It’s been more than a year since David Letterman announced he would retire sometime in 2015. We’ve known today, May 20, would be the last day since December. Either way you cut it, that’s a long time to prepare for something, but nevertheless, as I wait for tonight’s final show, it seems like it all happened in a few short weeks.
My DVR is jammed with dozens of recent shows. I’ve read everything I can find from smart critics and observers about Letterman’s legacy. I’ve spent more time on YouTube than the proud owners of a piano-playing cat. In short, I’m trying to soak in as much as I can before Letterman leaves my TV screen forever.
There’s no shortage of articles and reminiscences about what Letterman has meant to his fans. Like millions of others, I started watching Late Night in high school, rarely lasting until the show ended at 1:30, but reveling in the first 30 minutes when most of the absurdist jokes, stunts and inventions came pouring out of the show at a breathtaking rate.
If it seemed the pace of brilliance was unsustainable, well, it turned out to be exactly that. In recent years, the Late Show has been less irreverent, less absurd. And yet, as I watch the endless compilations of highlights, I’m reminded that much of what made NBC’s Late Night great transferred very nicely to CBS’s Late Show. Bits came and went, the Jimmys started playing beer pong and charades with their celebrity guests, and Jay Leno plodded along, winning the ratings race. But Letterman’s brilliance never faded.
Yes, he mellowed after his heart surgery and the birth of his son. The man is 68, so it’s hardly surprising that his sensibilities and interests might have changed from the early days when he was in his mid-30s. What never changed, however, was the deep well of quips and reactions he delivered in any situation. Sure, his writers prepared some great lines for him, but his ability to say something funny in any circumstance, with pitch-perfect timing was and is unrivalled.
The great Tom Shales, a Pulitzer-prize winning TV critic at the Washington Post for roughly as many years as Letterman was on the air, said exactly what I’ve been thinking for years. From time to time, I would record one of the Jimmys, or Seth, or Craig or, now, James. But that decision was based on what guests were scheduled to appear, what musician was playing to close the show.
With Dave, it was different. He was his own best guest, Shales noted. It didn’t matter who was coming on with him, I wanted to see Dave every night and that’s why I watched. It’s why I watched for 33 years, and it’s why I’m going to miss him so very much.