Last night, David Letterman ended his three decade reign over late night television. His final “Late Show” episode was entirely in tune with how Letterman has conducted himself for years: self-deprecating and refreshingly unsentimental. All this month, critics and comedians alike have waxed poetic about Letterman’s legacy and how he was ground zero for a lot of comedy we take for granted today, and that didn’t change while discussing his finale. They praised the feeling of watching a man go out on top exactly the way he wants, and still to this day, refusing to conform to what’s expected of him.
Reviews of the “Late Show With David Letterman” Finale
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
Letterman’s shtick eventually grew beyond contrarian attitudes and mainstream-unfriendly conceptual humor and became something slightly more in tune with a traditional broadcast sometime after 1993, when he jumped from NBC to CBS in the aftermath of Jay Leno getting “The Tonight Show” and became, by definition, an Establishment figure. But he never entirely lost touch with that oppositional sensibility, and a big part of that was rooted in reminding the audience, regularly and in all sorts of ways, that late night’s illusion of intimacy was exactly that. The most striking moment in the farewell — for this viewer anyway — was a brief clip of the late Andy Kaufman, Letterman’s friend and one of his comic heroes, sitting on the couch during Letterman’s NBC years, with his trademark introverted-terrified blank expression, pale and greasy and wild-haired, with a crusty patch of snot under one nostril. It was with Kaufman, perhaps, that Letterman’s sympathies always lay, even when he got bigger guests and started wearing suits that cost more than everything Kaufman ever owned.
Erik Adams, The A.V. Club
Letterman is a unique talent, but he’s also part of a dying breed. “Late Night” hit the “refresh” button on TV talk shows in 1982, paving the way for the offbeat tangents of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and the genre makeover currently overseen by Jimmy Fallon, Kimmel, and Corden. With O’Brien firmly ensconced in a cable deal, Letterman was the broadcast networks’ last example of a pure talk show personality. His stunts and gimmicks didn’t involve elaborate celebrity cameos or viral-video trickery — they usually involved something lower tech than that, like a suit made out of Alka Seltzer tabs. But in his final episode, he anchored all of the proceedings on his own, with minimal help from the staff, the crew, Paul Shaffer And The CBS Orchestra, Foo Fighters, and his famous friends. The Letterman persona stood up on its own, no need to be propped up by drinking games or lip-sync battles. At times, like during the Top 10, it was as if Letterman had structured his last episode in order to entertain himself as much as the audience.
Dave Schilling, Grantland
The folksy Midwestern humility of the man wouldn’t allow for anything as hagiographic as Bette Midler singing a torch song in front of millions of viewers. The show had more in common with the farewell tour of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers shoved Kareem, their captain and championship talisman, into an oversize rocking chair — a comic, visual reminder that the clock was ticking and it was time to shuffle off the stage before the youngsters scarfed you down like a rubbery surf-and-turf at Sizzler. Leading your last show with a gag about how you’re too damn old to read your cue cards is a marvelous way to hammer home that same point. But when was Dave not the first one to make the seemingly obvious joke? That was always part of his charm. He was smarter than us, but he was still gracious enough to let us into his club by not talking down to us. If something stunk, we’d know straight from the man himself. So, when he knew he wasn’t able to keep up with Jimmy and Jimmy, he took his leave. One last time, Dave was ahead of the curve.
James Poniewozik, Time
Were his eyes a touch pink? Maybe, but his voice was steady. He seemed to feel good — in the zone — knowing, maybe, that he’d just put on a good hour of TV. His last minutes on the air were like his favorite song, “Everlong,” which the Foo Fighters played over hundreds of stills from Letterman history: emotional but driving, ever letting up, hurtling forward to the end. Until simply, steadily, honestly: “All right, that’s pretty much all I got. The only thing I have left to do, for the last time on a television program: Thank you and good night.” David Letterman, our host, our comedy uncle, our after-hours pal, delivered the laughs one more time. I would have to supply the tears myself. Sorry, Dave. I know you hate this.
Brian Lowry, Variety
Those who have visited Letterman in recent weeks have pleaded with him to stay, but it’s hard to argue that he’s leaving too soon. His exit, however, did feel like a moment of celebration as much as nostalgia, watching as good a broadcaster as the medium has produced not only do a show his way but be allowed to leave on his own timetable and terms. And while he didn’t specifically bid the audience “a very heartfelt goodnight,” as Carson did, this was one of those rare moments where the curmudgeonly late night host wore his heart on his sleeve.
Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times
He mixed jokes about his future with serious references to pivotal moments in his past. He chose as his last musical guests the Foo Fighters because the band canceled a tour in South America to play on his first show after the heart surgery. As he has on many a night, Mr. Letterman made a humorous reference to his son, Harry, imitating his voice in a squeaky falsetto. He also paid a solemn, quite personal tribute to his son and his wife, Regina, who were seated in the audience. “Thank you for being my family,” he said. “I love you both and really, nothing else matters, does it?” Mostly, though, he did what he did best: make fun of himself. “It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get the ‘Tonight Show,'” Mr. Letterman joked. Mr. Letterman defined himself as the loser in his long, bitter battle with Mr. Leno. His rival got “The Tonight Show” gig and higher ratings, but in the end, Mr. Letterman won the legacy.
Clark Collis, Entertainment Weekly
How was David Letterman’s last show? Predictably, the answer is, it was both wonderful and, for the diehard Letterman fan, pretty darned hard to watch — a mix that was established right from the very start. Watching Letterman literally sprint across the stage as the show opened, you couldn’t help but think, “It’s nice that Dave is leaving when he is still in command of all his faculties.” But you also couldn’t help but think, “If Dave is still in command of all his faculties, why the hell is the big galoot leaving at all?”
Jeremy Gerard, Deadline
The thing of it is, is this: Until the last two minutes or so — when the show suddenly built to a frenzy with a slide show that Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel could only hope to hallucinate — David Letterman’s ride into the sunset was an easygoing saunter into the gray. Absent celebrity prostration and sentimental overkill (we’d had plenty of that during the past weeks), Letterman stuck with a format that hit the familiar touchstones: a monologue, a Top 10 List and lots of banter. The mushy stuff was saved for the end, which we’ll come to. Mostly, however, it was the kind of show he’s done ever since the Monkey Cam and Stupid Pet Tricks of yesteryear were retired, which was a long time ago. Wednesday night, so long, farewell, was friendly with a dash of smirk, and it was very, very classy.
Verne Gay, Newsday
And so, 33 years are now TV history. When Johnny Carson ended his glorious three-decade marathon, he said in his waning seconds that he wished he could do it all over again, adding that he had loved every minute. He sat on a high stool, his eyes watered, his voice quavered and he said good night for the very last time. There was a fleeting moment of national mourning in that instant, or mourning for those millions who had grown up with Johnny, or fallen asleep to Johnny, the TV glowing into the night. They also knew his eldest son, Richard, had died not a year earlier in a car accident. They knew they would never see Johnny again. Somehow tears, his and theirs, seemed appropriate. Carson, for all his emotional remove and innate coolness, really was someone who knew how to add just the right touch of humanity — his own — at the exact right moment. But Letterman was, to the end, his own man. He didn’t need Carson as a guide. He only needed his own example, about how to wrap a historic run with his dignity and worldview intact while reminding viewers why they had stayed with him all these years. And that is exactly what he did.