The lead-in to David Letterman’s goodbye to television was a mercilessly long Survivor special that concluded a season of experimental class warfare. Pitched as a battle between “white collar,” “no collar,” and “blue collar” contestants, the show canceled itself out predictably in the middle. While watching dutifully, I couldn’t help but wonder if this new Survivor, with its “no collar” victory, was nothing but a pale simulation of David Letterman’s 33-year-long “no collar victory” — his everyman’s war of attrition against all competitors in late night television.
A Hoosier with a bum heart, like his father, Letterman began his career as a weatherman at what is now WTHR in Indianapolis, an NBC-affiliate I watch when I visit my parents in Indiana. On the local CBS-affiliate that carries Letterman in New York — during the evening news interlude before the finale — even the weatherman was phoning it in. Everyone was waiting for Dave’s goodbye. “Head down, white jacket, just another New Yorker headed onto the next thing,” a reporter said of Letterman’s final exit from the Ed Sullivan Theatre. The “next thing” Letterman attended was his celebrity bon voyage not far away — I think they said it was at MoMA. Before a customary salute to Letterman, the evening news ran a phone video, shot by Vern Troyer, of a policeman tasering an unarmed man at LAX.
The show began: “Ladies and Gentleman, our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford announced in a video clip. The refrain was repeated by all living and current American presidents, ending with Obama, who made it clear that the “national nightmare” was The Late Show with David Letterman. (“You’re joking, right?” Letterman asked Obama.) But the first hint of the night’s classy, pro-labor vibes came with Alan Kalter’s final Late Night introduction — he is also retiring — when he also introduced himself. “I’m Alan Kalter,” he said, before introducing David Letterman as “A boy from a small town in Indiana.” Hilariously, Letterman was then seen in a flash, sprinting across the stage like a long, American gazelle. When he finally settled into his monologue, standing before the audience with in his white socks and dress shoes, no one would let him begin. “Dave! Dave! Dave!” they cheered, and I thought of a Ball State college student chugging beer. Letterman flashed his coat to either side, one of those antic maneuvers used by late night hosts to manipulate time. He obviously loved the applause. After mock-chiding the audience, he recapitulated (or capitulated to) his lifelong battle with the Gods of Late Night. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, “it’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get the Tonight Show.”
From there, a hologram goodbye to his staff — a “no collar” segment that underscored his respect for their work while also confirming his status as overlord. Then: a “comedy we would have done tomorrow” sketch that would have fallen flat on any other night, if it could have been done on any other night; a Simpsons interlude noting how its characters haven’t aged during Letterman’s 33-year tenure; a weird, hilarious joke wherein Letterman’s son asks why his father now has to go to prison; an oblique reference to his history with “Elian Gonzalez,” now 21-years-old. Then, a touching kick-over to Paul Schaffer. “More than a guy who’s on television with me every night. Great friend. Best friend. We’re going to continue in show business. Next month will be June in Las Vegas — which, by the way, is the time to go to Las Vegas — we’ll be debuting our new act with our white tigers!” Finally: “It’s our final show, ladies and gentleman. We’ll be right back with our Top Ten.”
After the commercial break, Letterman cut to the chase. “I just want to say a couple of things about Stephen Colbert,” he said. “I’m very excited. I think he’s going to do a very good job. And I wish nothing but the best for Stephen and his crew.” Cut to a video of Letterman’s segments with children; the funniest one finds a child confusing the phrase “upholstery farm” for “poultry farm.” Then a strange scene of a little girl eating salt before another video interlude of Andy Kaufman. “Oh, my. Dear Andy. Dear, dear, Andy.”
Here is your final Top Ten list, no longer mythically sourced from Sioux City, Iowa, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, but from the mouths of various long recurring celebrity guests. “Top Ten things I’ve always wanted to say to Dave”:
Alec Baldwin: “Of all the talk shows yours is the most geographically convenient to my home.”
Barbara Walters: “OK! Dave did you know that you wear the same cologne as Muammar Gaddafi?”
Steve Martin: “Your extensive plastic surgery was a necessity. And a mistake.”
Jerry Seinfeld: “Dave, I have no idea what I’ll do when you go off the air. You know I just thought of something, I’ll be fine.”
Jim Carrey: “Honestly, Dave. I’ve honestly found you to be a bit of an overactor.” [Fluffs hair and bird dances in maniacal way.]
Chris Rock: “I’m just glad your show is being given to another white guy!”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.” [Cut to laughing Jerry Seinfeld.]
Peyton Manning: “Dave, you are to comedy to what I am… to comedy.”
Tina Fey: “Thanks for finally proving men can be funny.”
Bill Murray: “Dave, I’ll never have the money I owe you.”
Dave hugged everyone. He was most excited about Peyton Manning (who built his career playing for Dave’s hometown team); he was most loving to Bill Murray.
After another brief interlude featuring an old episode — wherein Dave takes command of a Taco Bell drive-thru window — it was on to a “behind the scenes” (filmed in the recent past) that shows “a day in the life” of David Letterman. Really, it showed a noticeably, deservedly tired Letterman passively constructing his show as he inched toward retirement. “That’s what we do, for 33 years,” Letterman said when the segment ended. “We’ll be right back with Foo Fighters…” For a moment I forgot it was the final show.
After the break, Letterman returned with his final off-the-cuff speech. By this point drunk on cheap wine — a quintessentially “no collar” move — I did my best to transcribe it:
The last six weeks things have been crazy… 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 6000 shows… and I was here for most of them… a pretty high percentage of those shows just absolutely sucked… in light of all this praise… do me a favor… save a little for my funeral… Paul and I came here 22 years ago from NBC… fella by name of Howard Stringer wanted us to d a show here in this theater… frankly it was a dump… it was not certified for habitation… we came in and it was… crawling with rats… the rats were stoop shouldered… he turned it into this beautiful theater… Hal Gurnee also helped… now look at it… what a wonderful place to do a show… and what tremendous music… claps… Kathleen Anchors also helped them design it… she was wonderful… quickly we grew to love it… Les Moonves came in… this man over the years has been a friend of the show… and he’s been more than patient with me… what a tremendous crew we’ve had here, the people you see on the stage, the people you don’t see on the stage… it goes on and on and on… these people night after night have to put up with my nonsense… my thank you to everyone involved… the staff — what a tremendous staff… we have researchers… these poor people work in a subterranean pit… no natural light whatsoever… and of course the writers… throughout the years I’ve been blessed to work with men and women who are smarter than I am and funnier than I am, and I have always been interested in doing the show that the writers have given me… these people deserve more credit for this show than I ever will… and now folks we see every night… Alan Kalder… I don’t know of a better announcer… Biff Henderson… here’s what I will miss most about this show… and we’ll start with Felicia Collins… [he names entire band]…
….as good a friend as you can have in life… Paul Schaffer. How about that band?
Dave, you’ve changed our lives. We’ve loved every second of it.
Next, Letterman thanked his family. “A big part of this show was my mother” — cut to an image of Betty White. Then perhaps for the first time ever — I’m not entirely sure — Letterman introduced his wife Regina, and his son, Harry. “Look at that kid,” he laughed. “Thank you for being my family. I love you both. And really nothing else matters.” He also introduced Harry’s friend, Tommy Robato. “There’s Tommy!”
Finally, Dave thanked the viewers: “The people who watch this show: there’s nothing I can do to repay you. Thank you for everything. You’ve given me everything.”
I’ll confess at this moment I was disenchanted by the impending arrival of Foo Fighters. Why do this? Then it occurred to me that they are, like it or not, a quintessentially “no collar” band. Thankfully, like a true professional, Letterman nudged them onto the show by explaining their significance. Years earlier, after Letterman went under for open heart surgery, the band canceled their entire South American tour to come play for his return to late night.
Then, without breaking format — before the Foo Fighters began a rendition of “Everlong” — Letterman signed off for the last time.
“All right,” he said. “That’s pretty much all I have.” You could tell he meant every word. “Thank you and goodnight.”