It started the same way it ended for David Letterman.
There he came, taking the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater Monday night to a standing ovation and a chorus of chants of “Da-vid!” David!”
The only difference this time was that Mr. Letterman, with a gray beard, was a guest on “The Late Show,” and Stephen Colbert, his host since 2015, led him to a chair that was not behind a desk.
“Stephen,” Mr. Letterman said as he sat down. “Control your people!” »
Mr. Letterman’s appearance on “The Late Show” — the series he started for CBS in 1993 and hosted until Mr. Colbert replaced him — helped solve one of the mysteries the strangest things in show business: why wouldn’t he visit his successor. ?
Mr. Letterman has been no stranger to attention since leaving his late-night gig. He hosts his own long-form interview show on Netflix, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” and he has visited many other shows. He has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC show several times; the Seth Meyers Late Night Show; Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime talk show; Howard Stern’s radio show; The Dax Shepard Podcast; Marc Maron’s podcast; The Conan O’Brien Podcast. He even produced the Busy Philipps podcast.
All these appearances made his absence from Mr. Colbert’s show even more noticeable. After all, it’s something of a television tradition that power brokers visit their successors late at night.
Jay Leno joined Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.” Jon Stewart visited his successor, Trevor Noah, on “The Daily Show.” Mr. Letterman, then at rival CBS, visited Mr. O’Brien on “Late Night,” the 12:30 a.m. NBC show he had created more than a decade earlier.
Was returning to the Ed Sullivan Theater too much for Mr. Letterman to bear?
Was it the fact that it took less than two years for Mr. Colbert to become the most-watched late-night host, a designation that eluded Mr. Letterman for most of his tenure?
Or was something else at play?
In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Letterman said he was initially bothered by the fact that he had not been consulted about who would replace him. He also seemed surprised that Mr. Colbert was selected so quickly after Mr. Letterman announced he was retiring.
“They didn’t need to think much about it, did they?” he said in 2015. “I think it was the next day.” (Mr. Colbert was hired a week later.)
During his Monday appearance, which lasted more than 20 minutes of air time, Mr. Letterman and Mr. Colbert avoided the subject. Instead, Mr. Letterman talked about, among other things, visiting CVS pharmacies, his son’s departure for college and how he got to the studio on Monday.
“I came to the show this afternoon and people were like, ‘Yes, can I help you?’ “, Mr. Letterman said. “And I said, ‘My name is Ed Sullivan.’ Brought me straight in.
Mr. Colbert asked Mr. Letterman if he missed anything about hosting a late-night show.
“I miss everything,” Mr. Letterman responded. “Most importantly, it’s fun. Very few things in life give us an opportunity – and I can’t speak for you on this subject – but for me, if you miss one, 24 hours later you can try again.
The ice may have been broken a few weeks ago when Mr. Letterman was a guest on “Strike Force Five,” a podcast that several of today’s late-night hosts, including Mr. Colbert, launched during the Hollywood writers strike. During the interview, Mr. Colbert took the opportunity to clarify the terms of his hiring.
For several minutes, Mr. Colbert explained that CBS executives first approached him in 2013 to discuss the possibility of replacing Mr. Letterman. At the time, Mr. Colbert said, he wanted assurance from CBS that Mr. Letterman knew about that meeting. He was told that the network had Mr. Letterman’s blessing to meet people.
Six months later, in April 2014, Mr. Letterman announced that he would retire from “The Late Show.” But, Mr. Colbert explained in the podcast, he then received a strange message that made him wonder whether Mr. Letterman actually knew about the outreach.
Mr. Letterman said on the podcast that CBS executives might have thought he was considering retirement — but that he never explicitly told them to start looking for his replacement.
“I’m sure that didn’t happen,” he said.
Mr. Letterman later recalled on the podcast how he found himself in a similar situation years earlier when NBC executives wanted him to host “The Tonight Show” part-time with Johnny Carson. When Mr. Letterman discovered that Mr. Carson was unaware of the arrangement, he refused to participate.
As Mr. Letterman’s appearance on “The Late Show” drew to a close, he made a request of Mr. Colbert: Could he sit behind his desk? Mr. Colbert immediately stood up and gave his chair to Mr. Letterman.
With Mr. Letterman behind the desk, Mr. Colbert had a question.
“Very few people know what it’s like to host one of these events,” he said, gesturing toward the back of his office. “What do you think of my supplies?” Was it anything like what you had there?
“What?” Mr. Letterman responded. “All this grass?”