David Letterman is an American landmark.
Certain words pop up in nearly every tribute piece I have read this week: comedian, icon, broadcaster.
One that I have not seen as often? Friend.
David Letterman was my TV friend.
As a kid, I used my Luke Skywalker action figure in place of Letterman, my Fisher-Price barn and building blocks as a studio, and I created my own "Late Show with David Letterman" play set.
Several years ago, I briefly tried my hand at standup. My uniform was khaki pants and sneakers, of course. Around the same time, I auditioned to host a cable access-type television talk show.
I was doing a David Letterman impersonation that day, only this time, it was more consciously than every other day of my life that I have ripped Dave off.
I have spent more time watching David Letterman on television than I have with my family. I have watched him with everyone who has ever meant anything to me.
I am happy to see him leave while he still has his fastball, as evidenced in a recent top 10 list, when he politely, quietly dismissed "Sesame Street’s" stellar track record at the Emmy Awards. "It’s just a puppet show," Dave said.
Dave has been on television nearly every weeknight of my entire life, and that changes tomorrow.
A new era on CBS will begin in September, with Stephen Colbert taking over as host of the network’s talk show franchise.
I think that era should be brought in with tempered expectations.
Colbert has done something truly remarkable on "The Colbert Report," essentially staying in character as a tongue-in-cheek Sean Hannity facsimile for nearly a decade.
But his choice as Letterman’s successor on "The Late Show" was not CBS’s most maverick decision.
The late-night wars of the 1990s and last decade are history. As audiences continue to fragment, the conversation has shifted away from ratings battles, and on to viral videos and social media footprints.
In that arena, Colbert has his work cut out for him. At 51, he has a few years on Fallon and Kimmel.
It is also worth noting that while Letterman was many things, and a man of many talents, a viral sensation he was not. He never had the knack for producing content that would play well on YouTube the next day.
So, if the Internet is where Fallon and Kimmel battle now, Colbert will do well to stay on Letterman’s course to produce a good television show that makes CBS buckets of cash, but does little in the way of breaking new ground.
I also do not expect Colbert to rock the proverbial boat because he does not have the three decades of collective goodwill and equity that Letterman built with multiple generations of viewers.
Colbert’s decade-long run on his own show and his years as a contributor to "The Daily Show" are not to be discounted, but 10 years on basic cable is different than helming a show that is considered the heir to Johnny Carson’s television legacy.
When David Letterman ends his run tonight, he will take a big chunk of that legacy with him. Fallon is great, Kimmel is awesome, but neither is doing exactly what Dave did. No one can do exactly what Dave did.
Stephen Colbert cannot do it either, but the key to his success at CBS might just be to do the best David Letterman impression he can muster.