For more than 30 years, talk show host David Letterman dominated late-night comedy. Unlike the brash comedians of his generation, Letterman showcased an off-brand, self-deprecating humor that touched audiences across the nation. Indeed, his comedy routine was groundbreaking, influencing many well-known comics of today, including Conan O’Brien, Ray Romano and Jim Gaffigan. Fellow talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel cites Letterman as the sole impetus behind his career in comedy.
But like most television programs, Late Show with David Letterman eventually had to come to a close. On May 20, Letterman commemorated his final talk-show hour with celebrity fanfare and highlights from his three decades and more than 6,000 episodes of entertainment. The finale emphasized Letterman’s legacy as quick-witted interviewer with no need for Jimmy Fallon’s musical frills and silly games. His routine is simple, hitting the very core of humor. It was the perfect goodbye to a television mega-power, starting with an epic cold open, complete with none other than President Barack Obama.
Letterman is never bashful of the political world, sometimes bantering with conservatives such as political commentator Bill O’Reilly and senator and former presidential candidate John McCain on the air. He’s also interviewed former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His cold open with Obama, though, is a reminder that humor doesn’t have to be high-brow and filled with derision of the government to resonate with an audience. Instead, Letterman turned the laughs on himself. Obama set the tone by declaring, “Our long, national nightmare is over. Letterman is retiring.” Letterman quipped, “You’re just kidding, right?” to which Obama just responded with a shrug. It’s material like this that will be missed.
Letterman continues to be the brunt of the joke, pretending that the people watching did not appreciate his brand of humble comedy. His monologue started off with a few reflections on current events, the punchlines all pointing back to himself. A clip of Letterman interviewing children over the years followed, where almost all of the kids seemed irritated by his presence. One kid even told Letterman, “You are not, you are not, you are not funny.” Kids before a certain age might not relate to Letterman, but to adults, his ability to not take himself seriously is his most endearing characteristic.
If there is a favorite Letterman show trademark, it’s his top 10 lists. Every episode features a category with 10 Letterman musings, and the last episode was no exception. With his send-off, 10 of his most frequent guests entered the stage one by one, each with a facetiously biting comment about their friend, Dave. Actor Alec Baldwin revealed, “Of all the talk shows, yours was the most geographically convenient to my home.” Football player Peyton Manning made this comparison: “You are to comedy what I am to … comedy.” But it was Tina Fey and Chris Rock who really brought it home. Fey quipped, “Thanks for finally proving men can be funny,” a rebuttal to the ever present “women are not funny” comments. Rock exclaimed, “I’m just glad your show is being given to a white guy,” in response to CBS network’s decision to replace Letterman with Stephen Colbert, a move that was out of Letterman’s hands. But jokes aside, it was apparent that Letterman wholeheartedly supported these entertainers in their endeavors, and they were there to thank him for years of collaboration and friendship.
The rest of the show followed accordingly. Letterman handpicked The Foo Fighters, a band that was often featured on the show, to perform their song, “Everlong.” He introduced his wife and son, and as a Letterman idiosyncrasy, He also introduced his son’s bewildered friend, Tommy Roboto. He thanked his band leader, the equally funny Paul Schaffer, for their years of partnership. In his closing credits, Letterman wished Colbert the best of luck, signaling a new era to come. These segments epitomize Letterman’s supportive spirit.
All in all, it was the quintessential denouement to late nights with Letterman. He represented someone who didn’t need to belittle others in order to get a laugh. His most famous bits were always a little strange — watermelon smashing and campy parodies of after school specials come to mind — but Letterman knew that in order to make others laugh, he had to make himself laugh first.
So now Stephen Colbert steps up. And even with his unbelievable repertoire for comedy, he has shoes of monumental proportions to fill.