The real reason you don't hear from David Letterman anymore

For more than 30 years, you almost couldn't go a single night without hearing from David Letterman. As the creator and host of both NBC's Late Night and later, CBS' Late Show, he pioneered a certain sarcastic, anything-goes style of late-night television entertainment that continues to inform the way we share in news and culture to this day.

From his iconic "top-ten lists" to his headline-making years-long feud with Jay Leno, there was always something ironic, irreverent, or otherwise arresting the comic wanted to share with you, be it a prickly interview with Madonna or a fresh McDonald's hamburger. The influence that he had over the '80s, '90s, and early new millennium was massive, which only makes his silence since retirement all the more noticeable. So what exactly happened to David Letterman after he stepped away from the desk for the last time?

He's truly stepped away from his show

When David Letterman left Late Show, he well and truly left for good. Once it became clear that Stephen Colbert would leave his Comedy Central home for the Late Show gig at CBS, Letterman put the show in Colbert's hands and never looked back. Compare this to Jon Stewart who, while remaining retired, has consistently popped up in viral clips with his buddy Stephen. Everyone's always happy to see him, but that's not exactly what we would call a clean break from showbiz.

Not only has Letterman never returned to the new Late Show, as a matter of fact, Letterman says he doesn't even watch it, or any late-night TV show, for that matter. "When [Colbert] went on the air," Letterman said, "An energy left me, and I felt like, 'You know, that's not my problem anymore.' And I've kind of felt that way ever since." Which makes sense. If we had hosted more than 6,000 unique shows over our careers, we wouldn't want to watch another hour of late-night TV ever again either.

His production company is in disarray

Equally absent from the pop culture landscape has been David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, Inc. Long-running, recognizable, and as closely-associated with the man as the Ed Sullivan Theatre once was, it seems like it would be the ideal platform for a comeback or next project. At least it might be, if it were in better shape.

As Letterman himself reported in a freewheeling interview from March 2017, the production company, which produced Letterman's iterations of both Late Night and Late Show, is "now on pause." Though he initially intended it to be "an ongoing organism… [to] develop material" for a variety of platforms, he has realized the hard way that doing so is easier said than done. "That production model doesn't hold up anymore," he's observed, "So Worldwide Pants ran out of steam for lack of opportunity. But we are trying to put it back together." The form any sort of revival would take is up in the air, assuming it happens at all — with all the different ways to put a show on now, the former host says he's now "platform-agnostic".

He looks so different now

It makes plenty of sense that a man who's spent his life clean-shaven in the spotlight would take the first chance he could to grow a big, beautiful beard. For one thing, it's liberating, and it's a move that sometimes lets even the most famous face hide in plain sight. (Hey, works better than a baseball cap and sunglasses.)

But David Letterman's taken the facial hair trope one step further than most are even able to, with a snow-white work of beauty that looks frankly amazing on him. The man has cultivated one heck of a beard since leaving TV, and it makes him look significantly older and more Santa-esque than the Letterman we remember from TV. He draws more comparisons these days to Walt Whitman than anyone else, though you may also mistake him on the street for R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe.

He's taking care of his family

Though relatively private about his personal life throughout his first years on TV, David Letterman did open up about his family in memorable ways as the years went on. Notably, he took time out on his show in 2003 to announce the birth of his son, Harry. Now he's taking time out from all work to put his focus on family.

His son, now 13, is young enough that he doesn't really remember what a force his father was on late-night TV, not that that's a pressing concern for Dad. "I want him to be proud of me," Letterman said. "but I don't know that having a television show is what makes a kid proud of you." So he's keeping it low-key with the family, going on trips to Target, buying shoelaces, and listening to his son recap episodes of The Amazing World of Gumball, instead.

He's playing to a different crowd

Of course, like any entertainer, David Letterman hasn't stepped away from the public eye entirely — you're just less likely to see him unless you go out looking. In one instance, Letterman returned to TV in September of 2016 for the premiere of the documentary Years of Living Dangerously, which he spent 11 days working on in India. In the feature, he put his skills as an interviewer to use holding conversations with thinkers and world leaders fundamental to the fight against climate change, like India's prime minister, Narendra Modi. Not exactly the same material as the top-ten lists and good-natured pranks he's known for, but probably more important, overall. One observation: it's shocking how much extra gravitas that world-class beard lends him.

He doesn't want (or like) to act

One way a lot of show hosts and otherwise recognizable entertainers keep their profile up, not just in retirement, but as a running side gig, is to pop into popular movies and TV shows for brief cameo appearances, playing themselves. Whether they're commenting on the implications of Superman for American foreign policy like Anderson Cooper in Batman v. Superman, or showing up for 30 seconds as a gag, these cameos are great work for performers who otherwise don't like the dramatic work of acting.

But David Letterman doesn't even like to do that. Over the course of his long career he's only had a couple of acting roles, and it's clear that he dislikes them both. He's said no to every cameo role offer since recently, he was offered one for HBO comedy Veep, and after consideration, turned them down. "Here's what would happen," he says he told them at the time. "I'm going to do your show. I'm going to worry about it, I'm going to get sick to my stomach, and I'm going to ruin it. I can't do that to you."

But he would love to have a word with Donald Trump

Letterman seems to be getting more and more fired up about politics of late, if an interview from March 2017 is any indication, where he carries on about the topic like somebody with a lot of pent-up things to say. He's chomping at the bit for the opportunity to give people in power a piece of his mind. "When I'm talking about things to do now, it's not like, God-dang, let's get right back into comedy," he said, discussing the possibility of ever returning to a late-night style format. "But bring in Donald Trump or Mike Pence or somebody, and let me smother them with my ignorance."

As an otherwise funny and ironic person, the intensity of his feeling on the subject of Trump hits hard. His stance on the 45th president, whom he knew and had as a guest on Late Night well before he made his run for office, is very clear. "He's ignorant in a way that's insulting to the office," Letterman said, among other fiery criticisms. But he has jokes, too. "How do you know if Donald Trump is lying?" Letterman asked. "His lips are moving. Thank you!"

There are occasional surprise appearances

Though he's not on TV anymore, David Letterman still engages with the arts, and he's happy to lend his charismatic voice to projects that interest him. Now he's up to lower-key, more intimate appearances, speaking before audiences of a few thousand rather than a few million. He's taken the stage for one-on-one talks with friends such as Rachel Maddow and Oprah Winfrey, and has shown up as a moderator for talks between two other artists, like the directors Spike Jonze and Bennett Miller.

There's not much predictability to his itinerary, but one thing's for sure — anything he shows up to automatically becomes a pretty big deal. Not long after leaving his show, he showed up in San Antonio alongside Martin Short and Steve Martin, surprising the audience with a live Top 10 routine, the subject of which was—of course—Trump.

Thank you, and good night

Other than the lingering trappings of worldwide fame, it's remarkable to read about how normal David Letterman describes his retired daily life. It's more likely to remind you of your grandpa than a television industry titan. As a retired 69-year-old, he enjoys The Price is Right, hanging out at a local bait-and-tackle store, and having monthly meals with his old band leader, Paul Shaffer, where they talk about everything except their times in show business. After more than 30 years of making us laugh ourselves to sleep, it's nice to see him focus on his family and himself. So take it easy, David—go ahead and let the others worry about the Trump jokes.

Returning on Netflix

As some may have suspected, the former king of late night couldn't leave behind his life's work for too long. After a much-deserved hiatus, Letterman is returning to TV screens on his own terms, hosting a new interview series which will premiere exclusively on Netflix in 2018.

According to an August 2017 statement from the streaming service (via Variety), viewers can look forward to "in-depth conversations with extraordinary people, and in-the-field segments expressing his curiosity and humor."

At the time of the announcement, Letterman noted that he already had one interview lined up and expressed a hopeful ambition for landing guests as high-profile as Pope Francis or even the president of the United States. "I'd like to talk to President Trump. I've known the guy for 25-30 years," Letterman told Variety. "I'd like to go back to New York where he was a kid and start there. I'd like to just ask him about the change in him as a man, where did it come from, how did it begin and where is it going."

While the program's initial run is slated for six hour-long episodes, Netflix and Letterman have both noted a willingness to do more. "I can't wait to see him out in the wild, out from behind the desk and interviewing the people he finds most interesting," said Netflix's Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. "We'll have to see if he keeps the beard."