“You know what I’m going to devote the rest of my life to?” David Letterman said on his last night as the host of the “Late Show” on CBS. “Social media.”
Mr. Letterman ended his 33-year career in late-night on Wednesday as he had started it — with the irreverence, self-mockery and mischief that made him such an iconoclastic talk-show host.
His farewell was much better than the usual mawkish television send-off: He mixed favorite segments like his Top 10 list with clips of classic skits and a few restrained fillips of sincerity and humility. His final show was not at all like the Pharaonic and mushy last bow Johnny Carson took when he left “The Tonight Show” in 1992. As could be expected, it was a bracing antidote to the weepy extravaganza that ushered his rival Jay Leno into retirement last year.
Mr. Letterman’s retirement has gotten an extraordinary amount of focus — a frenzied outpouring of fan devotion, celebrity tributes and nonstop media attention — perhaps because he was so important to the last generation of viewers who grew up watching shows on a television set, and not on a smartphone.
Mr. Letterman’s crack about younger performers who use Twitter and Facebook was a shout-out to the talk-show host’s core audience, the late-night viewers who decades ago defined themselves as the insurgents who preferred Mr. Letterman to Mr. Leno.
All Mr. Letterman had to say was the date, June 17, 1996, and the studio audience began laughing appreciatively. He then showed a clip of one of his more famous pranks when he posed as a server at a drive-through Taco Bell and tormented customers with terrible service.
The clips of his absurdist gags, riffs on conventional television comedy, were fun, but they were also a reminder of how inventive and seditious Mr. Letterman was in his heyday, and how much his successors in today’s late-night constellation owe him. One acolyte, Jimmy Kimmel, the host of his own late-night talk show on ABC, was so worshipful he ran a rerun on Wednesday so as to not pull focus from Mr. Letterman.
On his show, Mr. Letterman demanded a lighter touch. In the Top 10 list, “Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a “Seinfeld” alumna, said, “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.”
Mr. Letterman joined CBS in 1993, a year after HBO introduced “The Larry Sanders Show,” a behind-the-scenes parody of “The Tonight Show” that starred Garry Shandling as an insecure, self-absorbed talk-show host.
But Mr. Letterman’s onstage persona, as host of “Late Night” at NBC, and later at CBS, was a one-man sendup of the talk-show genre. Even after more than 30 years, Mr. Letterman never lost his arch, ironic self-awareness; he did not sink into the easy, quid pro quo conventions of late-night talk shows, but kept defying them.
Over the last few weeks, a parade of celebrity guests including Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and George Clooney have paid their respects to Mr. Letterman. On Wednesday, he described all the encomiums as “over-the-top” and said he found it “flattering, embarrassing and gratifying.”
Mixed feelings make sense in a comedian who was always paradoxical — a winning, witty and supremely confident performer who offstage was practically a hermit and riven by self-doubt.
Fans are devoted to Mr. Letterman in part because they know his psyche so well: He is an intensely private celebrity who kept processing his personal life in front of the camera. He helped the nation heal after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by movingly expressing his feelings of sadness and helplessness. He brought his medical team onto his show after his 2000 quintuple bypass, and he even described his affairs with women in his office as “creepy” in an unnerving mea culpa in 2009.
On Wednesday, Mr. Letterman said that one of the worst things about retiring was that, as he put it: “When I screw up now, and Lord knows I’ll be screwing up, I have to go on somebody else’s show to apologize.”
He mixed jokes about his future with serious references to pivotal moments in his past. He chose as his last musical guests the Foo Fighters because the band canceled a tour in South America to play on his first show after the heart surgery.
As he has on many a night, Mr. Letterman made a humorous reference to his son, Harry, imitating his voice in a squeaky falsetto. He also paid a solemn, quite personal tribute to his son and his wife, Regina, who were seated in the audience.
“Thank you for being my family,” he said. “I love you both and really, nothing else matters, does it?”
Mostly, though, he did what he did best: make fun of himself. “It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get the ‘Tonight Show,’ ” Mr. Letterman joked.
Mr. Letterman defined himself as the loser in his long, bitter battle with Mr. Leno. His rival got “The Tonight Show” gig and higher ratings, but in the end, Mr. Letterman won the legacy.
他的告别节目比通常自作多情的电视送别好得多：他在节目中穿插了最受喜爱的部分，例如他的10大名单，包括经典小品片段，以及几个有诚意、谦逊的、有克制的时刻。他在最后的节目里一点也不像约翰尼·卡森(Johnny Carson)1992年最后一次主持《今夜秀》时那样以法老自居、且多愁善感。正如所预想的，最后一集《深夜秀》是去年送别他的对手杰·雷诺(Jay Leno)退休时，那种伤感而又铺张华丽表演的清新宜人的解药。
莱特曼于1993年加盟CBS，一年后，HBO推出了《拉里·桑德斯秀》(The Larry Sanders Show)，那是对《 今夜秀》幕后情节的滑稽模仿剧，由加里·赡德令(Garry Shandling)扮演缺乏信心、又自我陶醉的脱口秀主持人。
在过去的几个周中，包括汤姆·汉克斯(Tom Hanks)、朱莉娅·罗伯茨(Julia Roberts)和乔治·克鲁尼(George Clooney)在内的名人嘉宾纷纷对莱特曼表示敬意。周三，他把所有这些颂辞描述为“过头了”，并说他觉得那些话“令人荣幸、尴尬、满足。”