David Letterman spent the final shows leading up to his finale playing down the importance of his departure. So it wasn’t a surprise to see that he made himself the main butt of the joke in his final show.
He started off by having every living president of the United States say about his departure: “Our long national nightmare is over.” He showed a “Wheel of Fortune” puzzle that read “Good riddance to David Letterman.” A fast-food customer confused him with Howard Stern. He ended a montage of moments with children with a small boy singing to him, “You are not funny, you are not funny, you are not funny.”
But Letterman’s final Top 10 list was an A-list of the country’s most popular comedians and celebrities, whose presence testified against the humility and self-deprecation he was trying to pull off. (It also featured former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, probably the least important of all the celebrities there but the biggest celebrity in Letterman’s home state of Indiana.)
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The order of his guests also hinted at just how quickly comedy moves on. Julia Louis-Dreyfus made a joke mocking how bad the final episode of “Seinfeld” was. Jerry Seinfeld appeared a few spots before her. Tina Fey read the second-to-last choice, a testament to how far women have risen in comedy, despite the fact that women are still mostly shut out of the late-night hosting roles.
Letterman nodded to and then brushed away the pain and drama of the past 33 years. He joked that he finally realized he wasn’t going to host the “Tonight Show,” alluding to his acrimonious departure from NBC and the bitter battle with Jay Leno. He complained that in the future he’ll have to explain himself on other people’s shows, as he had in the past tried to explain away allegations of sexual harassment and extramarital affairs on his own.
But in the finale, as with most Letterman episodes, there were only a couple of moments of real wit. Joke telling was never Letterman’s strong suit. Leno was the one who told polished jokes and was always gracious. Letterman didn’t pander to anyone. When President Obama was on his show in one of the final episodes, the two almost seemed like equals and talked about hanging out after they retired. Even Oprah seemed uncomfortable in the final week, not able to carry off her usually bedazzling presence.
It’s not that Letterman was rude to his guests, but he also didn’t always play the games stars were used to. He steered conversations in weird ways. He was gracious but also sarcastic and teasing. Letterman was being himself. It felt like he would probably act the same way at a dinner party at his home or over breakfast with his family. He didn’t put on airs. And the final show was no different: He was going to amuse himself, throw things off buildings, tease little kids, keep telling a joke that no one laughed at but which he liked, over and over until it became infectious.
As the show came to an end, Letterman acknowledged all of the recent attention he’s received but downplayed it again, reminding people that most of the shows were not as great as they might seem in retrospect. But as a true host does, he was gracious in departure, highlighting the role of his huge staff, which made the show possible, and even showed some behind-the-scene footage, which made it seem as if his writers gamely fed him most of everything and he would just rearrange the order of a segment or tweak the tone of a joke. He was mostly shown backstage, laughing, enjoying his own small place in this huge comedy machine.
Then in a final sentimental moment, he paid tribute to the Foo Fighters, who canceled a past tour so they could appear on his show after he got back from heart surgery. Uncharacteristically, Letterman let his show end on a sentimental note with song lyrics that expressed what millions had thought on 6,028 other occasions, but would never think again: “Hello, I’ve waited here for you, Everlong, Tonight ... And I wonder ... If anything could ever be this good again.”