David Letterman prepares to leave his ‘Late Show’ desk after 33 years

Fans prepare to say goodbye to ‘Late Show’ host David Letterman.

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (CBS EYE PRODUCTIONS) – David Letterman is gearing up to officially retire from his “Late Show” desk after 33 years.

The comedian, who brought a sardonic, offbeat wit to late-night television, along with bits such as “Stupid Pet Tricks” and his “Top Ten” list, will anchor his final broadcast on May 20 before retiring and handing the reins of the “Late Show” to Stephen Colbert.

Letterman, began hosting the CBS show in August 1993, after leaving the rival NBC network, where he originated his late-night TV persona and much of his program on the “Late Night with” show.

The host’s departure from CBS marks the latest in a recent rearrangement of the late-night deck chairs at the major networks.

News of Letterman’s plans to retire in 2014 came nearly two months after Jay Leno bid farewell as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” a job Leno assumed in 1992 in a bitter and highly publicized succession of Johnny Carson that led to Letterman’s defection from NBC.

Leno was replaced by Jimmy Fallon, who had hosted the show that airs after “The Tonight Show” and Fallon in turn was succeeded by comedian Seth Meyers, who like Fallon is an alumnus of “Saturday Night Live”.

Fallon’s show averaged 5.1 million viewers a week, compared with 2.9 million for Letterman, according to Nielsen.

Although “Late Show” trailed “Tonight” in the ratings war, Letterman long reigned as the critics’ favorite, known for an edgier, irreverent brand of humor and signature bits like “Stupid Pet Tricks” and the nightly Top-10 list poking fun at current events and pop culture.

He also was a practitioner of such innovations as the “Monkey Cam”, in which a TV camera was strapped to a monkey turned loose in the studio; a bit where he dropped objects such as melons and television sets off a high platform and played the results back in slow motion; and stunts such as throwing himself onto a Velcro-covered wall or dunking himself in a pool dressed in a suit covered in Alka-Seltzer tablets.

The Indianapolis native began his CBS career after 11 years as host of NBC’s “Late Night” program in the time slot immediately following “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” at 12:30 a.m., and was long considered Carson’s likely successor.

But when Carson retired in 1992 after nearly 30 years of hosting “Tonight”, NBC replaced him with Leno, sparking a very public, bitter feud with Letterman.

The following year, Letterman jumped to CBS to go head to head against Leno and his old network in the flagship 11:30 p.m. time slot, setting up one of the most storied rivalries on U.S. television.

Fans outside the Ed Sullivan theatre in New York called his retirement bitter-sweet.

“It’s sad that’s he’s ending but I can understand it. I’m semi-retired myself and he has probably gotten to the point where he’s done everything he can do. He is a family man now with a boy and all that, so I get it,” said Florida resident Paul Mohrman who came to New York just for the show.

Longtime fan Pramod Meduru said Letterman is the best thing on late night television and there is no need for him to call it quits: “It’s the only good late night show on. And no, it’s not time at all.”

However, New Yorker Mairim Standing said it’s time: “When it’s time, it’s time. So good for him.”

Susie Sims Fletcher said she believes she will see more of Letterman in the future.

“I think that he’s got a young son and a family and he’s put a lot of time in, he’ll do some other things. And no, I think he gets to make that decision for himself. I don’t think it’s the last thing we’ll see of him though.”

The network has yet to announce any guests for the final show, but said to expect plenty of surprises.