It’s impossible to do over 6,000 episodes of a talk show without delivering a few duds — even when you’re on your victory lap and have on one of your best recurring guests. Friday night’s Late Show found David Letterman welcoming longtime favorite Steve Martin for his final appearance, but as has been the case with a few recent episodes, the vibe was more ho-hum hangout than hilarious exit interview. Everybody’s allowed an off night. But because it was the last time we’d see these two comedy giants together at the Ed Sullivan Theater, it couldn’t help but feel disappointingly underwhelming.
Letterman’s opening monologue set the tone for the relaxed-to-a-fault evening. Recycling joke topics from previous episodes — everything from the Late Show (including Dave’s shoes) will soon be up on eBay, New York City has coyotes — Dave grimaced his way through his introduction, not that interested in enlivening lame bits with a wry scowling aside. (He did seem to perk up, though, when he introduced the clip “Infomercial Overacting of the Night,” tickled enough to ask his crew to rerun it a couple times.) When another bit, “Jobs That Are Safe From Robots,” fell flat, Letterman darkly declared about his writing staff’s gags, “Everything must go! If we don’t use it now, it will never be used.” Rather than racing to the finish line, Dave and co. seemed to be wheezing a bit.
Martin’s dry wit has long been a stellar complement to Letterman’s own — they’ve both made their name mocking the glitzy shallowness of showbiz ass-kissing — but neither man seemed particularly animated about this final encounter. Instead, their conversation felt like the beginning of something potentially richer and more thoughtful, except that it was interrupted by a talk-show format that required jokes and bits.
“I think you and I are strange in the same way,” Letterman said sincerely to Steve, who agreed, adding, “I think you’re a very interesting person, and I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to be a fly-on-the-wall in your office — you know, rather than out here.” But this isn’t Charlie Rose, so then Martin awkwardly segued into a presentation of a retirement gift for Dave — which, of course, was a setup for a so-so joke about cheap luggage that, announcer Alan Kalter warned, wasn’t usable in the United States. Funny enough for an ordinary night, but it did leave one wishing that these guys could get in a car together and grab coffee with a video crew following them.
Martin’s two video tributes to Dave were perfectly absurdist in his patented style — especially the humorously brief one looking back on Letterman’s career. (“You had a show. And then you had another show.” The End.) And the country-flecked cover of the gospel standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” he performed alongside Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Mark O’Connor and Amos Lee was gently contemplative.
But it was telling that Martin’s best moment this night was an encore presentation of the classic 1998 Letterman/Martin bit, “Dave and Steve’s Gay Vacation” — for two reasons. One, the video (about an imaginary beach holiday taken by the two straight men) was funnier and crisper than anything on Friday’s broadcast. Second, it was shocking to watch the clip 17 years later and realize how quaint it was, reflecting a bygone era when the very idea of two heterosexual dudes cavorting by the ocean seemed provocative. It was a reminder that these guys have long had a wonderful rapport, even if their final double act felt a little deflated.