“I'll be honest with you,” David Letterman said at the outset of his very last TV show after more than three decades. “It's beginning to look like I'm not going to get 'The Tonight Show.'“
What he did get, on show No. 6028 Wednesday of the nation's longest late-night career, was a celebrity studded sendoff that reveled in nostalgia and, by the end, had also shoehorned in sentiment.
There were some great lines in there, most notably Letterman himself saying, “You know what I'm going to devote the rest of my life to? Social media.”
“When I screw up now,” he said, “And lord knows, I'll be screwing up, I have to go on somebody else's show to apologize.”
During the final Top Ten List, with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Steve Martin and Bill Murray offering “Things I've Always Wanted to Say to Dave,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus may have had the winner.
“Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale,” said the former “Seinfeld” star.
Even taking into account the host's penchant for self-deprecation, Letterman's farewell “Late Show” may not have been one for the television museum vaults. Fans, devotees, and friends of the show got most of the wet kisses, delivered with actual Letterman sincerity, that they might have wanted.
But the program was more about hitting all the right buttons and mentioning most of the important people than it was about trying to be an all-time great finale — or even a tight hour of television.
Indeed, it ran almost 20 minutes long, and CBS, to its credit, went with it. Long after published TV schedules said James Corden's “Late Late Show” should have started, Letterman was introducing his wife and son in the crowd and then bringing on Foo Fighters to deliver a rousing live soundtrack to a Letterman history photo montage — tailor-made for slowing down and hyperanalyzing on the web.
In that onslaught of frozen moments came one memory jolt after another: Harvey Pekar, “Late Night Monkey Cam,” Drew Barrymore flashing the host, Joaquin Phoenix and Farrah Fawcett, Warren Zevon and, literally, hundreds more. Somebody at “Late Show” has done a good job with photo backup.
Even with the driving rock music behind it, the montage was a reminder of how much of life so many Americans have lived with Letterman's shows, first on NBC, beginning in 1982, and, for the past 22 years, on CBS. (A surprising number of the finale's clips came from Letterman's short-lived NBC morning show, in 1980, making the point that he set the template there.)
Viewers would be forgiven for choking up a bit, as Norm Macdonald did on Letterman's show last week and as Jimmy Kimmel did on his ABC late-night show Tuesday night in trying to convey how much Letterman meant to him.
Both Kimmel and Conan O'Brien, who succeeded Letterman on NBC's “Late Night,” delivered tributes to the 68-year-old Letterman that included an entreaty to watch Dave's finale, not their own shows.
“I'm gonna let you know the exact moment when Dave's show is starting and I'd like you to switch over,” O'Brien said in his monologue. “I promise you we will not see a man of his talents and comedic integrity again in our lifetime. You should not miss out.”
Letterman, then, has entirely transitioned from whippersnapper to eminence, from having purposely no-name guests to the kind of stature where, Wednesday night, three living ex-presidents of the U.S. and the current one opened the show by teasing that, with Letterman departing, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Throughout the night the host seemed more comfortable having others make fun of him or doing it himself than fully accepting his place in the pantheon. Here's what he had to say about the praise that has been coming in media and from fellow comics such as O'Brien and other stars.
“I can't tell you how flattering, embarrassing and gratifying this has all been,” Letterman said on his show. “We've done over 6000 shows. I was here for most of them and I can tell you a pretty high percentage of those shows just absolutely sucked. … Do me a favor. Save a little for my funeral.”
At another point, after a compelling backstage-at-the-”Late Show” video, Letterman said all those behind-the-scenes people, plus “best friend” and bandleader Paul Shaffer and his band, deserved more credit for the show than did he.
Things didn't start off so well. Except for the “Tonight” joke referencing NBC giving “The Tonight Show” to Jay Leno instead of him in the early 1990s, Letterman's monologue, never a strength, was, frankly, flat. Fans from back-when did appreciate him showing off his suit coat lining (both sides) once more and his adherence to white socks.
But the show didn't really get going until after the first break. And from then on, it was a cavalcade of greatest hits (clips of Dave working the drive-through at a Taco Bell and Dave talking with little kids should be enough to prove to modern-day skeptics how great the man was), of the heartfelt tributes to the people who've worked with him, plus a nod to Stephen Colbert, who'll succeed him in September.
In that way, Letterman went out a little like his television idol. People think now that Johnny Carson's last show in May, 1992, featured Bette Midler sending him off with a song. But that was the second-to-last one. Carson's finale was just the host and clips and reminiscences. Letterman's penultimate show Tuesday featured Bill Murray tumbling out of a cake, a last, frosting-smeared reminder of the gleeful anarchy of the early days. Wednesday, though, was more Carson-esque, and David Letterman left an iconic broadcasting career behind by saying, “The only thing I have left to do, for the last time on a television program: Thank you and good night.”