The 68-year-old Letterman’s final episode amounted to an appropriately lengthy televised goodbye. (The show ran 20 minutes over its usual run-time, in fact, but CBS executives agreed to air it in its entirety.)
It began with a video montage of the presidents who’ve been the subject of Letterman’s lampooning as they sat — Gerald Ford’s famous reference to Nixon’s resignation, “Our long national nightmare is over,” was repeated by former commander-in-chiefs George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and finally President Obama. “Letterman is retiring,” Obama told Letterman as he emerged from off screen. “You’re just kidding, right?”
In signature style and to thunderous applause, Letterman emerged from the designated entrance at the rear of the Late Show stage, a fixture of the Ed Sullivan theater since 1993. He not so much walked as ran onto the set as announcer Alan Kalter bellowed his name and bandleader Paul Shaffer played the familiar Late Show diddy, an impeccable beginning to what Letterman called “the most important show of [his] life.”
In his monologue, Letterman deftly avoided a Maudlin delivery that would’ve come all to easily. His best lines were, as always, self-deprecating — “I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get the Tonight Show.”
He joked about post-retirement plans. “You know what I’m going to devote the rest of my life to,” Letterman said. “Social media.”
It’s a testament to Letterman’s talent that his last of thousands of monologues managed to captivate. He delivered his first, after all, in 1982, during an after-midnight timeslot following the indomitable Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was a tough act to follow, but Letterman’s flippancy and self-awareness, in some ways at odds with Carson’s bemused subtlety, quickly struck a chord among youth in an era of VCR and MTV.
“David’s influence was phenomenal. whenever there was something important going on in America, you turned on David Letterman.” CBS CEO Leslie Moonves told USA Today. “He was the conscience of America, […] he was our local curmudgeon.”
Letterman’s sardonic twists on genre conventions, like Stupid Pet Tricks and Top 10 Lists, led to more than a few surprising late-night moments. He tried to bring a fruit basket to General Electric’s corporate offices when the company acquired NBC in 1986 (he was kicked out of the building.) He mistook orders at a drive-in window at a Taco Bell. And he played the estranged lover of Elaine Stritch.
But Letterman is probably better known for his celebrity guest segments, of which there were approximately 5,850 on Late Night and 14,082 on Late Show. He dodged slaps from Andy Kaufman, kicks from Crispin Glover, and blows of a more verbal kind from Cher. But his very best interviews were also his most acerbic — Letterman, never one to shy away from skewering celebrity, grilled Paris Hilton about her time behind bars and Justin Bieber about his wrist tattoos.
Controversy never bothered Letterman. On the contrary, he seemed to invite it, especially in the realm of politics — he cracked an uncouth joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter during the 2008 presidential race and staged a Stooge of the Night sketch in 2013 that lambasted opponents of gun control. But the versatile Letterman wasn’t above solemnity when appropriate. His personal triumphs, when the incredibly guarded host chose to share them, were incredibly heartfelt — he invited the surgeons that performed his quintuple bypass surgery, and in 2003, he held up a picture of Harry, his newborn son.
But Letterman’s career isn’t without its share of blemishes. He was passed over as Carson’s successor in favor of Jay Leno, and never achieved notable success outside of late night TV. Still, if you ask Letterman, things worked out pretty well considering — he’s described his leaving the Late Show as “a good solid punch to the head.”
Yesterday’s episode concluded with a referential compilation of farewells from superstars Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Steven Martin, Alec Baldwin, Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning, Tina Fey, and Barbara Walters, and others — “Top 10 Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to David Letterman” — and words of thanks. Letterman credited CBS executives, Shaffer, his staff, and his family with his success.
“Thank you for being my family,” he said to his wife, Regina, and son, who were seated in the audience. “I love you both and really, nothing else matters, does it?”
To close the show, the Foo Fighters played “Everlong,” the song to which he returned after his heart surgery. Music was a defining part of Letterman’s early career — Shaffer’s legendary group, comprised of guitarist Sid McGinnis, bassist Will Lee, and drummer Anton Fig, seemed, as Variety recently put it, “adept at handling nearly every kind of sound the show might require.” Over the past few weeks, Letterman’s hosted a few of his favorite musical luminaries, John Mayer and Bob Dylan among them.
When asked about post-retirement plans, “I will be completely in the hands of my family,” Letterman told the New York Times. “I will be going, later in the month, to the Indianapolis 500. And then beyond that, for the first time since Harry’s been alive, our summer schedule will not be dictated by me. It will be entirely dictated by what my son wants to do. And I think that’s pretty good.”