David Letterman signed off without a tear in his eye or a break in his voice. The final hour-and-change looked back fondly on some of the silliest highlights of Letterman’s television career and ignored most of the darkness that sometimes pervaded the legendary host’s broadcasts.
It was exactly right.
My first memory of David Letterman is a silly one. It was 2007, and I was ravenous for interviews with the cast of the Harry Potter movies. I saw in a TV Guide (maybe online) that Daniel Radcliffe was going to be on Letterman, so I promptly asked my dad to record that night’s show. (Yes, I had a bedtime when I was 13.)
When I got around to watching it, I remember watching the part before the interview and wondering what I was watching. I didn’t get any of Letterman’s jokes or even recognize that some of them were jokes. And the interview with Radcliffe wasn’t exactly revelatory. Dave didn’t seem nearly as interested in Harry Potter as I was.
Now I see the point. David Letterman wasn’t concerned about reaching you with his jokes if you weren’t on his wavelength. He didn’t try to please everybody or say the right thing. He didn’t feign interest in things that didn’t make sense to him. At times it seemed like his funniest moments came when he wasn’t even trying, when a joke or a jab just poured out of his mouth before he even had time to consider it.
I think Dave would agree with this characterization. On last night’s finale, he repeatedly dodged people’s attempts to canonize him and expressed how “embarrassing” all of the retirement-driven praise has been over the last few weeks and months. From another person’s mouth, these sentiments might read as false modesty. But Dave seemed serious. He gets it…but he also doesn’t. He understands what makes for good television, but he isn’t always interested in delivering it.
He did last night, though. His staff deserves the lion’s share of the praise, as he generously said during his final speech. The closing montage in particular was an awe-inspiring send-off, thousands of pictures crammed together and sequenced deliberately.
I caught glimpses of both Jay Leno and Brian Williams in that montage, a white flag of sorts to two NBC figures with complicated reputations, to put it mildly. Leno was a no-show during Letterman’s final run, though. Letterman said repeatedly that the show extended him the offer to appear, but Leno apparently declined. That’s a shame from the standpoint of exciting television, but last night’s finale was better for Leno’s absence. The sourness that the Leno-Letterman feud recalls was nowhere to be found in the clip packages and tributes that made up the bulk of the finale. A reminder of the bad blood that drove the late-night landscape in the ’90s and ’00s would have conflicted with the real purpose of the hour: to celebrate a man who brought joy to many homes and inspiration to many budding comedians.
The DNA of Letterman’s signature bits is evident in much of what keeps the late-night engines revving in 2015. The Top 10 list is an easily digestible viral clip that existed long before YouTube. Stupid Pet Tricks preceded the Internet-driven fascination with all things feline. You can draw a direct line from Dave heckling unsuspecting Taco Bell customers to Jimmy Kimmel making buffoons of SXSW concertgoers eager to maintain their cool factor. Dave would never take credit for any of these inventions, of course. In recent interviews, he’s deflected any attempts to do so. But we’ll be watching the effects of Dave’s work (if you can call it that) for many decades to come.
I’ve toggled between calling him Dave and Letterman in this review. Letterman seems too formal and Dave seems too familial. Television has a way of making us feel more connected to people than we actually are. It breeds a relationship that’s synthetic but real. My synthetic but real relationship with David Letterman is a mere fraction of the fans who have watched him regularly for many years. I came of age in his least innovative period, and I’ve only recently started to appreciate the full breadth of his creative achievements.
Last night’s finale put many of those achievements on display. My favorite of those is Dave’s ability to spin a yarn, to talk for minutes at a time and pace a story so perfectly that you’re riveted the entire time, even at the most mundane details. His final speech didn’t come close to the time he admitted sexual misconduct or his first televised words after 9/11. But it was one last reminder that David Letterman was intrinsic to American pop culture for more than 30 years.
He didn’t need to cry during his final show. His viewers took care of that for him.
My favorite Dave moment:
Other Letterman remembrances worth reading:
*USA Today’s Robert Bianco notes that Letterman’s departure marks the end of an era that began with Jack Paar in 1957.
*Vulture’s Joe Adalian points to four ways Letterman disrupted the late-night landscape.
*Salon’s Sonia Saraiya highlights Letterman’s self-deprecating final hour.
*Jimmy Kimmel tears up less than five seconds into his on-air tribute: