It’s been a bad week – well, a tough week – for fans of excellent television, what with the series finale of Mad Men arriving on Sunday and the final episode of the David Letterman-hosted Late Show hitting the small screen later tonight, but it’s also been a good time to reflect on the possibilities of television, from scripted drama to late night mainstay. Television: you’re not so bad.
Since Letterman announced his retirement early last year, questions have swirled regarding a number of subjects, mainly a) who will replace him? (Stephen Colbert, done) and b) what will his final shows look like? Letterman’s last few episodes have placed a premium on beloved returning guests – like Julia Roberts and Bill Murray — along with longer interview segments, big time musical acts, and just a touch of emotion and nostalgia. Letterman hasn’t relied on playing too many “best-of” packages, and while the looming end of the series has hung over everything, the effect has been more mildly wistful than totally devastated. It’s a nice balance, and the shows have been very rewarding, but it doesn’t tell us much about what we can expect from Dave’s final show – probably because Dave himself hasn’t shared his plan with the public.
Letterman has been reticent about revealing what exactly is going to happen on his final show, though he did joke to last night’s surprise guest Regis Philbin (a long-time Late Show favorite) that the series finale (that’s technically what it is, really) is all “booked up.” It remains to be seen if that was a canny little piece of misdirection or if the show will feature some all-star cast of players and guests. Although we don’t know what Letterman will do – though, considering the high quality of his show in general and especially during its last few episodes, which have taken on an intimate and shaggy quality that have only highlighted how special and unique Letterman’s talents are to the late night scene – we can perhaps find some clues in the way other late night hosts have kissed it all goodbye.
Johnny Carson’s Final Episode of The Tonight Show
Do you remember watching this? When Carson said goodbye to The Tonight Show back in 1992, he put on a very special final show, one that saw Carson (and sidekick Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinsen) talking about the show and with the audience, which was made up of friends and family members and other people related to the series itself. It was smart and wrenching and really unexpected. (Splitsider has a very good look back at Carson’s final two shows right here.) It’s probably a bit too sentimental for Letterman, but we suspect he might take a page from Johnny for at least a portion of the show.
Jay Leno’s Final Episode of The Tonight Show (The First)
The first time Leno left The Tonight Show, back in 2009, he took the opportunity to turn it over to new host Conan O’Brien. Oh, man, if we only knew. Will Colbert show up for Dave’s last show? Something tells us no.
Conan O’Brien’s Final Episode of The Tonight Show
Few things will ever be as uniquely awkward – and especially honest – as O’Brien’s sendoff after less than a year on the air as Tonight Show host. O’Brien’s decision to talk about his experience at CBS and what was happening (basically, Leno wanted to come back, bye bye, Conan!) is a totally one-time occurrence (gosh, we hope), but Letterman will likely find some time to be honest in his own way. More tears, different reason.
Jay Leno’s Final Episode of The Tonight Show (The Second)
Craig Ferguson’s Final Episode of The Late Late Show
So, if there is one thing we are guaranteed, it’s tears. Got it.
Chelsea Handler’s Final Episode of Chelsea Lately
And probably a ton of special guests.
The one thing we do know: it’s a can’t-miss event. Thanks for everything, Dave.
The Late Show With David Letterman will play its final episode tonight. The show starts at 11:35PM.