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David Letterman, never much for sentiment, isn't making a big deal out of the 20th anniversary of his "Late Show," which comes during a sleepy summer week amid a cable dispute that knocked CBS off the air in about 3 million homes.
The only apparent nod to the occasion is Thursday's slated appearance by Bill Murray – Letterman's first guest on both the Aug. 30, 1993, debut of "Late Show" and the 1982 start of NBC's "Late Night," during which Murray memorably bounded onto the stage and gyrated aerobics-style to Olivia Newton John's "Physical."
Letterman, it's safe to say, won't be jumping up and down in the Ed Sullivan Theater when Murray arrives Thursday. But the self-critical host should let himself savor the moment: Amid pending change to the late night landscape, the 20th anniversary show could mark Letterman's last major TV milestone.
His contract reportedly is up at the end of next year. ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, a Letterman acolyte, moved to his hero's time slot in January, making them friendly rivals. “Late Night” host Jimmy Fallon is set to replace the resilient Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" early next year, setting up a new three-way, generational-driven battle for viewers.
The fate of "Late Show" presumably rests with Letterman, who is still damn funny and, at 66, appears secure enough to occasionally let us see he's having a good time, as during his interview this week with the quirky Amy Sedaris, one of his favorite guests.
Whatever he and his CBS bosses decide, Letterman’s TV legacy is secure. He’s already surpassed his idol, Johnny Carson, for the longest late-night reign, with 31-plus years between his NBC and CBS programs. He also will have outlasted Leno, who beat him out for Carson’s throne, spurring the creation of “Late Show.”
Even if Leno won the long ratings war, Letterman, as we’ve noted, exerted the more enduring influence on the likes of Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Chelsea Handler and Jon Stewart who grew up watching “Late Night” as the sardonic and clever host reshaped the after-hours comedy form, one stupid human and pet trick at a time. “Late Night” also became the hosting training ground for O’Brien and Fallon, with Seth Meyers next up.
Letterman’s past two decades on “Late Show” extended his impact, as he’s grown into TV’s sometimes cranky, but reliable uncle of late night humor – from Murray spray-painting “Dave” on his desk during the 1993 debut show to Madonna spraying him with obscenities to Drew Barrymore jumping on his desk and flashing him.
The lack of hoopla surrounding the “Late Show” anniversary, in an odd way, represents more vintage Letterman – typical of a host who always found his greatest comedy in unexpected moments rather than through manufactured hyped (a lesson he learned for good with his 1995 Oscars stint). But perhaps just once Letterman should allow himself the luxury of a Top 20 List to mark two decades of “Late Show” and celebrate a unique, prolific late night TV career that’s unlikely to be topped.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.