The line proved vintage Letterman: by turns sardonic, self-deprecating and, in his own cranky way, gracious. It also summed up the tone of a classy, entertaining finale in which Letterman largely eschewed sentiment to keep us laughing until the end — reminding us why we’ve stuck with him for 33 years and how much we’re going to miss him.
A smattering of classic clips aside (his Taco Bell drive-thru escapades are as funny now as they were nearly 20 years ago), Letterman’s “Late Show” goodbye was less a trip down memory lane than a roast. Every president from George H.W. Bush through Barack Obama pelted Letterman with Gerald Ford’s famous words after Richard Nixon resigned: “Our long national nightmare is over.”
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His final Top 10 List — “Things I’ve always wanted to say to Dave” — was delivered by an all-star lineup of favorite guests that included Chris Rock (“I’m just glad your show is being given to another white guy”), Tina Fey (“Thanks for finally proving men can be funny”) and former "Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale”).
In some respects, the farewell performance added up to a typical Letterman show on a decidedly atypical Wednesday night. Even the semi-serious moments Letterman allowed himself were upbeat as he thanked his staff, including stage manager Biff Henderson and bandleader Paul Shaffer, whom he celebrated as a “great friend, best friend.”
Letterman thanked his mother, Dorothy, a frequent contributor during his early “Late Show” years. He pointed out his wife, Regina, and son, Harry, in the audience, earning them a standing ovation that seemed to delight the "Late Show" host.
He teased longtime viewers — “Have you thought about a complete psychological work-up?” – and gave them generous shout out: “The people who watch this show, there is nothing I can ever do to repay you … You’ve given me everything.”
Letterman, somewhat oddly, never thanked his own television hero, Johnny Carson, though he alluded to the past in his monologue when he quipped, “It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get ‘The Tonight Show.’” Still, Carson — and even Letterman’s frenemy, Jay Leno — turned up in the final barrage of pictures, which chronicled three-plus decades of late night television history to a soundtrack of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.”
The strongest image we’ll be left with, though, is of Letterman, whose early-years discomfort in his own skin propelled his edgy comedy, smiling and appearing to finally enjoy himself — even if he still has problems accepting kudos. David Letterman exited the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater Wednesday as an entertainer who stayed true to himself as he gave and got the last laugh.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.