"Please be seated. I don't know what to do. That's it -- stop it," Letterman said after walking out to a thunderous, lengthy standing ovation. "Sit down. See, now what happens, we don't have time for the 'giving gifts to the audience' segment."
Naturally, Letterman didn't pass up the chance to take one last jab at the late-night war that landed him at CBS in 1993. "I'll be honest with you: It's beginning to look like I'm not gonna get The Tonight Show," he quipped.
Letterman, who joked that he was going to be the new face of Scientology now, carried on with a business-as-usual demeanor while unfurling retrospective clips (Dave with Kids montage, the famous Taco Bell drive-thru in 1996); Simpsons and Wheel of Fortune tributes; his big plans with Paul Shaffer ("[We] will be debuting our new act at Caesar's Palace with our white tigers"); segments like Comedy We Could Have Done Tomorrow (Mad Max meets Supercuts!) and Day in the Life of David Letterman; and his typical self-deprecating cracks.
His 6,028 episodes, he said Stephen Hawking calculated, added up to "eight minutes of laughter." Then there's the biggest downside of no longer having a show: "When I screw up now, and Lord knows I'll be screwing up, I have to go on somebody else's show to apologize."
Dave also got a little help from his famous friends. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush opened the show in a pre-taped skit, all relaying the same message: "Our long national nightmare is over." "Letterman is retiring," Obama added.
And his final Top 10 list, Top 10 Things I've Always Wanted to Say to Dave, was delivered by some of his favorite repeat guests.
10. Alec Baldwin: "Of all the talk shows, yours is most geographically convenient to my home."
9. Barbara Walters: "Did you know that you wear the same cologne as Muammar Gaddafi?"
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. (pause) You know, 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."
5. Chris Rock: "I'm just glad your show is being given to another white guy."
4. Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale."
3. Peyton Manning: "You are to comedy what I am to comedy."
2. Tina Fey: "Thanks for finally proving men can be funny."
1. Bill Murray: "I'll never have the money I owe you."
Before The Foo Fighters closed the show with "Everlong" -- the song the band played on Letterman's first show back from heart surgery in 2000 -- over an epic retrospective montage, Letterman delivered a lovely goodbye and thank-you to fans, his family and his crew. There were no tears, but it was emotional just the same.
"The last six weeks ... have been crazy," he said. "People have been saying lovely things about us, and it's really been over the top. I can't tell you how flattering, embarrassing and gratifying it's all been. We've done over 6,000 shows ... a pretty high percentage of those shows just absolutely sucked. In light of all of this praise, merited or not, do me a favor: Save a little for my funeral."
Letterman then recounted how former CBS boss Howard Stringer basically built the formerly rat-infested Ed Sullivan Theater from scratch for him in 1993, before thanking current CBS chief Les Moonves for his friendship and patience, his "tremendous" crew and staff, the writers, announcer Alan Kalter, Biff Henderson, Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, his mother Dorothy, and his wife Regina and son Harry, the latter two of whom were in the audience. "Thank you for being my family," he said. "I love you both, and really, nothing else matters, does it?"
"The people who watched this show, there's nothing I can do to ever repay you," he added. "Thank you for everything. You've given me everything."
The last shot of Dave on stage? Waving as the rapturous audience gives him another standing O.
The overwhelming outpouring of love is perhaps the greatest tribute to and evidence of Letterman's influence and impact -- and fitting too. The master of irony who was never the most popular late-night host got an adoring public goodbye for the ages. Letterman was not for everybody. He was too cranky, too prickly, too idiosyncratic and in recent years, too out of touch. He could be, like Cher notoriously called him on air in 1986, an "assh---." The thing was he didn't care.
His Late Night show on NBC was a haven for his fellow oddballs. It was where he championed underground musicians, experimented with weird bits and Alka Seltzer suits, and honed the contemporary comic voice -- irreverent, dry, sardonic, acerbic, subversive -- that quite simply would not exist if he did conform to expectations. He wasn't trying to please anyone. Except maybe himself. (Insert sly Dave smile here.)
And Letterman's legacy is that: being himself. There's a very valid argument for Dave being the greatest late-night talk show host. Because he talked. That was his forte. Jay cracked the easy jokes, Conan is manic, the Jimmys do pranks and games in the vein of a variety show. Dave relied on his wit. He could just talk, riff on random stuff, launch into a curmudgeonly rant, call out a guest or tell a rambling story that he himself might get lost in. That gift also led to some of the most raw, sincere moments on Late Show -- Letterman opening up about his heart surgery, becoming a dad at 57 in 2003, and confessing to his sex scandal in 2009.
Perhaps his finest moment, though, was his post-9/11 monologue. He was the first late-night host to return to air and, his voice shaking, movingly talked us through our pain, confusion, heartache, and reminding us that it was OK to laugh again. It was what we needed to hear.
And the final words we heard from him were decidedly Dave: "Alright, that's pretty much all I got. The only thing I have left to do for the last time on a television program: Thank you and good night."
What did you think of Letterman's goodbye?
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