David Letterman and Stephen Colbert shared how they both faced nerves while hosting The Late Show, the importance of music to the late-night program and what Letterman most misses about hosting when he returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater as a guest on Colbert’s program Monday night.
The appearance marked Letterman’s first on The Late Show since he retired in 2015 after his 22-year hosting run. Walking out to a loud ovation, Letterman took his bows while joking with Colbert. “Wow, OK. Thank you,” he said. “Oh my God, Stephen, control your people.”
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“I will say this is the most enthusiastic audience I’ve been near since the night I announced I was quitting,” he added, to Colbert’s laughs.
At the top of his sitdown, the My Next Guest Needs No Introduction host briefly acknowledged the difference in Colbert’s hosting style in comparison to his own before celebrating the current Late Show team. “Congratulations on the great success you and your staff have had. It must be very, very gratifying. And, as a handful of people recognize, it’s not easy but you make it look very easy.”
“I will pass that on to the entire staff,” Colbert quipped back. “But you and I both know it’s really the host.”
Letterman went on to share several observations amid his welcomed return, including that the theater is now like a mall or Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is television of the future,” Letterman told the Late Show audience. “I think it’s delightful. I was in the dressing room — and by the way, the dressing room is nicer than the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in in my life. I’ll be here through Christmas.”
“They have snacks in the dressing room,” Letterman added, with comedic pause. “And a menu.”
“We’ve fixed it up a bit,” Colbert admitted.
At another point, Letterman joked about the hosts that have called the theater their home. “It’s so funny, generationally people have certain memories, certain thoughts, certain awareness. So I came to the show this afternoon and people were saying, ‘Yes may I help you?’ And I said, ‘I’m Ed Sullivan.’ Got me right in.”
After Colbert recalled visiting Letterman a week before his final show to pick his brain for advice, the current Late Show host revealed that Letterman’s one regret was that he and his desk had not ever sat on the other side of the theater’s stage.
“You said that because you used to be up against the proscenium, which is behind those stairs over there for people who don’t remember. Your desk was up against there, and sometimes I’ll walk over there and the walls begin to bleed,” he joked. “But you said he wanted to try it over here because Johnny had his desk on this side of the stage.”
“That’s right, Johnny’s configuration was exactly as yours is,” Letterman responded. “Thinking about it, who gives a good god damn.”
Letterman’s recollection of that conversation focused on a different element of hosting late night — the nerves. After recalling how the duo rode up and down, about nine times, on the theater’s freight elevator, the My Next Guest Needs No Introduction host recalled how Colbert asked him: “Do you have in this building, like ,a hidey hole? And you know, I hadn’t heard hidey hole in forever, and I said, ‘What kind of show is the guy is going to do?'”
“I asked if there was a place to hide — it was some place I could hide from my producers,” Colbert interjected. “You said, ‘Yes, I do.’… You said it’s great because it’s close enough you can hear the producers calling for you, and they won’t know where you are.”
“They’ve never found me,” Colbert continued. “But the secret might be they’re not looking. They might not care if I show up.”
“My problem was I couldn’t hide from anybody, and it shortened my life” Letterman responded. “I don’t know about you but I couldn’t leave the building until it was dark — and really, really dark. I’d be so embarrassed.”
Later, the duo discussed how different their experiences were as late night hosts, Letterman “orphaned in the talk show world,” unlike Colbert, who shared how he’s been able to build a community around and among his fellow late night hosts. The response garnered sympathetic “awws” from the audience, to which Letterman responded dryly, “I don’t appreciate the sarcasm.”
But Letterman would be all smiles again after Colbert pivoted the conversation to his 4,000-episode run with the Late Show and asked Letterman what he missed most about hosting. “I miss everything,” he said. “Mostly it’s fun and very few things in life provide one the opportunity.”
Letterman added that the ability to start fresh every night was an added perk of the job. “I can’t speak for you or to you on this topic, but for me, if you muck one up, 24 hours later you get to try again, and that’s a pretty good device.”
The lengthy conversation also saw Colbert and Letterman touch on being parents, how Letterman and his wife spend their empty-nest days — with Letterman revealing he spends a lot of time Googling symptoms — and Letterman giving a small shout-out to comedian Dana Carvey, whose son Dex died last week at 32.
The duo ended their conversation discussing the impact of music on the Late Show during Letterman’s run, which the former CBS late night host called “one of the great parts of the show.” He recalled several of his favorite music moments, including being frightened by Green Day’s drummer whenever the band was on as he’d charge the desk when the performance was done. “I assumed he was kidding around. Perhaps he actually wanted to hurt me, but looking back now I thought what a great experience that was.”
Letterman also shared how he was key to bringing The National on to perform for his Ed Sullivan Theater return, noting his request was able to get the band to step away from their tour to appear on the CBS late-night show. It was something he said he was only able to get one other band to do while he was hosting — that band was the Foo Fighters.
“The people who booked these acts were great producers and in touch with a wide variety of music, and it was a tremendous gift,” Letterman said of the music’s importance to the show and him. “When you don’t have that in your life, you miss it.”
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