David Letterman Receives Standing Ovation on First Return to Late Show Since Retirement

A legend of late-night television, David Letterman originated The Late Show for CBS in August 1993 and would stay at the helm until his retirement in May 2015 — he was succeeded by current host Stephen Colbert.

For the first time since metaphorically handing over the baton, Stephen Colbert welcomed David Letterman back to the Ed Sullivan Theater and to The Late Show on Monday night. The late-night legend was greeted with the first of two standing ovations.

“Oh my god, Stephen control your audience,” Letterman said after the furor finally died down. “I will say this is the most enthusiastic audience I have been near since the night I announced I was quitting.”

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As sharp as ever, there was a humility in Letterman’s demeanor that was evident throughout his visit. In many ways, he was the quintessential guest, sharing stories and quips, but at other times it almost felt as if he was settling back into his own show.

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Ever the gracious host, Colbert was more than happy to let Letterman do his thing, from any side of the desk. He had nothing but praise for Colbert’s Late Show, saying the host makes it look easy, when they both know it’s anything but.

He even praised the upgrades to the Ed Sullivan Theater in the past eight years, including his dressing room. “The dressing room is better than the nicest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in in my life,” he said. “I’ll be here through Christmas.”

The hosts recalled some of their last visits together, with Colbert seemingly having a stronger recall of those chats. Letterman said he mainly remembered just two things from their final meeting before Colbert took over.

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He remembered showing the former Colbert Report host how to operate the building’s old freight elevator — which they both oohed and aahed about again — and then he remembered one odd question Colbert asked him.

“He said, ‘Do you have in this building a hidey hole?’ I hadn’t heard hidey hole in forever,” remembered Letterman’ “I’m thinking, What kind of a show is this guy gonna do that he needs someplace to hide?”

As Colbert explained, he’d be wanting to hide from his producers. He also shared that Letterman told him where one was, though the former host didn’t seem to recall where it was. Colbert wasn’t going to remind him, either, because then it would be useless as a hidey hole!

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They also bonded over fatherhood, and the shockingly blink-of-an-eye transition from taking them home from the hospital only to turn around and drop them off at college.

After commiserating about just how quickly it happens, Colbert concluded, “Don’t have children. It’s not worth it.”

Letterman than started talking about what he and his wife do with all their free time now that their son is away at college. It includes making lists and going shopping.

All of this was to set up a CVS story that brought us all the way back to when Letterman used to host this show every night. We started hearing Paul Shaffer’s reactions to the various beats of the story as Letterman meandered his way to the point, and to the laugh.

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Just like Foo Fighters flew across the world to be on Letterman’s first show back after his heart surgery, he said that The National did the same thing to appear for his big return to the Ed Sullivan Theater.

When asked about other memorable moments across his 4,000+ shows in this theater, Letterman recalled every time Green Day would appear in particular.

“Whenever Green Day would be on, I was frightened by the drummer,” he told Colbert. “Whenever they would finish, he would charge the desk and lunge at me to the point where I assumed he was kidding around — perhaps he wanted to hurt me.”

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Ultimately, Colbert pulled out a photo the two of them had taken during Colbert’s last appearance as a guest before he took over. When he asked if Letterman would be willing to recreate it, Letterman asked if that meant he could sit behind the desk.

Once back there, he got his second standing ovation of the night, which touched and surprised him. He then admitted to Colbert, “In my day, I never would have let this happen, so thank you.”

His last joke (for now) from behind the Late Show desk was telling Colbert and the audience that they’re doing this “because my son doesn’t believe I had a show.”

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Letterman began his late-night career as host of Late Night on NBC starting in February 1982 and lasting until June 1993. After he was passed up for The Tonight Show in favor of Jay Leno, he shifted from NBC to CBS’ Late Show, launching the new series just two months later.

Across both, Letterman hosted 6,080 episodes, making him the longest-serving late-night talk show host in American television history, surpassing his legend — the “Mount Olympus” of late-night, as he dubbed him tonight — Johnny Carson.

In introducing Letterman to his show, Colbert dropped a nod to his predecessor’s new show. A long-form interview show that premiered on Netflix in 2018, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction has welcomed such famous people as Barack Obama, Malala Yousafzai, JAY-Z, Ellen DeGeneres, Billie Eilish, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

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