David Letterman finale: The host goes out with laughs, memories and music

Jeff Pfeiffer

Although David Letterman’s final Late Show broadcast went over its normal length by about 20 minutes, it felt like it flew by. It was a very well-produced and presented swan song, filled primarily with laughs and memories, but also a few more serious and emotional moments (though Dave never fully broke down, and he didn’t appear to tear up, but that did not diminish his clear emotion at all).

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The evening led off, surprisingly, with an old clip of President Gerald Ford speaking his famous phrase, “Our long national nightmare is over.” That was followed by Presidents Clinton, Bush, W. Bush and Obama echoing the same sentiment, with Obama explaining in a deadpan way that the “nightmare” was over because “Letterman is retiring.” Letterman remained self-deprecating to the very end, but the fact that most of the living U.S. presidents came out to be in Dave’s finale says it all about the man.

Letterman then entered the stage in his usual fashion, to an extended standing ovation. “I’ll be honest with you. It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get The Tonight Show,” he deadpanned during his strong monologue. During the monologue, there was also a special segment from The Simpsons producers featuring  Homer and Marge watching Dave, and Homer really cracking up at Dave’s decades-old gag of throwing a paper behind him to the sound of a breaking window. There was also a Wheel of Fortune segment in which a contestant, with only a few letters to work with, solved the puzzle: “Good riddance to David Letterman.” Dave never stopped making himself the frequent butt of his jokes, even on his big night.

One of the highlights of the evening was the final Top Ten List, presented by 10 celebrities who had been frequent guests on Dave’s show, each coming out to read their entry in “Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave.” Here’s what each had to say:

10. Alec Baldwin: “Of all the talk shows, yours is the most geographically convenient to my home.”

9. Barbara Walters (who at first seemed confused about where to stand): “Did you know you wear the same cologne as Moammar Gadhafi?”

8. Steve Martin: “Your extensive plastic surgery was a necessity … and a mistake.”

7. Jerry Seinfeld: “I have no idea what I’ll do when you go off the air. You know what, I just thought of something: I’ll be fine.”

6. Jim Carrey: “Honestly, Dave, I’ve always found you to be a bit of an over-actor.” Carrey then made one of his funny faces and waved around wildly; he already had an interesting look, with a scraggly beard and a “Spank U” T-shirt.

5. Chris Rock: “I’m just glad your show is being given to another white guy.” Dave made sure to indicate he had nothing to do with that.

4. Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.” It was a hilarious reference to the often poorly regarded Seinfeld finale, and Jerry Seinfeld gave a playful smirk in the background. Dave had to explain he had nothing to do with that, either.

3. Peyton Manning: “Dave, you are to comedy what I am to … comedy.” Dave, a Hoosier, seemed particularly excited to be in the presence of former Indianapolis Colt Manning, and gushed over him when meeting him after the list presentation. He also later quipped that he and Manning could be twins.

2. Tina Fey: “Thanks for finally proving men can be funny.”

1. Bill Murray: “Dave, I’ll never have the money I owe you.” Afterward, when Letterman greeted Murray, he could be overheard to say something like, “I saw you on TV last night,” joking about Murray’s memorable visit to the show the previous night.

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The finale indeed encompassed the entirety of Dave’s TV hosting career. During returns from commercial break, clips of Letterman’s short-lived morning show in 1980 were shown, and they were good, but you could perhaps see how it was ahead of its time, and how it wouldn’t work with a morning audience at the time.

There were montage clips that looked back at various aspects of Dave’s show over the years. One of the funniest was a collection of his interactions with children — an idea Dave admitted he “stole” from Art Linklater. You usually can’t go wrong with letting kids speak their minds and that was evident in the clips. There was also a look back at the time Dave “worked” at a Taco Bell drive through, hassling customers in hilarious ways (one of the customers recognized his voice, but thought he was Howard Stern).

In another assembly of clips, we got an  interesting look into the day-to-day workings of Late Show, as we followed a “day in the life” of Dave, from the moment he showed up at the studio early in the morning, to the moment he prepared to step out on stage for the taping. In the process, we got to see the hustle and bustle and the fun, as well as the various behind-the-scenes personalities who made it all work.

Dave had nothing but praise for all of them. Near the end of the show, he went down the list of the various departments, including cutting to the control room operators (he claimed he never got up there) and especially praising the writers he’s had over the years, saying that they deserve more credit than he does.

He also thanked his family — wife Regina and son Harry — who were in the audience, for being his family. From Dave’s mentions of them throughout his shows, especially Harry, you can tell he is devoted to them, and the loving looks they all gave each other last night solidified that. Dave did not get misty even when looking at his family, but you could tell his emotions were there.

Dave also expressed love for his fans. “The people who watch this show, there’s nothing I can do to repay you,” he said. “Thank you for everything. You’ve given me everything.”

letterman-finale-foo-fightersHe also thanked the band, introducing each band member and again telling how long he and bandleader Paul Shaffer have been professional and personal friends. That was a springboard to talk about all of the great music that has been featured on Dave’s shows over the years, and he especially brought up Foo Fighters, who it was revealed earlier this week would play on this final broadcast. That was not very surprising; Foo Fighters are Dave’s favorite band, and he credits their music with helping him get through his heart bypass surgery in 2000.

Last night, Dave talked about how Foo Fighters came about to do that show in 2000, and how they have been “joined at the hip” ever since.

Just before he threw it over to Foo Fighters, Dave said, “For the last time on a television program … thank you and good night.” No crack in his voice, no tears evident. Professional to the end, but caught up in the emotion of the moment in his own way, just like everything he’s ever done on TV has been in his own way.

Foo Fighters performed “Everlong” over a lengthy montage of clips that basically could serve as a time capsule of Dave’s late-night career, starting from Late Night and going all the way up through the recent weeks’ final guests on Late Show.

It was a very strong finale, again, because Dave did it his way. It was not teary-eyed and overly fawning, like the Carson finale, though every guest did express their admiration for Dave in their own ways. Yet it still managed to be emotional. Like most of what Dave has done over the years, it walked the line between humorous and emotional, but above all, it was highly entertaining. Thanks, Dave.

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Photos: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved