David Letterman left television Wednesday without shedding a single tear — and good for him.
The final episode of his CBS “Late Show” was a classy lesson in blubber-free humility, in which the 68-year-old host expressed genuine appreciation for his co-workers, employer, friends and family. He let the moment mostly speak for itself. If viewers at home wanted to cry, well, that was up to them.
This also meant that the send-off was probably lacking any particular moment that we’ll watch over and over again in one of those history-of-TV retrospectives years from now. As these extravaganzas go, Letterman and his “Late Show” went out on a comparatively subdued note — nothing like the memorably wild and over-the-top finale last December of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” which starred Letterman’s replacement, Stephen Colbert.
For weeks this spring, as the last “Late Show” episodes counted down to Letterman’s retirement, guest after guest tried to pour their hearts out to Letterman and tell them what his 33-year late-night talk show career has meant to them personally — or to the culture at large.
Letterman would always resist, gently protest or attempt to cut them off, shaking his head no, no, no, no. That sort of laudatory sap went against his favorite shtick, which was that he served at the helm of a disastrously mediocre TV show that nobody watched and was always about to get the network boot it deserved.
Wednesday night’s show began with the ultimate follow-through on that theme, showing a clip from a famous 1974 swearing-in address from President Gerald Ford, which was then followed by a greeting from nearly every living former U.S. president and President Barack Obama repeating the same words: “Our long national nightmare is over.”
In these last month or so, as the final show came closer, Letterman’s Midwestern manners at least allowed him to tolerate the attempts at a lovefest, allowing his guests to say what they had to say, accept their adoration, thank them in a genuine manner and move on. It worked best when accompanied by something inane, such as George Clooney handcuffing himself to Dave in an episode last week and remaining there through the rest of the show, or Tuesday’s penultimate episode with Bill Murray bursting out of a giant cake and making a sloppy mess of himself, the stage, Letterman and everything else.
But Letterman’s own bottle never came uncorked, so to speak, not even as he spoke his final words to the audience at home and at the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the show has been taped since its move from NBC to CBS in 1993.
Earlier in the show, 10 of Letterman’s favorite celebs came out to read the last Top 10 list (“Top 10 Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave”), including Barbara Walters, who missed her mark (“Did you know you wear the same cologne as Moammar Gaddafi?”), Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (she got the best line: “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale!”), Murray and Peyton Manning. (Letterman seemed more excited to see Manning than anyone else.)
But the cavalcade of surprise celebrities that one might have expected to see pretty much ended there. The better parts of Wednesday’s show came in the form of clips and montages from years past, including great bits where Letterman used to interview children (a rip-off of Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” he always admitted) and the time he took orders — ineptly — at a Taco Bell drive-through in 1996.
Producers also showed clips from “The David Letterman Show,” a short-lived 1980 weekday morning show on NBC; anyone who remembers it has been with Letterman the whole way and still regards the tone and weirdness of that bomb as the source from which all else flowed. It was a look all the way back at the Ur-Dave.
Foo Fighters, one of Letterman’s favorite bands (after Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, of course), played their hit “Everlong” and the show went out on a wonderfully jam-packed montage of screen-grabs from 33 years and more than 6,000 shows.
So many memories and images flew by in just a few minutes — it was mesmerizing and perhaps it was designed to distract the die-hard fans among us, who felt a personal investment in many of those scenes. The show ran about 18 minutes longer than its usual hour, but even then it seemed that maybe there might be more.
The song led right to the credits (which very sweetly featured the names and photos of the entire crew and staff) and then viewers realized: Letterman’s “Late Show” had ducked out the back door while we wallowed. Nicely done, Dave.