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After more than 6,000 broadcasts and 33 years in late-night television, David Letterman took the stage for the final time on Wednesday to a sustained standing ovation from the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater.
“Please be seated. I don’t know what to do. That’s it — stop it,” he said, motioning for the audience to sit. “See, now what happens, we don’t have time for the ‘giving gifts to the audience’ segment.”
In his final monologue, he took a pointed jab at his unhappy history with NBC, where he was passed over as Johnny Carson‘s successor in favor of Jay Leno.
“I’ll be honest with you. It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get The Tonight Show,” Letterman quipped.
He also needled Scientology: “I know people are well-meaning, but I am sick and tired … [of], ‘What are you going to do now that you’re retiring?’ You know what I’m going to do, by God? I’m going to become the new face of Scientology.”
And he skewered his own history of scandals (most notably an inter-office affair that led to an extortion plot). “When I screw up now, and lord knows I’ll be screwing up, I have to go on somebody else’s show to apologize,” he said.
The show’s cold open included vintage video of Gerald Ford from 1974 inauguration, when in the wake of Richard Nixon‘s resignation, he famously said: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” Then each of the last four presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush — were seen in a video parroting the same line, with Obama adding, “David Letterman is retiring.”
The final Top 10 List was a highlight of the first act. The “Top Ten Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave” was read by a bevy of celebrities, including Alec Baldwin, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Peyton Manning, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Barbara Walters and Steve Martin, with Bill Murray delivering No. 1.
The Foo Fighters played “Everlong,” the same song they played when the host returned to the show from heart surgery on Feb. 21, 2000. Letterman explained to the audience that he essentially pulled the band off of their tour in South America to come play back in 2000.
Letterman’s wife, Regina, and 10-year-old son, Harry, were in the studio audience. So was CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves who came on stage during the warm-up to thank Letterman.
The first act also included a tribute from The Simpsons, with Homer in front of the TV, laughing at a cartoon Letterman, while Marge notes that he’s been on the air for 33 years, and when he started, Bart and Lisa were kids, and Maggie was just a baby. The camera then pulled back to reveal that Bart and Lisa are still kids, and Maggie is in fact still a baby. Her blocks read, “World Wide Pants,” Letterman’s production company.
At the end of the episode, Letterman gave a final goodbye from his desk, saying the tributes he’s received since announcing his retirement have been “flattering, embarrassing and gratifying.” He added that people should “save a little [praise] for my funeral.”
Letterman thanked Moonves for his patience and for being “a friend to the show,” and he addressed the show’s staff, saying they “deserve more credit for the show than I ever will.” Letterman called bandleader Paul Shaffer “as good a friend as you can have in life.”
The host then turned his attention to his wife and son, saying, “Thank you for being my family — I love you, and really, nothing else matters, does it?” The show ended with the Foo Fighters performing over a montage of clips.
The weeks leading up to his departure have included a parade of the famous, who made the trip to midtown for a final session with Letterman: Tom Hanks, George Clooney, President Obama, Tom Waits, Oprah Winfrey, Billy Crystal, Al Pacino, John Travolta, Julia Roberts (who astutely observed: “I think stupid people annoy you”) and Bill Murray, who on the penultimate show popped out of a cake and proceeded to give Letterman a bear hug, covering him with frosting.
Letterman has been reticent about discussing future plans. It’s clear that he is ready to let go of the daily grind of late-night TV in part so that he can spend more time with his 10-year-old son, Harry. But he also has betrayed conflicted emotions about giving up his day job. In an interview with Jane Pauley on CBS Sunday Morning, he allowed that returning to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Stephen Colbert will take over as Late Show host in September, would be too hard.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be back in this building again honestly,” Letterman told Pauley. “I think it would just be too difficult for me … emotionally … because I just don’t want to come back and see others living our lives.”
The full Top Ten list:
The Top 10 Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave
10. Baldwin: “Of all the talk shows, yours is most geographically convenient to my home.”
9. Walters: “Did you know that you wear the same cologne as Muammar Gaddafi?”
8. Martin: “Your extensive plastic surgery was a necessity, and a mistake.”
7. 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.”
6. Carrey: “Honestly, Dave, I’ve always found you to be a bit of an overactor. (Wearing a “Spank You” T-shirt.)
5. Rock: “I’m just glad your show is being given to another white guy.” (Letterman: “I had nothing to do with that.”)
4. Louis-Dreyfus: “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale. (Letterman: “I had nothing to do with that either.”)
3. Manning: “Dave, you are to comedy what I am to comedy.”
2. Fey: “Thanks for finally proving men can be funny.”
1. Murray: “Dave, I’ll never have the money I owe you.”
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