“It’s beautiful day in New York City,” enthused a visibly upbeat David Letterman during his monologue. “It’s sunny and 73… like me.”
In an extensive New York Times interview published earlier yesterday, the (actually 68 year old) Late Show host talked with considerable candor about how he’s the final “older guy in a suit” left in a late-night television landscape “surrounded by the Jimmys” (Fallon, Kimmel, et al). Last night, however, Dave seemed to be positively brimming with youthful ebullience, with nary a grumble or grouchy aside escaping from behind his ever-present grin.
Maybe it was just that he was squarely in his comfort zone. The night’s Top 10 list — “Future Nik Wallenda” stunts — was classic deadpan Letterman; after reading Number Four on the list (“Standing on that part of a step ladder that has the warning sign that reads, ‘Caution: Not a Step'”), Dave added, “Oh, I’d pay money to see that. Wooo!” Longtime pal John Popper was there to blow harp with the band during the breaks; a replay of 1998’s “Pedestrian Theme Songs” gave Dave a chance to wax nostalgic with Paul Shaffer; and the bandleader/sidekick’s multiple mentions of the late, great Brother Theodore during a discussion of guests with the most show appearances provoked a couple of loud and very genuine guffaws from Dave.
As recurring Letterman guests go, only two people (Marv Albert and Regis Philbin) have appeared more times on the show than Jungle Jack Hanna, the emeritus director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — a man who, Dave marveled, has “been bitten by every carnivore under the sun,” and who has introduced a wide variety of creatures to the Letterman stage over the past 30 years. During that time, the two men have refined a subtle comedic duet around the animals, with Dave asking questions and/or freaking out, and Jungle Jack answering him with an earnestness that’s almost funnier than the host’s wisecracks.
Their final appearance together was fairly low-key, at least compared to the highlight reel that was shown in Jungle Jack’s honor — nobody got bitten or peed on, and Dave didn’t don any meat helmets or run for his life at any point, even if he clearly wanted no part of the large alligator that was carried over to the desk. But the man was obviously enjoying himself, cooing over the baby leopards, offering coffee to a tiny hyena, and beaming with sheer delight over being able to coax a Kookaburra into unleashing its laugh-like call. As a parting gift, the visibly emotional Hanna announced that the Columbus Zoo had named the first fifth generation rhinoceros ever born outside of Africa after Letterman, prompting an excited Dave to ask, “When can I pick up the baby rhino?”
And just when you thought the Late Show couldn’t get any more “feel-good” than that, John Fogerty closed the show by blasting through a medley of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics. Backed by a powerful three-piece band that included the extremely amped-up Kenny Aronoff on drums, Fogerty name-checked Letterman during “Proud Mary,” changing its second line to, “Working for the man every night and Dave.” The lyrical substitution may not have made much sense, but everyone — Dave included — was having too good a time to question it.