David Letterman has announced he will retire in 2015, after more three decades as a defining fixture of the late night television landscape.
Letterman said during a taping of the "Late Show" Thursday he had informed CBS President Leslie Moonves that he will step down as host of the show next year, which coincides with the expiration of his current contract.
"The man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves, he and I have had a relationship for years and years and years, and we have had this conversation in the past, and we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance. And I phoned him just before the program, and I said 'Leslie, it's been great, you've been great, and the network has been great, but I'm retiring,'" Letterman said. The full clip of his announcement can be viewed below.
People who were in the audience Thursday told NBC's "Today" they first thought Letterman's revelation was just another "Late Show" gag. "I was waiting for the punchline — where’s the joke?" said Kassandra Perez-Desir of Brooklyn.
In response to Letterman's announcement, Moonves issued a statement thanking the host for his work and for their long-standing relationship.
"There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business," Moonves said, adding, "It has been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It's going to be tough to say goodbye."
Letterman, 66, has been a familiar face on late night television since the 1982 debut of "Late Night with David Letterman" on NBC.
After Jay Leno took over from Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" when Carson retired in 1992, Letterman departed NBC for CBS' "Late Show."
Letterman and Leno went on to dominate late-night with their rivalry over ratings only ending in February when Leno stepped down. Jimmy Fallon moved down the schedule from NBC's "Late Night" program to assume Leno's duties on "Tonight," with former "SNL" weekend anchor Seth Meyers taking over Fallon's slot.
Letterman's late-night tenure is the longest in TV history. He surpassed Carson in 2013 at the 31-year mark. Prior to his retirement, Leno had spent 22 years on-air.
During his time at CBS Letterman extended his reach to include producing, with his Worldwide Pants production company turning out not only his own program but also "The Late Late Show" which airs in the same timeslot as "Late Night With Seth Meyers," and featured Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn and current host Craig Ferguson.
News of Letterman's retirement spread rapidly on Twitter Thursday afternoon when R.E.M. musician Mike Mills, a guest on Thursday's show, alerted his followers to the news:
Dave just announced his retirement #2015 #muchlovedave
— Mike Mills (@m_millsey) April 3, 2014
Jimmy Kimmel, Letterman's competitor at ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," was quick to react and to add praise on the social networking platform:
David @Letterman is the best there is and ever was.
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) April 3, 2014
Daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres also weighed in:
David @Letterman announced he's retiring in 2015. It's been 31 incredible years. Television won't be the same without you, Dave.
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) April 3, 2014
On "Late Night," Seth Meyers took time to pay tribute to Letterman for his work on the show, saying: "if it wasn’t for David Letterman, this show wouldn’t exist. And if it wasn’t for David Letterman, I wouldn’t be here. And if I wasn’t here, you’d just be an audience of people in an empty studio…it’s incredible to be part of that legacy.”
The exact date of Letterman's exit from the nework has yet to be announced.
"We don't have the timetable for this precisely down - I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, ['Late Show' band leader] Paul [Shaffer] and I will be wrapping things up," Letterman said Thursday. Moments later he received a standing ovation from the audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater.