White Cover Magazine
It must have flown by.
Letterman spent 33 years – nearly half his life – as a titan of late night, first as a prince then as the king. But on Wednesday night, for his final CBS show skillfully planted in the middle of a week, where his fans could set aside the time to care but wouldn’t have to end an era while starting a weekend, the goal was to sustain.
It was to keep the laughs going just 60 minutes more, to stretch Christmas Day and slow down the final hour before Boxing Day starts, ends, and births you back to the office.
If we just stay here, Peter Pan can’t grow up.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” they said, five of the last six American Presidents, starting with Gerald Ford’s bail on the Vietnam War. “David Letterman is retiring,” concluded Obama, bringing to full the joke you knew right away was coming. That’s always been Letterman’s gift, though – the ability to pass even the corniest off as his own and, therefore, something you should probably be laughing at.
He’s a master of the accidentally on-purpose, “this shouldn’t work but it will” humour. His stand-up monologues and Top 10 lists have always shown that – he has a way of tapping your funny bone with the clunkiness of actually tapping your funny bone, like how the No. 1 in every Top 10 was never the funniest of the dime.
These are compliments, of course. Dave’s been the best late night host since I was born. His sense of humour is just so genuine, a sense of humour that finds your heart while tripping over coffee tables in the dark, like how Hugh Grant’s stuttering makes him more charming or Peter Falk’s fumbling made Columbo the detective who solved.
“Now, here’s the problem, when you don’t have your own show anymore, here’s the problem,” he said, at the seven-minute mark. “When I screw up now, and Lord knows I’ll be screwing up, I have to go on somebody else’s show to apologize.”
The Simpsons chimed in first, to offer their tribute and a block-spelling of Letterman’s production company, World Wide Pants. There was a montage of his greatest on-air moments with children, a nice highlight featuring Andy Kaufman, a beautiful bit from a Taco Bell in 1996, and of course a star-studded Top 10 – Letterman’s final such list, with Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning, Tina Fey, and of course Bill Murray coming to bat, the ultimate fraternity you wish you too were friends with. (Except for maybe Alec Baldwin, sometimes.)
But the biggest guest, of course, was the guy who’s never a guest: Letterman’s super-sidekick Paul Schaffer, who was having just as big a night only without his name on the title logo.
And even though Paul said little more than he normally does, a few “Hey Now!”s and “Oh Yeah”s, it was obvious he was just off-screen, that he – like Dave – was leaving what had become their home. For the best, the office normally is.
“The last six weeks, it’s been crazy,” Letterman said, with only a few minutes left in the rapid-fire finale. “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 has all been.
“We’ve done over 6,000 shows,” he continued, failing to curb the audience’s applause. He always gets awkward when they start applauding like that, like he knows it’s too easy for him to corral the claps. “I hosted most of them and I can tell you a high percentage of those shows just absolutely sucked.
“And also, in light of all of this praise, merited or not, do me a favour: save a little for my funeral, all right? I’d appreciate it.”
“Every Letterman junkie always knew he’d retire on a whim; that’s exactly what happened. No hype, no warning, no manufactured drama, nothing,” wrote Bill Simmons for Grantland, last year and just days after Dave announced his retirement to a stunned Late Night crowd. “And now, officially, late-night television can morph into something else. I just don’t know what.”
There’s something scary in the uncertainty Simmons outlines. Sure, if you’re a fan of late night, and especially if you grew up with Letterman and Leno – even Carson – as the brand, you’re going to rail against the viral everything and the too-kind kiss-assing of Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon, respectively.
And perhaps there’s the thought that Colbert has to come in and replace Dave and actually replace Dave. But even though he’s taking over his show, I’ll argue he absolutely won’t and shouldn’t.
The Late Show with David Letterman is The Late Show with David Letterman. Don’t trace from the Rembrandt. Fallon’s blowing away the medium by being Fallon, by making you forget we ever tried to save Conan from the Leno-nado. But this time, the storm seems to be touching down just as the villagers are ready to move out and on.
“I want to say a couple things about Stephen Colbert,” Dave said, pretty early into his final show. “I’m very excited, I think he’s going to do a wonderful job, and I wish Stephen and his staff and crew nothing but the greatest success.”
The man was the brand. The brand is gone. It’s okay. In fact, it’s fine.
VIDEO: David Letterman’s Final Late Show Entrance