David Letterman wrapped up his final show early today, ending a 33-year run that made him a fixture of the midnight and the wee hours. He leaves as the longest-serving late-night talk show host in television history.
For younger views, Letterman, 68, had been there all their lives with his big, toothy grin and a sense of humor that careened from Candid Camera-style wackiness to quick and sometimes biting wit. As a host and a comedian, Letterman had the split quality of seeming at once shy and goofy, both valedictorian and class clown, Dick Cavett and Soupy Sales.
Those paradoxical qualities showed his amazing range, but he had fine gradations in between, a little serious, a little silly. Within that range, he fitted himself to the quirks, personalities and backgrounds of his guests. He could draw out the sad and the hilarious. His producers gave him notes to guide conversations, but he rarely stuck with them. He understood that a late night show’s success wasn’t so much about humor as spontaneity.
Letterman was also known for somber and serious moments. He underwent extensive heart surgery in 2000. When he returned to the stage, he said he been changed while away by a quintuple bypass “and I got a haircut.” He gave a moving talk from his desk on stage after his New York-based show resumed following a pause after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said, “ We’ve lost 5,000 New Yorkers, and you can feel it. You can feel it, and you can see it. It’s terribly sad.”
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Faced with extortion, Letterman disclosed during a 2009 show that he had had sexual relationships with women who worked for him. He told his audience that he was feeling rightly ostracized for abusing his position. “I got into the car this morning,” he said, “and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me. Ouch.”
Ratings for Letterman’s CBS show trailed those of his NBC late-night rival Jay Leno and Leno’s successor, Jimmy Fallon, but he found and kept his audience by staying who he was and doing what he wanted. He wasn’t for everyone, but he appealed to those who liked their humor blended with intelligence and curiosity and an occasional dose of indignation over the phony or unfair.
USA Today TV writer Donna Freydkin said Letterman’s “combination of the absurd and the edgy – owned late night, if not in popularity then in cultural impact.”
Letterman joked that he knew when it would be time to quit. He said, “When this show stops being fun, I will retire – 10 years later.”
It was fun right to the end.