Late night is probably my favourite form of television, and what began that love was watching the Late Show for the very first time in the late ’90s. So, to say that the end of David Letterman’s tenure as host affected me is an understatement.
The last broadcaster
Where do I begin? First off, I’ll link to a piece I wrote last year on my 10 favourite musical performances on the Late Show with David Letterman, which starts with my general feelings on Dave. I’ll try not to repeat any of those same points.
The phrase “end of an era” can often be a cliché, but I really can’t think of better words to use. After Dave’s final episode ended, I’ll be honest and say I was in a depressive funk for the following weeks every night at 11:35. I like the majority of the current late night hosts, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of it. When I got back to watching the shows, I honestly became more nitpicky, as what Dave did wasn’t being represented anymore.
That sentence reads like a “good old days” thing, but I’m talking about the types of interviews he did; the pace. It became clear to me what the term “broadcaster” really meant. With all due respect to everyone in late night now, there isn’t one left. Because by its very nature, the term “broadcast” doesn’t apply anymore in this niche-cultivated world we’re in now. The host is now on the same level with the guest, which is different from Dave who was probably the last of his kind to be the bigger star than the guest. That carried a level of gravitas.
I remember a discussion on the old Late Show when Oprah Winfrey was on and Dave was listing the greatest broadcasters — and he named her, Howard Stern, and Rush Limbaugh as the three best broadcasters of the modern era. And while I know he’d hate reading this, he clearly deserves to be on that same list.
There are just certain things that ended with the Late Show (which, god bless Les Moonves for keeping it on the air as long he did and not pushing Dave out), but after Dave announced his retirement, Les confessed how expensive the show was.
I guess this was partly because Dave was so loyal to his staff and kept people on for decades, but it was also little things like Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra’s walk-on songs, which you don’t hear much of anymore. The Roots still do it, but not to the extent that Shaffer did, where he played big licensed songs going into break as well. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s an aspect I miss from these shows, as most of the generic non-licensed music that late night bands play nowadays doesn’t thrill me much.
And I also liked that Dave had long conversations with people who weren’t always going for the joke, but when they did, it was an organic laugh. Now don’t get me wrong, I love what Conan does with interviews, which are still the funniest on late night TV, but I liked the relaxed pace of what Dave did. It was the antithesis of so much of what is going on now.
The last year
The final year of the Late Show with David Letterman was the greatest run of late night TV I have ever seen. I’m including the January shows, which were business as usual, but they showed off how strong the show was in its regular form.
I’m just going to list some moments from 2015 off the top of my head:
- From January 8th, Chelsea Peretti’s first appearance. It was a great bonding between two of my favourite comedy figures (the segment ended with Letterman saying “coming up, Foxygen with Starpower” with Chelsea blurting out “and Starpower?!”, which made Dave laugh out loud before the break).
- The January 8th episode is also noteworthy as it featured a pre-presidential candidate Donald Trump. I don’t like Trump, but watching his campaign unfold really makes me miss Dave, and his appearances with him were legendary. Dave liked having a buffoon to his side that he could swat when needed (like when he called Trump out on his ties being made in China!). Watching how easy Trump is getting off from Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel and the rest makes me miss Dave all the more, as he would never take that bullshit.
- From February 10th, Chris Elliott’s final appearance on the show. If you’re a long-time fan you understand what a big deal this was. A great, touching interview (Dave calling Chris “the funniest man I’ve ever worked with”), but the best moment is Chris’ song “To Dave With Love” (8:20 into the video).
- Martin Short made two appearances in 2015 (February 5th, May 6th), and both were tremendous. Could you ask for a better talk show guest than Marty Short? As Paul Shaffer once said, you get “socko entertainment” from him every time.
- The legend goes that back in 1998 or 1999, Dave was asked who should take over the Late Late Show, and he handpicked Norm Macdonald for the job. Les Moonves and CBS vetoed it and instead chose Craig Kilborn, and the rest is history. Dave and Norm have had a wonderful bond for decades now, and I’m happy he made two appearances. His final stand-up set got a lot of deserved praise but his March 18th appearance was just as memorable.
- On April 14th, it was the final network television debut musical performance in Letterman history, Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller”. It was a great one, and it was another strong pick by the best music booker in late night, Sheryl Zelikson, who now works for Colbert’s show.
- April 24th featured a great Jerry Seinfeld appearance (where he did his very first stand-up set from Letterman!), but my favourite moment from the episode was Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer”. Zevon was a massive part of the Late Show, so to see his music represented in such a beautiful way by Isbell and Shires had to make every long-time fan misty-eyed.
- “Jungle” Jack Hanna was one of Dave’s best guests, and he always brought a weird energy to his segments. He appeared twice in 2015, but the best was the final April 29th appearance, which featured Hanna getting choked up.
- May 7th, Tina Fey. LAST DRESS EVER. Perfection.
- What I feel was possibly the most underrated/least talked about in the closing weeks was the May 8th appearance from Ray Romano. I’m a big Ray fan, and this appearance was something else. It was not only funny, but the closing moments of it are as moving as anything that aired in those final weeks, with Ray breaking down step-by-step how Dave changed his life forever.
- The May 8th episode as a whole was one of my top-to-bottom favourites of the whole year, as it also featured Brian Regan’s phenomenal final stand-up set but also the performance by the Dave Matthews Band of “What Would You Say” was a great nostalgic trip for me. I know some people hate Dave Matthews and his band, but that performance helped me get back into his older stuff which gave me some ’90s flashbacks.
- As pictured above, Bill Murray’s final Late Show appearance was a thing of beauty. All we are saying is more Worldwide Pants!
I couldn’t list everything, so I know there are many, many moments that I missed. President and Michelle Obama. Steve Martin. Julia Roberts. Oprah Winfrey. Paul Rudd showing his faux-Letterman fan club sponge. Michael Keaton bringing in the old clip of Dave from Mary Tyler Moore’s variety show. Howard Stern and Don Rickles together. Tom Hanks’ great final two appearances. First Aid Kit’s beautiful version of “America.” John Mayer pulling off “American Pie.” And Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand.”
But of course the one moment I’m leaving off until the end was the remarkable montage put together by Barbara Gaines and her editors, set to Foo Fighters’ live performance of “Everlong.” You couldn’t have asked for a better send-off to the show, with the perfect clips chosen, the perfect band and song, the perfect capper to the best final episode to a late night show I have ever seen (contrary to what Grantland may have told you).
To bring up a sad fact about it: The montage was nominated for a Best Picture Editing Emmy, but lost to The Colbert Report’s final montage. Excuse me, but you have got to be fucking kidding me. I liked the final Report, but what editing was there? Just a couple edits to Bill Clinton and a couple other people? And that won over a montage put together since November 2014 of 30+ years of footage that was timed to a live performance of a song.
As Kevin McCaffrey brilliantly put it on Twitter: “Letterman’s final montage lost the editing Emmy to Colbert’s last segment, which would be like if the ’85 Bears lost to my high school.” Un-fucking-real that Letterman didn’t win a single Emmy for his final season… but I won’t think about that!
The last goodbye
I should probably wrap this up, but maybe part of the reason why it’s so long is because I don’t want it to end. As soon as I finish it, it’ll probably be my last time writing about the Late Show at any length.
I was so happy to see the groundswell of support that those final shows got; the #ThanksDave hashtag trending all day. Despite Dave being gone, I still love late night TV. I think Seth Meyers, Conan, Jimmy Fallon, James Corden are doing great jobs, and while Stephen Colbert’s Late Show still isn’t quite there, it’s slowly getting better. But I still believe that the Late Show ending was very much the end of a specific kind of late night talk show that we’ll never see again, with a host that was the best to ever do it.
Dave has been showing up in public far more than I expected, with his great bit at the Martin Short and Steve Martin show, and he’s signed on for National Geographic’s Years of Living Dangerously climate change documentary series. I am happy he is still around, which lessens the blow a bit.
I also want to pay tribute here to the great Late Show team, the aforementioned Barbara Gaines, the genius director Jerry Foley (I wish Foley could consult on Colbert’s show, as it needs serious camerawork help), EP and head of Worldwide Pants Rob Burnett, the great long-time writers like Bill Scheft and Steve Young to name just a couple, Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra (as someone on Twitter put it, the greatest band ever assembled for television), Alan Kalter, Biff, Pat Farmer, Sue Hum, Joe Grossman (now working on Samantha Bee’s show!), Todd the cue card guy (saw him on Seth Meyers a month ago!), and too many others.
The show will always be a major influence on my sensibilities and my life in general, and I’m happy it was on for as long as it was. Thank god for YouTube so I can revisit old moments whenever I want, which is one plus of it ending in this current era. But anyway, I can’t put it all into words what the show has meant to me, so I’ll just keep it simple: Thanks for all the laughs, Dave.