The lineups for David Letterman’s final run on Late Show were met with much fanfare, but the guest list for the series finale was kept entirely hush-hush. If you were monitoring social media around the time of tonight’s taping, you could’ve sussed out some of the personalities that delivered Letterman’s final Top 10, but that would’ve obscured the truth of the matter: Tonight, the top draw on Late Show With David Letterman was David Letterman. Nobody came over to the couch; Letterman performed most of the show to the camera, from behind his desk. The super-sized episode made enough room to acknowledge the show’s staff as a whole, but many of those folks will work in TV again. This was Letterman’s retirement party, so the real focus was on him. The wry, self-deprecating, gracious, falsely modest, and genuinely humble focus.
As his farewell episode made plain, David Letterman is a unique talent. You can’t swing a cat in a comedy club, improv class, or writers’ room without hitting someone whose life was changed by Late Night or Late Show, but even the most avid Letterman acolyte couldn’t replicate the comic alchemy on display in tonight’s greatest-hits reels. Late Show’s past was represented by a montage of “Dave and kids” segments and the classic Taco Bell drive-thru bit from 1996, concepts that were specially calibrated for Letterman’s skills and sensibility.
Impatient with and skeptical of the canned chatter of the average talk-show interview, Letterman the off-the-cuff conversationalist shines in the kiddie clips, pitching jokes over their heads and dumping any grown-up pretenses in order to talk to the youngsters on their level. That yen for sophisticated silliness makes the Taco Bell remote work, the host’s expertly contained glee and the low-stakes of fast-food orders keeping mean spirits at bay. Letterman’s message to the masses was that we could all stand to take ourselves less seriously, hence the drive-thru segment’s punchline. One customer is so enraged that Letterman is diverting her run for the border, she curses him out over the intercom and ditches her spot in line.
The best way for Letterman to get your goat was making sure you came to him with a huge goat for the getting. In that spirit, the finale made the host its most frequent target, piling up the gags at the expense of his age and what’s on tap for his retirement. This motif was writ large across the Top 10 list, “Top 10 Things I’ve Always Wanted To Say To Dave,” delivered by 10 of the show’s most frequent guests/ardent supporters/dependable friends. Several had already paid their respects in the days prior: Tina Fey eschewed the striptease to drop a very Liz Lemon punchline (“Thanks for finally proving men can be funny”), while Bill Murray shared one last onscreen moment with his truest comic match. (Letterman to Murray as he worked his way down a receiving line that also included Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Barbara Walters: “I saw you on TV last night.”) With a bearded Jim Carrey, a tuxedoed Jerry Seinfeld, and Top 10 MVP Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale”—cut to pained Seinfeld reaction), it was much of the same talent that recently saluted Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary. It makes sense, seeing as Letterman’s late-night run represented the next evolution of what Murray’s Saturday Night cohorts kicked off in 1975: An irreverent streak borrowed from the counterculture; a TV vocabulary that gave him all sorts of clichés to upend—but only because he understood them so well in the first place.
Taking jokes from all sides—including his own—the episode occasionally played like an extended roast of Letterman. The show kicked off with an excerpt from Gerald Ford’s inauguration address, all three living ex-presidents (minus Jimmy Carter) and the sitting commander in chief repeating Ford’s infamous words: “Our long national nightmare is over.” Ford wasn’t the only figure taunting Letterman from the past, as the episode punctuated its segments and commercial breaks with footage from the host’s short-lived, eponymous morning show. It might have been Letterman’s televised farewell, but that didn’t mean glossing over the time he ignited himself on The David Letterman Show. To the bitter end, he managed to finesse some of the night’s biggest laughs from some of the episode’s most dubious concepts.
Letterman is a unique talent, but he’s also part of a dying breed. Late Night hit the “refresh” button on TV talk shows in 1982, paving the way for the offbeat tangents of Late Night With Conan O’Brien and the genre makeover currently overseen by Jimmys Fallon, Kimmel, and Corden. With O’Brien firmly ensconced in a cable deal, Letterman was the broadcast networks’ last example of a pure talk-show personality. His stunts and gimmicks didn’t involve elaborate celebrity cameos or viral-video trickery—they usually involved something lower tech than that, like a suit made out of Alka Seltzer tabs. But in his final episode, he anchored all of the proceedings on his own, with minimal help from the staff, the crew, Paul Shaffer And The CBS Orchestra, Foo Fighters, and his famous friends. The Letterman persona stood up on its own, no need to be propped up by drinking games or lip-sync battles. At times, like during the Top 10, it was as if Letterman had structured his last episode in order to entertain himself as much as the audience.
But it wasn’t self-indulgent, because that self was necessary for Late Show With David Letterman to be what it was. This was never a show that was made or broken by the guest bookings—the show was the show. Paul Shaffer laughing off-camera was the show. Biff Henderson’s headphones were the show. Letterman asking the control-room crew “Let’s keep it to three drinks today, huh?” was the show. Weird video remotes, wacky characters, and in-theater stunts were the show. And yet the only pyrotechnics or exploding fruits present in the episode had been filmed years prior, edited into the montage that played over Foo Fighters “Everlong.” (“My favorite band playing my favorite song,” as Letterman said in his first show back from quintuple bypass surgery in 2000.)
The song fit Letterman’s departure just as well as it fit his return. Back then, the key line was “You gotta promise not to stop when I say when”; tonight, it was “If anything could ever be this good again.” I have no doubt that late-night will produce another talent as good (if not better) than Letterman. But it’ll be a different kind of good. Because if TV lost anything tonight, it was a sense of humor that only come with David Letterman’s shit-eating grin and two Three Cheese Melts. That’s two… Three Cheese Melts. two… Three… Cheese… Melts.