UPDATE Friday AM: Adds wisdom gained from 36 hours of contemplation. Dave lost his edge. Dave phoned it in. Dave stopped caring. Dave sold out. Dave’s crankiness receded with his hairline. Dave couldn’t even make his last show exciting. Thinking of all the whining that’s been going on for the last day and a half put me in the mind of high school graduation. You know, you’re looking up there at the kid giving the valedictory address and you’re thinking, That person used to be one of us. That person smoked weed and listened to Emerson Lake And Palmer and wrote Very Important Poetry and led the crowd in “Up Against The Wall Motherf**ker” at the peace rally and now look: Future Kiwanis treasurer. Dave grew up and the crazy edge became more memory than fact — peeking out once in awhile from the back seat but only occasionally driving the car. Well too bad. We grew up too, just didn’t much like having it shoved in our faces. Dave grew up, dammit.
First take: The thing of it is, is this: Until the last two minutes or so — when the show suddenly built to a frenzy with a slide show that Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel could only hope to hallucinate — David Letterman’s ride into the sunset was an easygoing saunter into the gray. Absent celebrity prostration and sentimental overkill (we’d had plenty of that during the past weeks), Letterman stuck with a format that hit the familiar touchstones: a monologue, a Top 10 List and lots of banter. The mushy stuff was saved for the end, which we’ll come to. Mostly, however, it was the kind of show he’s done ever since the Monkey Cam and Stupid Pet Tricks of yesteryear were retired, which was a long time ago. Wednesday night, so long, farewell, was friendly with a dash of smirk, and it was very, very classy.
The show opened with a clip of newly sworn in President Gerald R. Ford announcing to the nation in the summer of 1974 that “our long national nightmare is over.” Then George Herbert Walker Bush, William Jefferson Clinton and George W. Bush were shown repeating the same line from home, in their inimitable styles. When it was Barack Obama’s turn, he added a line about Letterman retiring, wherein the man himself appeared in the frame, first with grinning disbelief and then a look of frozen terror as the camera cut away.
In blue suit, white shirt and blue and white tie — the standard plain vanilla costume of his maturity — Letterman came onstage to a rousing standing O, of course, and launched into the valedictory monologue with a truly great summing-up line: “I’ll be honest with ya — it’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get The Tonight Show.“ A brief bit called “Comedy We Would Have Done Tomorrow” referenced Hillary Clinton announcing that she will “personally apologize to you for financial improprieties in exchange for a contribution.” And he said he’d gotten a call from Stephen Hawking, who said he’d gone through all 6,028 shows over 33 years and reported that “it works out to about eight minutes of laughter.”
It went on like that, with jokes about his plan to do a Vegas act involving Paul Shaffer and white tigers, and a fake dig from Wheel Of Fortune. Familiar riffs that segued into a scrapbook of clips from funny bits with kids over the years that came perilously close to overstaying its welcome before we finally got to the all important Top 10 List. As someone who felt this institution actually had worn out its welcome — about a decade ago, if not more — I thought the Last Show Celebrity Twist was a good idea that his favorite guests failed to deliver on. Only a couple were genuinely funny and actually addressed the topic of Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave.
Who cracked me up: Jim Carrey, in T-shirt with long hair and big bushy beard, making himself look demented and saying, “Honestly, Dave? I’ve always found you to be a bit of an overactor,” as his rubberized limbs threatened the neighbors. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus, getting one of the night’s biggest laughs with, “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.” The rest? Meh — like most of the lists in recent years.
Two good video clips followed, one a vintage Candid Camera-style bit with Dave taking car orders at a Taco Bell, the other a freshly minted “Day in the Life” that began as a routine documentary of Dave arriving at the office but beautifully changed course to become something richer: a cross-cutting of his interactions with key team members and a poignant look at the rapport he was able to build with the studio audience.
Then the wind-down, or the buildup, to the finale began. Of the past six weeks he said, “I can’t tell you how flattering, embarrassing and gratifying it has all been,” adding that “I can tell you a pretty high percentage of those shows sucked.” He recalled that former CBS chief Howard Stringer convinced him to do the show in what was at the time a derelict, rat-infested theater, and how Stringer’s successor, Les Moonves has been “more than patient with me — if this was a piece of paper, you could underline patience several dozen times.”
Finally, he thanked everyone — nice touch, introducing every member of the band — including his wife and son and his son’s buddy, and then Foo Fighters, to send us back into the night.
Dave was cool. He’d shown no sign of overwhelming feeling but had carried on like a trouper. And that would have been fine, except that it wasn’t over. As the show went long — by nearly 20 minutes — a closing roll of photographs slowly morphed into a torrent that spanned the decades and built with all the emotional force the rest of the show seemed deliberately to have avoided.
Not only were there the comic legends and heads of state and movie stars and unruly animals and outrageous gags, but through it all there was Dave, and Dave’s hair, and Dave’s Alfred E. Neuman grin and his odd spectacles and double-breasted suits and lapels that expanded and contracted with the New York weather. Over all the years, we have grown comfortable with Dave and he with us and one of us had to go.