Letterman retired from late-night TV Wednesday with a special full of A-list friends, vintage clips and heartfelt thanks

Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS

David Letterman made America laugh for 33 years as a late-night host, but the real challenge as he closed out his legendary tenure on Wednesday night was holding back a tear or two.

Letterman, 68, bid his final “Thank you and good night” to viewers after nearly 22 years behind the desk of CBS’s Late Show. The 16-time Emmy winner’s final show after 6,028 broadcasts was a star-studded extravaganza that still managed to be touching – after all, Letterman has seen incredible highs and lows during the decades that have cemented his reputation as a late-night pioneer.

And so, in homage to the man who made Top 10 lists a thing, here’s one more for Dave himself.

10. Letterman’s Opener and Entrance

Letterman began the show as he has for decades, running back and forth across the Late Show stage like a maniac. Before that, at the very top of the hour, a video package featured four of five remaining living presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama) and even Gerald Ford (via archival footage), who coined the phrase, “Our long national nightmare is over.” In this opener, Letterman was that nightmare. Yet, even as the wry humor set the tone for the night, announcer Alan Kalter introduced the host’s final strides onto the national stage by evoking his Midwestern roots: “And now a boy from small-town Indiana, David Letterman!” Of course Letterman was met by thunderous applause and chants of “Dave! Dave! Dave! Dave!” from the audience – such an extended period of applause that he teased the audience, “Now what happens is, we don’t have time for the giving-gifts-to-the-audience segment.”

9. Pop Culture Saturation and a Nostalgic Treasure Trove

In addition to POTUSes 41-44, Letterman was honored with customized The Simpsons and Wheel of Fortune segments – and that was before the first commercial break. As an Internet full of social-media tributes can attest, Letterman has the utmost respect of his peers. And why? See: Clips spanning back to Letterman’s best vintage bits that showed what a remarkable impact he had on the talk-show format. From dangerous science experiments on live(-ish) TV to introducing comic vanguards including Andy Kaufman to Stupid Pet Tricks … you name it, Letterman did it – in 1980. As James Corden said in a tribute on the Late Late Show, “Letterman basically invented YouTube. Someone somewhere owes him, like, $40 billion.”

8. A Timeless Bromance with Paul Shaffer

Other late-night hosts and their band leaders might have great chemistry, but none have the time-tested, finish-each-other’s-sentences rapport that Letterman and Shaffer, 65, share. They’ve been together since Letterman took the night shift more than 30 years ago, and the host referred to his maestro as “My good, good friend – as good a friend as you can have on television, as good a friend as you can have in life, absolutely a musical genius.” Letterman even played one throwback clip that Shaffer called his “favorite moment of the whole show.” Now be honest: When Dave said that he and Paul would be debuting their new white-tiger act in Vegas next month, you hoped he wasn’t joking, didn’t you?

7. Off-the-Cuff Cracks

All due respect to his writing team, of course, but Letterman’s stand-up origins meant he never really needed a script to bring down the house. During an all-star Top 10 List (more on that in a minute), he ribbed a tuxedoed Jerry Seinfeld: “I think Jerry may have a benefit later.” And when the show’s first and final guest Bill Murray made a surprise return, Letterman couldn’t help but poke fun at his longtime friend’s odd showing on MSNBC after Tuesday’s Late Show appearance, bantering, “I saw you on TV last night – are you all right?”

6. War Stories

For all his sarcasm, Letterman couldn’t conceal a certain warmth regarding the journey that brought him to Wednesday night. Toward the end of the hour, he recounted the shabby state of the Ed Sullivan Theater when he decided to take the CBS gig (“the rats had stooped shoulders”). Still, over time he said, “We’ve come to call this home each and every day – and love it more and more.” It’s a real balancing act to be acerbic and affectionate at the same time, and Letterman’s recollections throughout his final episode struck that balance.

5. Trademark Self-Deprecation

“Half of the people said, ‘That show doesn’t have a chance,’ ” Letterman quipped of his move to CBS in the monologue. “On the other hand, the other half said, ‘That show doesn’t have a prayer.’ ” The host unsurprisingly got in plenty of gags about his long-in-the-tooth status, claiming Keeping Up with the Gabors was “the hottest program on television” when Late Show kicked off. Sending up newsmaker Elién Gonzélez, the 21-year-old Cuban whose last experience being in the headlines happened during Late Show’s early days: “Yesterday, he announced that he wants to come back to America. Now my question to you is, Should I take this personally?” Letterman also dinged himself with this chestnut: “Earlier today, we got a call from Stephen Hawking, and he, bless his heart, had done the math because he’s a genius and stuff. It works out to about 8 minutes of laughter.” And, of course, all these years later, he couldn’t resist an age-old dig for his second joke: “I’ll be honest with you, it’s beginning to look like I’m not gonna get the Tonight Show.”

4. Gleeful Trolling

Letterman was always his best at his most impish, which is why his final show was driven not by celebrity, but by clips showing him messing with adults and children alike. One famous segment from June 17, 1996, saw him harassing Taco Bell customers from a drive-through window, frustrating them with inappropriate demands and off-color comments (“If you’re Mexican, the meal’s half off”). In another segment showing a supposed affinity children have for Letterman, he played (harmless) mind games with youngsters – but the real payoff came when one of the kids, whose Christmas carol singing was ruined by the old fuddy-duddy, changed up the words to “Jingle Bells” to “You are not fun-ny!” And that’s exactly what Letterman wanted. He didn’t harass people for sport – he wanted to get an honest, authentic and more-often-than-not hilarious reaction.

3. One Last Top 10 List

A select, very impressive group of Letterman’s friends – Murray, Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning and Tina Feyshowed up to roast the host with one last Top 10 List: “Top 10 Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave.” As ever, Louis-Dreyfus stole the bit by zinging both Letterman and one of his guests (her former Seinfeld costar): “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.”

2. The Foo Fighters Play Dave Out

Of course, Letterman’s finale wasn’t disappointing – certainly not during the closing performance by one of Letterman’s favorite bands, whom he credited with getting him through a health crisis 15 years ago when he had to have open heart surgery. He tapped the Foo Fighters as the first performers when he returned from medical leave, and he asked them to make another appearance on his final Late Show. He chose their song “Everlong,” which he explained had personal significance to him as he recovered. During the performance, clips and still photos of his best moments from his 33 years played, showing the span of his reach and the heights of buzziest moments (Madonna‘s F-bombs, Drew Barrymore‘s flashing, Farrah Fawcett‘s loopy interview, Jennifer Lawrence snuggling up the quilt, to name a few). All the while, frontman Dave Grohl sang poignant words: “And I wonder / When I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything could ever be this good again.” The montage ended with a sequence of Letterman’s most literally explosive segments that segued into fireworks bursting from the Ed Sullivan Theater. Cut to a quietly hilarious moment with an average woman saying to Dave, “They’re not gonna put this on CBS, I’m sure.” Oh, but they did.

1. Sheer Gratitude

The hashtag #ThanksDave trended all day, but it was Letterman who was clearly thankful at the end of his run. Cutting candor with quips, Letterman took several moments throughout the finale to express his earnest appreciation for fans, family and colleagues. During an expansive thank-you speech in the final segment, he went down a very thorough, thoughtful list. Beaming with pride, he introduced his wife Regina Lasko and their 11-year-old son Harry. He also praised his work family, naming every department and level of colleague. He said at one point, “It’s so obvious again tonight, and every night, that they are so much better at their job than I am,” then added, “I have been blessed and lucky to work with men and women who are smarter than I am and funnier than I am.” As for the fans, he told them, “There’s nothing I can ever do to repay you. Thank you for everything, you’ve given me everything, and thank you again.”

Though of course, Letterman did have a little request-slash-caveat regarding the “over-the-top” praise since he announced his his retirement: “I can’t tell you how flattering, embarrassing and gratifying it has all been. … In light of all this praise, merited or not, do me a favor – save a little for my funeral.”

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