As I begin writing this I'm watching David Letterman, in one of his final appearances as host of “The Late Show,” walk out to greet the audience as he's done thousands of times. He's talking about the weather in New York, again, as he's done countless times. After Wednesday, he'll never walk out onto that Ed Sullivan Theater stage and shoot the breeze about the weather again. He'll never again throw it to Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra to kick off the show. The misfits, alas, will have lost their shepherd.
Because at his core, that's who Letterman is and has been. He has represented the off-brand sensibilities of an audience allergic to the vanilla stylings of his cool kid contemporaries. He has been the kind of personality who could give us Stupid Pet Tricks and turn throwing a football at a meatball-topped Christmas tree into an annual tradition. If anyone, Conan O'Brien was to take up the baton and bear that standard in Letterman's wake. But shelved away on TBS, forever changed by his own late night network political turmoil, he doesn't quite have the stride he once did and might not even be much longer for this landscape himself. When Letterman signs off for the last time, there will simply be no more options for the late night dissidents.
I know my bedtime is about to get a little earlier, anyway. I know the Jimmys aren't really for me, Fallon towing the safest of lines on NBC's flagship “Tonight Show,” Kimmel obsessed with going viral on ABC's “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Seth Myers is just the steward of the “Late Night” brand Letterman started, a shell of what it once was, while “The Late Late Show's” James Corden really just seems like he's trying to keep up. And I'm no old fogey. It's just that the landscape isn't one I quite want to traverse anymore. I'm a guy who tucked himself in watching Letterman growing up and and then drifted off to sleep to the sounds of Tom Snyder interviews. I think Stephen Colbert will be a wonderful and, above all, smart addition to this flock, but an era, to say the absolute least, is ending.
Or maybe it ended long ago, and the king of late night has finally realized it.
I loved Letterman because he was that showman for the weirdos without begging for the adulation. He never tried so hard that the strain showed, though he certainly put himself through his share of creative torture along the way, striving to produce memorable television night after night. He wasn't our monkey out on that stage. He had our number. He had a collected, sly intelligence woven throughout his work, and he defined comedy for a generation with that assurance.
The final stretch has been memorable but classy, the requisite parade of reverence organic and familial. Favorites like Bill Murray, Jack Hanna, Julia Roberts and Howard Stern have stopped by once last time. I've watched Ray Romano and Norm Macdonald get very emotional, unable even through laughs to contain the deep admiration for the man who inspired them so. And the musical performances have been a wonderful trip down memory lane for 90s kids: Dave Matthews Band, Eddie Vedder popping guitar strings – yeah, even Hootie and the Blowfish.
But the keel has remained even, Letterman's usual business consistently of a piece. I've delighted in his skewering of presidential candidate Jeb Bush's mind-bogglingly regressive positions, and the glimmer in his eye as he's needled Tom Brady and the New England Patriots over Deflategate. It's been a welcome magic trick, keeping us from fully realizing that it's all almost over.
I'm going to miss it, and him, so much. I'm going to miss the little things he would seize upon in an interview and find so personally hilarious. I'm going to miss Will Lee's perfectly placed bass drop “rimshots.” I'm going to miss Darlene Love's annual rendition of the greatest Christmas song of all time, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and Jay Thomas zipping that pigskin at the meatball. And I'm going to miss that horn outro sharply cut off by one of announcer Alan Kalter's many ridiculous Worldwide Pants taglines. But I'll have the memories from my couch, and moreover, from my seat in the studio audience.
Indeed, I've seen “The Late Show” live twice, and I relished the little hoops you had to jump through to get there. In order to get tickets, you would have to humor a phone call asking you to answer a bit of Letterman trivia. (Nothing terribly difficult. What color is Kalter's hair, for instance.) When you'd arrive at the theater, the secret – if you wanted to sit close – was to be outwardly excited in front of the team assembling the audience. Letterman liked to have that energy up front. My wife and I pulled it off in December of 2009 and we landed on the front row! It was a pity that we missed the annual Darlene Love/Jay Thomas Christmas special by a day, but who can complain? When Letterman grabbed a handful of the faux presents sitting underneath that meatball-and-pizza-topped tree and tossed them into the crowd, one landed in my hands. I of course have it still.
I went again with a friend three years later and the two of us together, low-key blokes, well, we apparently didn't have the requisite energy. So we ended up in the back of the balcony. But so what? Even with stage lights blocking the view in that freezing cold studio space, it was a delight. We grabbed a sandwich at Rupert Jee's Hello Deli for old time's sake. Because you gotta.
I don't know what Letterman will do in his career after this chapter closes, but I have to assume he won't stay away from the fray for long. A podcast or something seems like the kind of low-pressure pursuit he'd be interested in. I hope he's back sooner than later. Whatever respite he takes with his family, he's certainly earned it. But more importantly, what he and Paul and the family of crew members he's so wonderfully focused on in the final stretch created in that historic space between 54th and 53rd on Broadway in the greatest city on earth (and pioneered for over a decade a few blocks over in 30 Rock's Studio 6A prior to that), it belongs to the ages. It belongs to us. It transcends. And I don't even care how corny that sounds.
Thank you, David Letterman. You did Johnny proud.