The waning days of David Letterman’s farewell were so filled with appreciations and emotion that it was hard not to wonder where all those folks had been as his ratings languished. The truth is the host had become such a part of the latenight firmament as to be taken for granted, and had lost some of his own drive in recent years, regaining it as he neared the finish line. All that culminated Wednesday in an extra-long finale that mixed clips and memories but was distinguished, ultimately, by what Letterman does – or did – best: Sit at a desk and communicate.
To be honest, Letterman has never been the warmest and fuzziest of personalities; indeed, his crankiness and occasional indifference to the machinery from which he has profited so handsomely was in many respects part of his charm. Even as longtime guests dutifully lined up to say their goodbyes in recent weeks – Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, Oprah Winfrey and two presidents of the United States among them – there were moments of awkwardness, reflecting that while these people had spent plenty of time in the host’s company, how hard it was to really get to know him.
None of that, of course, detracts from Letterman’s comedic genius, or the enormous influence he has wielded over the generation of comics that followed him. As several of them have been eager to note, what Johnny Carson was to Letterman, Letterman was to them.
The main difference was that Carson spent much of his latenight reign unopposed (or at best lightly challenged), while Letterman went toe to toe with Jay Leno for 20 years. Leno might have landed “The Tonight Show” and delivered higher ratings, but as the past few weeks make clear, Letterman had him beat all to hell when it came to esteem in the eyes of their peers and the critical establishment, so much so that in his closing remarks, Letterman acknowledged the praise heaped upon him and asked people to “save a little for my funeral.”
Letterman never seemed to enjoy the seat he occupied as much as his fans — especially the ones who discovered him in the ’80s — did him. Until the end, and in the few interviews he gave during this stretch, he remained self-deprecating. On Wednesday, the host assured the audience that of his more than 6,000 shows, most of them stank.
The final episode itself, frankly, was not surprisingly a low-key affair. After an open using Gerald Ford’s line that “Our long national nightmare is over,” Letterman joked, appropriately, “It’s beginning to look like I’m not gonna get ‘The Tonight Show.’”
The clips culled from the show’s long history were, frankly, nothing special, and a few of those interludes felt slightly wasted. A package of Letterman’s bits with children, for example, would have paid off more handsomely had the producers hunted down one or two of them now all grown up, to illustrate what happens over the course of a 33-year career.
An obvious highlight was a star-studded Top 10 list, but the real moments to savor came from Letterman’s long list of acknowledgements – graciously wishing the best to incoming host Stephen Colbert, thanking his staff, and lauding CBS CEO Leslie Moonves for his patience in dealing with him.
“We loved every second of it,” musical director/sidekick Paul Shaffer said, as Letterman credited those who had worked on the show, whose pictures flashed across the screen during the closing credits.
Those who have visited Letterman in recent weeks have pleaded with him to stay, but it’s hard to argue that he’s leaving too soon. His exit, however, did feel like a moment of celebration as much as nostalgia, watching as good a broadcaster as the medium has produced not only do a show his way but be allowed to leave on his own timetable and terms. And while he didn’t specifically bid the audience “a very heartfelt goodnight,” as Carson did, this was one of those rare moments where the curmudgeonly latenight host wore his heart on his sleeve.