By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
All things change, and everything ends, and after Wednesday we will no longer be living in a world in which David Letterman is on television five nights a week.
The alarm is about to ring on the clock Letterman set ticking just over a year ago, when, nine days shy of his 67th birthday, with a long preamble about trying to identify an eagle, he announced his retirement from CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman.
“You can’t help but think about the passage of time,” he said then. “It happens to all of us; it’s the way of life.”
After 33 years, he will go out as the longest-serving host in late-night TV — outdistancing his mentor Johnny Carson by two years — a record that will not be challenged any time soon, if ever. Try to imagine Jimmy Fallon doing The Tonight Show at 68, and you will fail. (Jimmy Kimmel I can see hanging on, maybe.)
Although the shadow of his leaving has stretched across the year, over the last few weeks things have become positively valedictory as guests arrive for what most can’t help but mentioning will be their last visit to Letterman.
Tears have been demurely shed. In a monthlong receiving line, respect is being paid — by the president and the first lady, by Howard Stern and Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts, Steve Martin and Martin Short. Some come with songs, some with pictures. Everyone has a story about what Dave has meant to them, to comedy, to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Tina Fey, in honor of “my last time wearing a fancy dress on a talk show and conforming to gender norms out of respect” for Letterman, gave him the dress off her back.
Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s band-leading sidekick since night one, plays them on and plays them off. (He too is on the way out.) The host more or less accepts these tributes — he lets them proceed, anyway — before falling back to a familiar stance of self-deprecation: “This is like buying produce off a prison truck” is how he described his show to Amy Schumer. (“I don’t know if you excel at metaphors anymore, Dave,” said Schumer.)
Letterman was in his early 30s when he set off along this road, which led from a short-lived daytime show on NBC in 1980, to Late Night With David Letterman on the same network in 1982, to his present and soon-to-be former post, taken up in 1993. That he wound up on CBS instead of hosting The Tonight Show is the stuff of television legend, a whole book, a TV movie based on the book, and jokes made by Letterman at Jay Leno’s expense, every so often, ever since.