David Letterman : If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

In 1978, Dave made his first appearance on The Tonight Show. He impressed Johnny Carson so much that he was not only invited back, but was then invited to guest host the show after making only 2 appearances. Between 1979 and 1981, Dave guest hosted the Tonight Show 51 times. There was speculation that Johnny would retire in the early '80s, and Johnny seemed to be grooming Dave as his successor. Dave was even at the top of NBC president Fred Silverman's list of possible Carson replacements http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20075740,00.html. Meanwhile Jay Leno wasn't even a blip on NBC's radar at this point, having made only a handful of appearances on the Tonight Show in the late '70s (and after 1979 he wasn't invited back on the show for 7 years). So I can't help but wonder if Dave would have gotten the Tonight Show job if Johnny had retired 10 years earlier.

Of course by the time Johnny retired in 1992, Fred Silverman was gone, Dave had been hosting his own successful late night show for years, and Jay Leno was ensconced as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show. I think all in all things worked out well for both Dave and Jay, but I can't help but wonder what if ...?

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

As much as I loved (what I remember and see clips of now) Johnny Carson, by the mid to late 80s you could tell his heart wasn't completely in the show. Then when his son was killed in a car accident in 90 or 91 he aged about 30 years (understandably).

You present an interesting point - it may have happened that way. It's too bad, but I guess things happen for a reason. Had Dave not left NBC, Conan (my favorite) wouldn't be hosting most likely as he took Dave's spot on the Late Late Show.

I also find it interesting that all the other hosts seem to like and/or respect each other but I never feel that with Leno and anyone. (I never liked Jay Leno's shows).

I don't believe there will ever be another Johnny Carson. I remember being able to stay up occasionally in the 70s and what I remember of him was primo.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

A lot of other comics and talk show host do not care for Leno bec 5b4 ause they see him as a sell out who compromised his comedic integrity to advance his career.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

"A lot of other comics ....do not care for Leno because they see him as a sell out"

I'm not a Leno fan but I see it differently. I see the comics behavior as jealously and envious of his success and wish it had happened to them and not Leno. As if Leno didn't deserve it and they did. I saw something similar in the early 1990s when alternative music became popular. Bands on independent labels would frequently criticize bands as selling out when they signed with a major label. Then when a major label came calling and offered them $$$, they had no problem signing a deal with a major label.

And let's not forget what Letterman did to Bill Hicks, one of the most important comedians of the last 30 years. He refused to air his segment (probably worried it would upset his advertisers) and Letterman would not air until more than 15 years after it was recorded. This is the very definition of selling out, letting concerns from his advertisers determine what makes it to air.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

You're preaching to the choir. I agree.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

16d0 I keep hearing that Leno was the funniest guy back in the 70s and 80s when he and Letterman and more were on the comedy circuit. What makes everyone's funny bone itch is different - I have never found Jay to be funny at all (all I have seen is the Tonight Show). I see it more as curious of Jay's success because the current guys in late night certainly weren't around when Jay was supposedly the "funniest guy out there".

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …


I also find it interesting that all the other hosts seem to like and/or respect each other but I never feel that with Leno and anyone..



Craig Ferguson liked Jay enough to have him as his only guest during the final taping of his show earlier this year. He was on Arsenio Hall's show last year (Jay was even Arsenio's biggest donator when he was doing 'Celebrity Apprentice'). Dennis Miller and he used to be competitors but they became friends and Jay had him on "TTS" a fair bit. Bill Maher from "Real Time" is certainly very fond of him. Even Letterman told Oprah not long ago that he still thinks of Jay as a friend.



Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

That's the thing; by the time Carson retired, NBC had something of value that was shown after "Tonight" and they didn't want to let that go. If Letterman moved to Tonight and the late show fell apart, then they had less than having Leno go for the Tonight spot - and if Leno didn't work out, they figured they could move Dave to the Tonight slot. They tried to go for the 2 birds in the bush and lost the one in their hand.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …


If Letterman moved to Tonight and the late show fell apart, then they had less than having Leno go for the Tonight spot - and if Leno didn't work out, they figured they could move Dave to the Tonight slot. They tried to go for the 2 birds in the bush and lost the one in their hand.



Yes, a network can't hold onto two people when they want the same thing. It didn't work in '92, and it didn't work in '09 either. They had to choose because two into one won't work.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

NBC had their eyes on Chevy Chase to replace Johnny back in the late 70s when it was thought JOhnny was moving to ABC. I don't think the NBC brass would have given the show to Dave in '82 since he was unproven.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

I wouldn't have traded those last ten years of Carson even if Dave would have gotten The Tonight Show. To me it's a cliche that Johnny wasn't as good those last years. I watched and Carson never let down, that's what made Carson great. He took pride in proving himself the best by doing a top notch monologue every night.

Jay and Dave changed for the worse when things did change. Jay had to go from telling stories to doing topical news jokes when he took over the show and that isn't what he did best and what made him a great stand-up comic. Dave got lazy and shortened his monologues when he went to CBS. His yelling "We're giving away hams!" wasn't funny after a few times and he kept doing it and doing it. All that annoying stuff made me cut down on watching the show. The Norm MacDonald impression on SNL of him was as goofy and irritating as he really was. Although I think Dave started doing really good monologues again in the last few years. Carson deserved to stay because he was always better than Jay on the show, and was more consistently funny than Dave. Dave deserved to take over the show, but not earlier.

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Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …


I wouldn't have traded those last ten years of Carson even if Dave would have gotten The Tonight Show.


Agreed. Carson and Letterman back to back made the '80s the golden age of late night for me. And it was even better when the two of them got together.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …

I have watched all three ( Carson. Leno, and Letterman ). Carson definitely appealed to the older crowd, while Jay I think appealed to the younger and older crowd, and Letterman appealed to the younger crowd.

If Letterman had taken over from Carson two things I think would have happened. One, Carson's older crowd would have not quite understood Letterman's humor and would have been likely to stop watching the show altogether. Two, Letterman wouldn't have been as free to develop his own style and would have probably faced some stiff resistance to anything too wacky or different.

I think the big-wigs at NBC rightly saw that Letterman simply would have not appealed to Johnny's prime demographic age range and so Leno was the much safer bet.

Re: If Johnny had retired 10 years earlier …


If Letterman had taken over from Carson two things I think would have happened. One, Carson's older crowd would have not quite understood Letterman's humor and would have been likely to stop watching the show altogether. Two, Letterman wouldn't have been as free to develop his own style and would have probably faced some stiff resistance to anything too wacky or different.



Yes, and like Jay, Dave would probably also have been let go to make room for Conan- but, in his case, a lot sooner if his ratings had been as low as they tended to be over at the "Late Show". I don't know if he'll ever be able to admit it to himself, but not being offered "The Tonight Show" and, therefore, going to CBS was the best thing that could've happened to ensure the longevity of Dave Letterman's tv career.
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