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Last Days Of Dave: Paying Homage To Letterman's Weird And Quirky Legacy


This is FRESH AIR. David Letterman is retiring May 20 after 33 years as a TV late-night talk show host. CBS presents a retrospective special tonight in primetime. And during his final month, friends of "The Late Show With David Letterman," including President Barack Obama in an appearance scheduled for tonight, have been dropping by to show their appreciation. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, would like to add his.


STEVE MARTIN: When I heard you announce that you were retiring, I really thought, he's joking. He's got to be joking.


MARTIN: And then I remembered - wait, you're not funny.


DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: David Letterman's first talk show was way back in 1980, a daytime show that lasted only a few months. It was weird and quirky and very creative, but it ended quickly. Letterman's career, however, did not. His next show, the long-running "Late Night With David Letterman" followed Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" on NBC. And Letterman followed that with the even-longer running "Late Show With David Letterman" on CBS, a show that ends later this month. A new CBS primetime special tonight honors Letterman's long, important contribution to television, which, even if you exclude his daytime run, covers a full third of a century sitting behind a talk-show desk. That's three years more than Carson himself.

TV was different then, and so was Carson. To stand-up comics, being on Carson - that was how you referred to it, not as "The Tonight Show" - meant you were launched. You were for real. With Letterman and with every talk show host since, it's been less like being anointed by the king than hanging out with a friend. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been fun clever and that both his frequent guests and his loyal viewers are sorry to see him go.

Already this TV season, we've said goodbye to Steven Colbert on "The Colbert Report," but he'll be taking Letterman's place this fall. In a few weeks, Letterman calls it quits. And in a few months, we'll say goodbye to Jon Stewart, who's also stepping away after a long tenure on "The Daily Show." Stewart and Letterman have one other thing in common. Before their respective late-night successes, both of them headlined less-popular talk shows. Stewart's was on MTV from 1993 to 1995, and after his show was canceled, the guest who showed up on the final night to offer moral support was David Letterman, a few years after he had shifted from NBC to CBS.


LETTERMAN: Let me just say one thing. You're a smart man. You understand that the people who watch this show are smart. The folks here in the studio audience are - well...


LETTERMAN: Cancellation - and I'm going to tell you something you know. Cancellation should not be confused with failure.




STEWART: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

BIANCULLI: Both Letterman's "Late Show" and Stewart's "The Daily Show" should be mandatory nightly viewing these days because the countdown is ticking. The hosts are even looser. And the guests are appropriately bringing their A-game. Even Jerry Seinfeld, who dusted off some old material, wasn't doing it to be lazy.


JERRY SEINFELD: I'm wearing contact lenses now. I got glasses when I was 10 years old. When you're 10, people put things on your face, you just leave it there.


SEINFELD: But I thought I was getting glasses 'cause I couldn't tell what my parents looked like. Whenever I'd ask my mother for money, she'd say, what do I look like, a bank?


BIANCULLI: When Seinfeld finished and walked over to the desk, Letterman revealed a feeling of deja vu from 1982.


LETTERMAN: Halfway through the set, I realized that that was from the old show - not just the old show, but the first time you were on the old show.

SEINFELD: It was the very first time I was ever on Dave's show.

LETTERMAN: Doing stand-up.

SEINFELD: That was the...

LETTERMAN: That was the material.



SEINFELD: But that's my tribute to you...

LETTERMAN: Thank you very much.

SEINFELD: ...And for our 33-year relationship that you have been...

LETTERMAN: I appreciate that. I appreciate the relationship, but let's talk a little bit more about that.


LETTERMAN: That stuff is as fresh - I mean, who would've thought...

SEINFELD: No, it's not.

LETTERMAN: Oh, are you kidding me?


SEINFELD: It's not. It's not.

LETTERMAN: I mean, you had things there that are still universal.


BIANCULLI: It was a nice tribute, almost as nice as the night Johnny Carson died, when Letterman's entire monologue that night was made up of jokes Johnny, his idol, had submitted to him secretly over the years since retiring. After Letterman's monologue, Letterman let his audience in on the joke - on Carson's jokes - but not before letting them stand on their own.


LETTERMAN: This is kind of exciting. These guys have built this rocket ship, and they're sending people into outer space. It's unbelievable. They went up, and they set new records - new altitude records for a civilian spacecraft - 50 miles into space - 50. And from that height - you know this, probably - there are two things - two man-made things that are visible from 50 miles up. One, of course, is the Great Wall of China and the other, Donald Trump's hair.


LETTERMAN: That's right.


LETTERMAN: Two things. Ladies and gentlemen, here's Paul Shaffer.


BIANCULLI: And while Letterman told Seinfeld that his own old routines wouldn't stand a chance of holding up after all these years, I couldn't disagree more. I still remember the first time David Letterman showed up on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" to make a few jokes about his dog. What I loved and still admire, in addition to the punch lines themselves, is how Letterman, even then, had the confidence to let the laughs build.


LETTERMAN: I have a dog, a lovely animal. It's a Belgian airhead - beautiful animal and...


LETTERMAN: ...Smart as a whip too. I'm feeding him that dog food. It's all - it's numbered. I'm not sure what it is, but they got it for everything - one for the puppy, two for the middle dog. They have three for the gay dog, four for the - whatever on up.


LETTERMAN: The side - I'm looking at this can, and it says on there, for the dog that suffers constipation.


LETTERMAN: You know, the way I look at it, if your dog is constipated, why screw up a good thing?


LETTERMAN: So sleep in in the morning. Let him bloat. What do you care?


LETTERMAN: So I'm in - I'm buying the animal - the dog food, and there's this one - I'm not sure the brand, but it says, all beef, not a speck of cereal. Not a speck of cereal - that's a point of pride - there's not a speck of cereal. My dog spends his day rooting through garbage and drinking out of the toilet.


LETTERMAN: Chances are, he's not going to mind a speck of cereal, you know?


BIANCULLI: There will never be another Johnny Carson with a hugely influential TV show to make stars of comics like David Letterman. But there will never be another David Letterman either. His sense of humor and his sense of anarchy provided a new blueprint for the TV talk show. So enjoy him while you still can, and be grateful you were entertained by him after he retires. And I wonder, in the future, which talk show host he'll be slipping jokes to.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. David Letterman's last late-night show is May 20. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, amazing things about pigs.

BARRY ESTABROOK: These animals can run 30 miles an hour, jump 3 feet high, smell a morsel of food 7 miles away.

DAVIES: Writer Barry Estabrook also talks to us about the impact of modern industrial pig farming on the animals and the rest of us. His new book is "Pig Tales." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.