Red Letterman Day: chat-show king secures marathon contract

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The Independent US

The television veteran David Letterman once offered this insight about his calling in life: "I cannot sing, dance or act. What else would I be but a talk show host?"

For another four years at least, the gnarled and sardonic Letterman is going to keep being just that after CBS renewed the 59-year-old's contract to continue hosting The Late Show until 2010. In addition to earning a reported annual salary of $38m (£19m), a sweetener for Letterman is that his new contract will take him a year past the anticipated retirement date of his talk show rival, Jay Leno.

"I'm thrilled to be continuing on at CBS," Letterman, who is on holiday, said in a statement. "At my age you really don't want to have to learn a new commute."

Letterman, who was born in Indianapolis and started his television career there as a weatherman for a local station, has hosted his show for CBS since 1993, having previously headed a similar mixture of comedy and celebrity interviews on NBC. His guests have included Cher, Shirley MacLaine and Madonna, whose colourful interview was the most censored in TV talk show history.

In the last year, Letterman has developed an antagonistic relationship with the conservative Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, to whom Letterman said: "Sixty per cent of what you say is crap."

Letterman's show, loved by critics and recipient of 12 Emmy awards, draws an audience of around four million viewers but it has always lagged behind Leno's show, which attracts 5.7m viewers. In the early Nineties, Leno beat Letterman to replace the veteran comedian Johnny Carson when he retired from NBC's The Tonight Show. The following year Letterman joined CBS to launch his own show and he and Leno have been rivals ever since.

Leno, 56, said two years ago that he intends to stand down from The Tonight Show in 2009 and will be replaced by Conan O'Brien.

Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, said of Letterman: "His presence on our air is an ongoing source of pride, and the creativity and imagination that The Late Show puts forth every night is an ongoing display of the highest quality entertainment. We are truly honoured that one of the most revered and talented entertainers of our time will continue to call CBS home."

Letterman, who in 2000 had quintuple heart surgery, has recently scooped interviews with a series of high-profile celebrities including the comedian Michael Richards, better known as Kramer in the Seinfeld comedy series, who last month apologised for a racist rant at a LA comedy club.

One of Letterman's most memorable shows, which are broadcast from New York, took place six days after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks when he was one of the first comedians to return to the airwaves. Among his guests was the then CBS news anchor Dan Rather, who was clearly emotional. Letterman said of the attacks in New York and Washington: "If you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamned sense?"