NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — There were a few tears and lots of laughs as David Letterman signed off as the longest reigning late night host in television history.
A roster of stars turned out Wednesday for joyous and wistful moments, as Letterman signed off after nearly 22 years on “The Late Show” on CBS, and a career of 33 years in late night television. The show ran 18 minutes longer than usual.
Letterman kicked off the show with a final running bolt onto the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, 1697 Broadway, and the thunderous cheers and standing ovation that he received upon taking the stage and greeting the audience one last time.
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But while that image alone may have brought tears to a few eyes, the show actually began with some good old-fashioned mockery.
Archive video of President Gerald Ford saying, “Our long national nightmare is over” as he took the oath of office in 1974 was followed by former presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush repeating the phrase. Finally, President Barack Obama repeats the phrase with an addendum – “Our long national nightmare is over. Letterman is retiring.”
Letterman joins Obama in the shot and laughs nervously, “You’re just kidding, right?” Obama shrugs.
Letterman stuck to classic form in his opening monologue, poking fun at his own retirement and the length of time his shows have been on the air.
“When we started the show, the biggest problem – the hottest program on television – you know what it was?” Letterman said. “Keeping up with the Gabors.”
But Letterman also had some serious and supportive words – first for the man who will soon be his successor, Stephen Colbert.
“I’m very excited. I think he’s going to do a wonderful job, and I wish Stephen and his crew nothing but the greatest success,” Letterman said as he sat down at his desk. “So let’s look forward to that.”
Letterman went on to show an assortment of his past appearances with kids on his show – including several appearances with the Kid Scientists, who traveled from the Chicago suburb of Naperville to perform science demonstrations on “The Late Show” from 1997 until the end of the show’s run.
And for the very last Top 10 list, 10 frequent “Late Show” guests lined up to recite, “Things I’ve always wanted to say to Dave.” The guests were universal household names all – Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning, Tina Fey, and the very first guest on both Letterman’s NBC “Late Night” show in 1982 and the CBS “Late Show” in 1993 – Bill Murray.
“Honestly, Dave, I’ve always found you to be a bit of an over-actor,” said a heavily bearded Carrey, who went on to go into a mock spasm.
“Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale,” said Louis-Dreyfus – prompting a quiet remark of, “Really?” from Seinfeld.
The show also featured a behind-the-scenes vignette in the offices and hallways of the Ed Sullivan Theater building, and an assortment of clips from Letterman’s earlier shows – including a 1980 appearance by Andy Kaufman and one of the first “Stupid Pet Tricks” segments.
Letterman thanked and honored the many people who have made the show possible over the years, first looking back on former CBS President Howard Stringer’s decision to do “The Late Show” from the Ed Sullivan Theater. Letterman described the theater as a “huge, horrible dump” before the show began, but he said it was turned into a beautiful space.
The theater will continue to be the home of the “Late Show” when Colbert takes over.
Letterman named everyone from CBS Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves for being “patient” with him, and, added, “If this was a printed sheet of paper, you can underline patient several times.” All the familiar “Late Show” staffers – stage manager Biff Henderson, announcer Alan Kalter, and of course, legendary bandleader Paul Shaffer, also all got their due.
He also thanked his fans saying, “The people who watch this show, there’s nothing I can do to ever repay you, thank you for everything, you’ve given me everything.”
And finally, in one appearance that had been anticipated for some time, the Foo Fighters took the stage as the final musical guest for “The Late Show.” The group performed at Letterman’s request when he returned from heart surgery back in 2000, playing the song “Everlong.”
Letterman noted that the group went so far as to cancel a tour in South America to appear on “The Late Show” when Letterman returned to work.
“These people saved my life,” Letterman said before they performed.
The Foo Fighters also served a weeklong residency last fall, in support of the group’s “Sonic Highways” documentary series.
After Letterman said goodnight for the last time, the Foo Fighters played “Everlong” once again, to a montage from Letterman’s entire career.
“The Late Show” has had a total of 4,214 broadcasts and four prime time specials, and has run for 1,135 weeks. Before that, “Late Night” had 1,810 broadcasts and ran for 595 weeks.
Over 33 years, Letterman’s shows received 16 Emmy Awards and 112 nominations. “The Late Show” received nine awards and 72 nominations, “Late Night” received five awards and 35 nominations, and the 1980 daytime “David Letterman Show” won two awards and five nominations.
In all, Letterman has read 4,605 Top 10 lists, and has interviewed 19,932 guests — 5,850 of them on “The Late Show.” The most frequent guest on “The Late Show” has been Regis Philbin, with a total of 136 appearances, followed by wildlife advocate Jack Hanna with 75. Marv Albert had 52, and Tom Brokaw 49.