Last night I watched the finale of The Late Show With David Letterman. I have been a fan since 1980 when I was one of the (apparently) few people who witnessed his morning talk show on NBC. I was living in Florida, staying temporarily in my great-uncle’s double-wide mobile home in Pompano Beach until I found my own place. As the “new kid in town,” I didn’t know too many people, and pretty much my only source of entertainment was my trusty little black and white portable television, with the funky whip antenna that had to be positioned just right to get a clear picture.
I had a night shift job at a convenience store called Majic Market, so my mornings were free to just relax. One morning I discovered this goofy gap-toothed guy with a pronounced mid-western accent doing a sort of talk/variety show. It was The David Letterman Show and it was his first attempt at network television. It was definitely not your typical daytime talk show, which in those days was sort of defined by the likes of The Merv Griffin Show and The Mike Douglas Show—super tame (or is it lame?) and targeted to the blue-haired adult demographic. Letterman was young and edgy (as they say) and dared to go beyond the accepted boundaries of daytime television with gags and stunts you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And sometimes the “guests” were actually part of the show’s writing staff who appeared as characters. I particularly remember Edie McClurg, a wonderful character actor who would appear regularly as Mrs. Marv Mendenhall, giving “updates” on the most mundane topics. She was hilarious and underappreciated, in my book.
But I’m way off the subject I came here to write about, which was finales.
The Late Show With David Letterman finale was a memorable one, but it was just one of many that come to mind. After all, I already saw Letterman do a “final show” when he ended Late Night with David Letterman in the messy aftermath of an NBC contract dispute. The network had held out The Tonight Show as sort a carrot-on-a-stick to him for years, and there seemed to be no one better suited to replace Carson than Letterman. Even Carson thought so. But instead, NBC gave The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, and Letterman packed his bags for the more welcoming CBS. If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating book on the subject called The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night.
In thinking back on these “final shows” I recall a number of other memorable finales that were momentous in their own right. These include, not in chronological order:
- The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson—I grew up watching Carson almost every night, even when I was far too young to be up that late. I shed a tear when he did his finale.
- Late Night with David Letterman—As mentioned above.
- The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—I have to confess I wasn’t a big Leno fan, partly because I thought Letterman should have originally gotten The Tonight Show instead of him, and partly because his show, in my opinion, just wasn’t very funny. I wasn’t alone. Leno drew lots of criticism from other comedians who said he had lost his edge and his comedy was lazy. It wasn’t until 2014, when Leno was a guest on Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show that he showed what he was capable of. He was extremely funny—because he didn’t have to be “The Tonight Show Guy” anymore and could do and say what he wanted.
- Late Night with Conan O’Brien—The relatively unknown ex-Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer replaced Letterman, and after a rather shaky start, built a popular show. He couldn’t know what was in store when he was later named Leno’s successor on The Tonight Show. Ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon took over the Late Night desk, from O’Brien, until opportunity came a-knockin’.
- The Tonight Show Starring Conan O’Brien—Conan got one of the rawest deals in television history when NBC didn’t give him the time needed for his unique brand of humor to catch on with a Tonight Show audience that was conditioned by Leno. Leno weaseled his way back behind the Tonight Show desk after the spectacular failure of his Jay Leno Show at 10p.m. that lasted less than 5 months. Conan would get his own show on the TBS network, but more important, he got the time to build his audience.
- The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—Again. Finally. Jimmy Fallon is off to a good start as the newest host.
- The Colbert Report—As Stephen Colbert prepares to take over Letterman’s seat on The Late Show (isn’t it funny that so many of these events involve two programs?), I am reminded that it will also soon be time to witness another finale: the end of Jon Stewart’s version of The Daily Show.
- M*A*S*H—At one time the final show held the record for largest viewing audience.
- The Mary Tyler Moore Show—The last scene where she turned off the light in the WJM newsroom was very touching.
- Newhart—With possibly the best last scene in the history of television.
- Cheers—A long drawn-out affair but still good.
- Roseanne—One of the stranger finales. I had lost touch with the show for several seasons, so the ending, in which Roseanne revealed that the events of previous eight seasons had been part of a story she was writing or something, came out of left field for me.
- Seinfeld—I wasn’t a real fan of the show. In fact I’d only seen a handful of episodes. But it was a much-hyped event, so I watched. I think I could have found a better use for my time.
- Friends—Again, I rarely watched the show and the finale was over-hyped. Oddly, I don’t remember what happened.
- Breaking Bad—An amazing show and brilliant finale.
- How I Met Your Mother—I discovered this show late in the game (thanks Netflix) but was in time to see and appreciate the end.
And while I’m at it, there have been a few non-television finales that I remember well.
- Peanuts—This one was especially poignant because Peanuts creator Charles Schulz died in his sleep the day before that final strip, announcing his retirement, ran.
- Calvin & Hobbes—One of my all-time favorite strips. We knew the end was coming, and even though the final strip was upbeat and positive—”It’s a magical world, Hobbes,ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!”—it was still sad to see.
- For Better Or Worse—Unlike most strips where the characters are frozen in time, we watched the Patterson family grow up and grow old and sometimes die. Lynn Johnston explored new territory with what I think was the first “out” character in mainstream comics with Michael’s best friend Lawrence.
Finales that often get talked about but which I didn’t see include:
- The Sopranos—I didn’t have HBO
- Mad Men—I watched a couple episodes, but never got into the show.
- Six Feet Under—Never saw it
- Prison Break—Never saw it
- Friday Night Lights—Never saw it
- …you get the picture