Update, 1:10 a.m. ET:
David Letterman approached his final, hour-plus of late-night TV on Wednesday with the same self-deprecation he displayed in the previous 6,027 episodes, but leavened the snark with heaps of nostalgia and praise.
Launching with a famous clip of President Gerald Ford declaring, after the resignation of President Richard Nixon, that "our long national nightmare is over," both President Bushes and President Clinton repeated the remark before President Obama closed the sequence with "Letterman is retiring."
The veteran of 33 years of late nights, introduced as "a boy from a small town in Indiana," kept it up in his opening monologue, telling the audience, "I gotta be honest with you — it's beginning to look like I might not get The Tonight Show."
The show also included a clip in which the set of his quickly-cancelled early '80s morning show nearly caught fire, and a fake Wheel of Fortune clip in which the puzzle, "Good Riddance To David Letterman," was guessed after three letters.
But the show also featured clips from decades of Letterman's funny interactions with children and favorite past guests, such as the late actor Andy Kaufman, and a Top Ten list presented by a murderers' row of comedians — Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Tina Fey and Bill Murray — along with journalist Barbara Walters and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning (a longtime player for the Indianapolis Colts).
Letterman remembered moving into the Ed Sullivan Theater, which he said was "a huge, horrible dump ... not suitable for human habitation ... covered in rats" — before CBS fixed it up for him.
He thanked longtime network chief Les Moonves for his extraordinary patience with the show, and also his writers through the years, saying, "I've been blessed to work with people who are smarter than I am and funnier than I am."
Letterman then thanked each member of the CBS Orchestra individually before getting to Paul Shaffer, who's been with him through every episode of the show. Shaffer, he said, is "as good a friend as you can have on television, as good a friend as you can have in life, an absolute musical genius."
Letterman also offered some memories of his late mother, who was on the show several times, and thanked his wife, Regina, and son, Harry, who were sitting in the audience.
"I love you both, and nothing else matters, does it?" he said.
Before closing with a performance by the Foo Fighters — who played "Everlong," a song Letterman said helped him recover from heart surgery in 2000 — Letterman thanked the fans and said, "The only thing I have left to do, for the last time on a television program: thank you and good night."
It's last call for The Late Show. As of tonight, David Letterman's run of 33 years in the talk-show business will end, shutting down a TV show that was famously comfortable being both acerbic and goofy.
"Tomorrow is our final show," Letterman said Tuesday night. "Unless it rains. Then there'll be a rain delay, and we'll probably make it up ... in a double-header around Labor Day."
No matter the weather, that final show will air tonight on CBS at 11:30 p.m. ET. You'll also be able to catch it online. Stephen Colbert will take over Letterman's show this fall, with the first episode airing on Sept. 8.
Last week, Letterman described the end of tonight's episode in a talk with NPR's Eric Deggans: "It will be a variety of visual images, you know, in various presentation, and then just me saying thanks and good night."
Letterman is 67. He was 34 years old when he started Late Night With David Letterman on NBC back in 1982. In 1993, he moved to CBS; tonight's show will mark 6,028 episodes Letterman has hosted.
In that time, the comedian and former weatherman has talked with musicians, celebrities and presidents. And particularly in the show's early years, he staged stupid pet tricks and provided a home for oddball guests such as Brother Theodore, a performer who practiced what he called "stand-up tragedy."
Letterman and his staff also relentlessly played with both show business conventions and audience expectations, airing an episode that was dubbed by voiceover actors in 1986 and another, a rerun, that aired in Spanish, with subtitles.
When Letterman announced his retirement last December, he thanked his network, his staff, the theater crew and the viewers.
"What this means now," he told an audience that had grown quiet as Letterman announced his looming departure, "is that Paul and I can be married."
The end of The Late Show is one in a swirl of changes for late-night TV. Jon Stewart will turn over The Daily Show to Trevor Noah later this year, and Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show took Colbert's old slot at Comedy Central. Colbert signed off on his Colbert Report in December — in the same week that Craig Ferguson hosted his last episode of CBS' The Late Late Show.
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