age of the US chat shows over?

Late-night chat is entering a new era, reports Tim Walker from Los Angeles

Los Angeles

The game of thrones that is US late-night television entered another round this week, as David Letterman announced his impending retirement after more than 30 years as a talk-show host.

Late-night legend Letterman, who turns 67 on 12 April, made the surprise announcement during Thursday's recording of his CBS programme, Late Show With David Letterman, saying that he would end his tenure at the network sometime in 2015. British audiences remain bemused by the American tradition of late-night TV. Though Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross can draw large audiences weekly, Letterman and his long-time rival, Jay Leno, have beamed into millions of homes every weekday evening at 11.35pm for the past two decades. Leno, 63, retired from NBC’s The Tonight Show in February.

To declare oneself for Leno or Letterman was tribal, an allegiance to one or the other, but not both. The hosts are cultural institutions, with differing comic sensibilities broadcast from opposite coasts. Letterman tapes his show in New York, at the Ed Sullivan Theatre. Leno produced The Tonight Show in Los Angeles, where he took the reins from Johnny Carson in 1992.

The format of such shows has remained ingrained since Carson's day, beginning with the host's topical monologue, leading to a comedy routine, a celebrity interview and a musical guest performance.

The format also demands that each network's late night show be followed by a late, late night show at 12.35am - in CBS and Letterman's case, the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Scottish-born Ferguson is a potential candidate to replace Letterman in the earlier slot, though the bookies favour bigger names for the role, including Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock. Whoever takes the chair behind Letterman's desk - even if they do away with the desk - their appointment will be front page news across the US.

The first shots of the so-called "Late-Night Wars" were fired in 1992, when Carson announced his retirement from NBC. Letterman was his heir apparent, having hosted a show in the network's 12.30am slot for the previous 10 years. Yet to Letterman and Carson’s dismay, NBC bosses chose Leno to take on The Tonight Show. The following year, Letterman left for CBS, to host his rival 11.35pm programme, where he has remained.

For its first two years, Letterman's show sat atop the late-night ratings, but Leno's Tonight Show has been number one since 1995, when Hugh Grant appeared as a guest shortly after police caught him in flagrante with the prostitute Divine Brown. Another late-night battle played out in 2009, when Leno retired - only for NBC, panicked by poor figures, to bring back Leno to shore up its audience.

Now, the baton has passed to another generation, with 39-year-old Jimmy Fallon taking over The Tonight Show, so far with great success. Fallon and his other late-night rival, 46-year-old Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s J immy Kimmel Live!, have twisted the format just enough to fit the internet age.

Which is not to say that Letterman himself has not enjoyed some viral moments, such as his on-air admission in 2009 of an affair with one of his staffers. This week, his show featured Bill Murray, who was the first guest on Letterman’s NBC show in 1982. Since then, Letterman has hosted more than 6,000 late-night shows, making him the longest-serving host.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Co-ordinator - Birmingham - Permanant

£20000 - £25000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Head of Maths

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Head of Maths position at a prestigious ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week