Editor’s Note, April 3, 2014: David Letterman announced today during a live taping of The Late Show with David Letterman that he will retire in 2015 after 22 years at the helm of that show. Here, our retrospective in light of his Kennedy Center Honors feting (video above).
Indy’s own David Letterman once told this magazine he wouldn’t work past age 60. Now, five years past that benchmark, the Broad Ripple High grad is still going strong—and it’s paid off. This month, the Late Show host will be one of seven recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for his contribution to the performing arts, alongside other bold-faced names such as Jimmy Page and Dustin Hoffman. When the awards were announced, Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein called the legendary funnyman “one of the most influential personalities in the history of television.” And after three decades in the limelight, it’s no wonder. Here’s a peek at how Letterman’s clout has pervaded the world of entertainment—and beyond:
Letterman shook up the late-night airwaves in 1993, when—after losing the chance to host The Tonight Show to Jay Leno—he moved to CBS. (Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, has owned the show ever since.) In the mid-’90s, Letterman offered a sitcom deal to Ray Romano, then an up-and-coming comic, after he appeared on Late Show, and the rest is history: Everybody Loves Raymond turned into another huge hit for CBS. In addition to three-time Emmy-winner Romano, Worldwide Pants credits Letterman with giving 17 other notable actors, writers, and producers a break on their way to a collective 21 Emmys to date. A 1999 appearance on the show jumpstarted Hoosier comic Jim Gaffigan’s career, and Chris Elliot, a writer and actor (There’s Something About Marry) with four Emmys, can trace his success to Dave’s set, too. On the production side, Letterman’s crew members have gone on to produce some of TV’s biggest hits. They include The Daily Show with Jon Stewart co-creator Madeleine Smithberg and How I Met Your Mother masterminds Carter Bays and Craig Thomas.
When Bobby Rahal appeared on Late Night in 1986, he discovered that Letterman was a big IndyCar fan. A friendship formed, and in 2004—after contributing to Rahal’s team for years—the comedian was added to the bill. That year, the team took home its first and only Borg-Warner Trophy. Letterman frequently mentions Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on his show and, Rahal claims, helped make Danica Patrick a household name through her frequent Late Show appearances. He also sparked buzz for plenty more IndyCar and NASCAR drivers like Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, and Helio Castroneves by having them on for interviews or to read Top 10 lists. Just ask Bryan Herta, a former Rahal driver who now owns Bryan Herta Autosport, the team that Wheldon raced for when he won the Indy 500 in 2011; Letterman pumped up the hype as “Hertamania.”
A 1969 Ball State University grad, Letterman helped create student radio station WCRD in the 1980s and offers an annual scholarship for telecom students, which has provided more than $425,000 to 79 students since its inception. Scholarship winners have gone on to work for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Harpo Inc., and independent films; one even earned a Student Academy Award before graduating. In 2007, the David Letterman Communication and Media Building was dedicated, and two years later, Letterman and the university launched a campus lecture series, lining up such heavyweight as Burberry CEO (and Hoosier-born Ball State alum) Angela Ahrendts. Dave himself has even returned to Ball State to host three of those speakers: Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Zuckerberg Media exec Bradley Lautenbach, and MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, and, on Nov. 26, Oprah Winfrey.
David Letterman photo by Ray Tamarra/FilmMagic; illustration by Ana Benaroyo
A shorter version of this article appeared in the December 2012 issue.