Without tears -- as if.
Without much fuss.
Without that emotional veneer that we have come to expect -- or been conditioned to expect -- from someone who'd just ended a lifetime on TV...StoryFey, Obama, more celebrate LettermanColumnOpinion: My top 10 memories of David LettermanStoryDaily Dave: Meet LI's biggest 'Letterman' fan
Without a massive blowout... Without marching bands or fireworks or Billy Joel or presidents or...
(No wait, never mind -- there were presidents.)
Without all that, what then were we left with Wednesday night, as David Letterman closed out 33 years on late-night TV? Simple: Only one of the best editions of a late-night television show Letterman has ever hosted. He saved the best for last, really, and the best was very good indeed.
And here's the mystery of it all -- the 6,028th show was essentially like the other 6,027, with some major and obvious differences. There were no guests, while Letterman reserved the last third of his last show to thank those who made this run possible in the first place, most touchingly his wife, Regina, and son, Harry Joseph, sitting in the audience. I'll love you more than you can possibly imagine, he said to them (or words to that effect).
In that brief exchange, all that Letterman has stood for over 33 years -- the comic-ironic distancing of host from subject -- melted. The man we all knew had a heart finally revealed his heart.
Over the rest of that finale, which is just a blur now really, he took every second to thank members of a staff and crew that had pretty much dedicated their professional lives to this man. The wonder of this laundry list is that it felt -- and undoubtedly was -- sincere.
The final edition -- let's just call it the ol' 6,028th -- began with a taped cold open, Gerald Ford's official dismissal of the Watergate trauma, "our long national nightmare is over," which was then repeated by three former presidents and the current one, all referring to (what else?) Letterman's retirement.
Then the host dashed across the Sullivan stage for the last time. That sprint is his own "Carson swing," born of a mistake years ago, when a camera caught him out of position at the start of the show.
His very first joke in his very last monologue: "It's beginning to look like I'm not going to get 'The Tonight Show' now."
The problem with losing your own program? he asked. "When I screw up now, I'll have to go on someone else's show to apologize."
Paul, do you remember the hottest show on TV when we started? Paul didn't.
"Keeping Up with the Gabors."
Good joke, even if the only people who got it and who knew what a "Gabor" is were born long before Letterman's late-night run began.
When Letterman sat at his desk for the final time, he was clearly aware of the symbolism of that moment. The desk to Dave is where, in one fleeting second, he breaks character, where he has something possibly even serious to say. He said this: "I wish Stephen Colbert and his crew nothing but the greatest success." The decent and right thing to say.
He devoted something like 10 minutes to a "Kids Say the Darndest Things"-like segment, and two thoughts almost strike you forcibly, then simultaneously, while watching: Isn't this a lot of time to devote to this?...followed by, oh wait, Letterman thinks of himself as kid, and always has. What better tribute to himself than this tribute?
As Alan Kalter said for his last introduction, "A boy from a small town in Indiana, Daaaavid Letterrrrrmannnnn..." That's right: A boy from a small town in Indiana. After all these years and all this fame, that is the essential core being of Letterman, and what would be left of him if he were to somehow be reduced to an essence.
Recall that the only moment Wednesday night when he got truly excited was introducing Peyton Manning as Top Ten presenter. The smalltown Hoosier got to stand right next to the big-time hero from the big town, Indianapolis. Of course, Peyton has spent the last two seasons in Denver, but true Colts fans don't count those and never will.
The Top Ten list?
Allow me to make an aside at this juncture: On Wednesday, I mused about final guests, my own "wish list" of a spectacular lineup of glitterati who would command headlines the following day... Hillary! Leno! Someone else I'm not thinking of at the moment!
Who did Dave get instead? His steady and reliable pals -- the men and women who always returned the bookers' call, even when they didn't have a movie or show to promote.
(Sure, Dave, I can come on tonight. Sorry so-and-so canceled on you...)
They are all huge stars in their own right, from Chris Rock to Jerry Seinfeld. But they are also mostly New Yorkers, with the exceptions of Jim Carrey and Manning. Alec Baldwin did hit on a funny truth when he said in his "Top Ten Things I'd Like to Say to David Letterman:" The reason I've done the show this many times is because it is geographically close to my home.
With Jerry Seinfeld standing stoically behind her, Julia Louis-Dreyfus gave the best line of the entire night: "Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale." Cue to Seinfeld's faux-wince.
And so, 33 years are now TV history. When Johnny Carson ended his glorious three-decade marathon, he said in his waning seconds that he wished he could do it all over again, adding that he had loved every minute. He sat on a high stool, his eyes watered, his voice quavered and he said good night for the very last time. There was a fleeting moment of national mourning in that instant, or mourning for those millions who had grown up with Johnny, or fallen asleep to Johnny, the TV glowing into the night. They also knew his eldest son, Richard, had died not a year earlier in a car accident. They knew they would never see Johnny again. Somehow tears, his and theirs, seemed appropriate. Carson, for all his emotional remove and innate coolness, really was someone who knew how to add just the right touch of humanity -- his own -- at the exact right moment.
But Letterman was, to the end, his own man. He didn't need Carson as a guide. He only needed his own example, about how to wrap a historic run with his dignity and worldview intact while reminding viewers why they had stayed with him all these years.
And that is exactly what he did.