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Everything that happened on David Letterman's last Late Show ever

David Letterman's final late-night talk show was surprisingly sincere and sentimental.
David Letterman's final late-night talk show was surprisingly sincere and sentimental.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you expected David Letterman's final outing as the host of a late-night talk show to be a sarcastic rip on the whole idea of series finales or an ironic deconstruction of their spectacle, you might have been disappointed in the host's last-ever Late Show, which aired Wednesday, May 20, 2015, on CBS.

The episode — which ran nearly an hour and 20 minutes — was a sentimental gush, a walk down memory lane that saw Letterman replaying some of his favorite clips and enjoying one last visit from the Foo Fighters, one of his favorite bands.

But in this era of over-the-top series finales, it was nice to see something so low-key and relatively humble. Key to Letterman's appeal has always been the idea that he's just a small-town kid who somehow ended up with a big-time TV show. That came through loud and clear in the last Late Show ever.

All the star power was concentrated in the Top 10 List

Letterman took a page from the playbook of his mentor, Johnny Carson. In 1992, Carson ended his 30-year run on the The Tonight Show with an episode where he sat on stage and reminisced about his favorite moments on the show over the years:

Letterman didn't go that far. His final installment had most of the trappings of a typical Late Show episode. He came out and did one last monologue. The band played him over to his desk. There was a musical guest at the end.

But for the most part, Letterman spent his series finale introducing clips packages and old gags he particularly enjoyed. He hauled out the tape of him working at a Taco Bell for what felt like the 50th time. (I don't think I've watched a Late Show retrospective that didn't feature Letterman dusting off this particular reel.) He played highlights of him goofing around with small children throughout the years. He aired behind-the-scenes footage of a day in the life of the show.

As such, the episode featured no marquee guests, the one thing it had in common with Carson's sendoff. (Like Carson, Letterman welcomed his final visitors — Tom Hanks and Bill Murray — in the shows leading up to the finale.) The star power, then, was reserved for the Top 10 List, which featured some of Dave's favorite stars coming out to say the things they'd always wished they could say to him.

It was a fond and funny farewell; you can watch it here.

The most moving part was the Foo Fighters

Before introducing one last musical guest, Letterman ran through a long list of all of the people who had made his Late Show what it was, right down to the friend his son brought to the taping. There was a real warmth and sincerity to this moment, but it wasn't a particularly tearful segment.

It was, however, an appropriate lead-in to Letterman's introduction of the Foo Fighters, performing their hit "Everlong," a song that Letterman has frequently credited with helping him get through his recovery from heart surgery. Indeed, it was the first musical number performed on his first show back from his medical leave in 2000.

Instead of focusing on the band performing the song, however, the Late Show used their performance as the soundtrack for a lengthy clip reel of Letterman's entire history in late-night television — all the way back to his NBC days. Some of that footage hadn't aired legally in many, many years, but here it was, attempting to solidify and encapsulate Letterman's legacy.

And it mostly did so. As the song continued, the footage transitioned into the CBS years, featuring favorite guests of Letterman's who've passed away over his 33 years on the air, from bit player Calvert DeForest to the legendary Robin Williams. It was a stirring, memorable sendoff — one that, if nothing else, reminded you that, holy shit, David Letterman has been part of the late-night landscape for 33 years.

You can watch it below:

This was a great way to cement Letterman's legacy

One of the most common refrains I've seen on social media recently is that Letterman isn't as relevant in 2015 as he was in even 2005, to say nothing of 1995 or 1985.

There's some truth to this. The kind of anti-comedy that Letterman pioneered — in which he did dumb stuff and hoped that the fact that he was getting paid to do it on television would provide all the humor — is now so ubiquitous that it almost seems as if the man who popularized it has lost a step. Letterman has also shifted from the wackier experimentation of his first two decades on the air toward the sort of topical and political humor that he generally avoided back then. That has made his show feel ever-so-slightly safer.

But the final Late Show seemed wholly dedicated to reminding you of both how long Letterman had been on the air and how bracing a presence he was in his NBC days and roughly the first 10 years of his CBS tenure. He even played long-lost footage from the days when he hosted a morning show for NBC, long before he wound up in late-night. You can make a real argument that he completely and utterly changed television, and if he didn't want to make that argument himself, he was content to let the footage do it for him.

Letterman blew up what we thought late-night television could be. He tore down the hierarchy of stardom as it existed on TV, and he replaced it with a wink and an irony-drenched chuckle. He eventually gave way to the hugely topical Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and now the celebrity-obsessed Jimmy Fallon. But he created a new way of looking at late-night TV, and maybe even TV in general — with less of a focus on fueling the celebrity-delivery mechanism and more on building a gigantic, wacky playground.

How can I watch the episode if I missed it?

It's available on CBS's website.