Nothing happened during his last hour that was as embarrassing as his competitors encouraging their own viewers to switch over to Dave, a weird tribute that seemed to recognize the Living Legend might need help pulling big ratings even for his grand finale, so in that sense it was a success. The show was affecting mainly as a memento mori, like hearing that a restaurant in your neighborhood which you rarely ate at but which had been open for decades finally closed its doors. Something’s been lost, but what that is has more to do with you than with them.
I liked the opening with the four presidents, embedded below, not because it was clever but because it was a wink at how Letterman’s image has changed since he started doing television. He got famous hosting a show that was essentially an elaborate prank on the network establishment and its expectations for late-night TV; he went out as a guy so thoroughly part of the establishment that he could get the sitting president of the United States to do a cold open for his final show. But even that critique, like Letterman himself, has been stale for 20 years, and in fairness to him, part of the reason he’s so comfortable as an establishmentarian now is because their sensibility changed to accommodate his. Look no further than his own successor, who landed the “Late Show” gig by pranking the conventions of Fox News-style conservative chat shows, the closest thing to “establishment TV” that most lefties can conceive of. The bit with the presidents was either Letterman’s concession that he’s a million miles from his comedy-rebel days or a declaration of victory that his comedy rebellion has achieved the ultimate cachet. Leno may have had the audience but he had … influence, I guess?
How many folks were still watching live, non-DVRd late-night pre-fab jokes & celeb intvus on network TV in 2015?
— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) May 21, 2015
NBC-era Dave would have retired with Chris Elliott in a cat costume singing an off-key rendition of “Memory.” Post-NBC Dave went out to a montage of clips while the Foo Fighters played “Everlong.” Advantage: NBC-era Dave. But then, we all already knew that.
Update: Kyle Smith on the evolution of “rebellion”:
But, somewhere around the turn of the century, I lost interest. The show became less and less surreal. Real celebrities started showing up, and I winced as Dave would suck up to them. Suddenly, everyone had a perfectly polished, self-deprecating anecdote — invariably meant to prove the utter fiction that Celebrities Are Just Like Us — that sounded suspiciously crafted by a team of writers. Suddenly, each episode had as many as three celebrities, with Letterman being unctuous and insufferable and fake-laughing his way through every minute.
The Top Ten list was cute, as you’ll see, but the jokes are secondary to Letterman showing off just how many A-listers he can command for his final bow. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of the presidential intro for a guy who was known for using anti-celebrities like Larry “Bud” Melman to great comic effect. The only Top Ten-ner to capture a bit of that old spirit is Bill Murray, the ultimate anti-celebrity celebrity, whose line is itself a goof on his image as a mega-star, mega-wealthy everyday slob.