This felt like a surprise when news broke, reminiscent of Johnny Carson's abrupt announcement of his own plans to leave "The Tonight Show." But on closer consideration, it makes sense. Letterman is not young. His great rivalry, with Jay Leno, is not only over since Leno has left "Tonight" -- but Letterman's pronouncements in recent years have indicated a mellowing toward Leno. Now Jimmy Fallon is the opposition -- and showing real strength with the younger viewers who are going to see Letterman ever more as an old dude. Fallon and Kimmel can match Letterman's whimsy; he is the better on-air conversationalist most of the time, but late-night is less and less about conversation and more about stunts like Kimmel's Matt Damon bits or Fallon's music parodies.
So why not call it a day? He's had a grand career and more than a few wonderful comedic moments. (I will not soon forget his taking a gift basket to GE when it bought NBC.) Let Craig Ferguson and others wage the war of succession.
Here's the statement from CBS top man Leslie Moonves:
“When Dave decided on a one-year extension for his most recent contract, we knew this day was getting closer, but that doesn’t make the moment any less poignant for us. For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our Network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me. There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business. On a personal note, it’s been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won’t have to do that for another year or so. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.”