“Tonight it’s Bill Murray,” David Letterman told his audience during last night’s monologue. “Next week I’ll be Googling foods that improve prostate health.”
If the prospect of life without Letterman is about as appealing as a prostate exam, his penultimate Late Show at least kept the mood light and festive. There were no tears, no poignant reminiscences, no heavy existential reflections on stepping away from the late-night pulpit after 33 years. The closest the episode came to a “what does it all mean?” moment was when Regis Philbin — who holds the record for most Letterman guest appearances with 150 — made a surprise appearance and begged Dave to reconsider his retirement. “Where does this leave Regis?” he demanded to know. “I don’t care,” Dave chuckled. “I’ve got my own problems.”
Dave seemed to be almost beaming at the knowledge that the end was in sight, but much of the show just seemed like business as usual. If you’d tuned into the show in the middle of “Top 10 Famous Last Words” (Number 8: “Bring the karaoke machine over to the hot tub”) or Rupert Jee’s guest spot — in which it was revealed that the old “Fun with Rupert” segments were discontinued after a particularly humor-deficient victim pulled a knife on him — you’d have had no idea that this was actually OH MY GOD THE SECOND TO LAST LETTERMAN SHOW EVER.
Leave it to Bill Murray — “Our next to the last show guest,” as Dave introduced him — to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The star and longtime friend-of-Letterman made his entrance by busting out of a giant “Goodbye Dave” cake while Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra jammed on the Band’s “Chest Fever,” and proceeded to smear cake all over the host and several audience members. After fielding some questions about the making of Caddyshack (can that movie really be 35 years old?) and eating a chunk of cake off his own shoe, Murray whipped out a bottle of Slovenian vodka and bade Dave to take a farewell swig. The gentleman did as he was told, and then some; he probably broke some CBS rule by doing so — but hey, what are they gonna do? Fire him?
Dave showed a highlight reel of Murray’s many gonzo appearances and thanked him sincerely for “the friendship you’ve brought to this program” — but instead of saying farewell, the last Late Show guest dashed out through the studio’s “Bill Murray Doors” and into the street, where he rallied fans and bystanders into staging a protest of Dave’s retirement. The caked-covered actor was last seen leading the impromptu crowd in a singalong of “All we are saying/Is more Worldwide Pants,” sung to the tune of John and Yoko’s “Give Peace a Chance.”
The news that Bob Dylan would be appearing as a musical guest on one of Letterman’s final shows sparked considerable conjecture: Would the Mighty Zim go with the obvious benediction of “Forever Young”? Whip out “Jokerman” and/or “License to Kill,” the two songs from Infidels that he played during his first Letterman performance back in 1984? Trot out “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue?” Or would he do something completely perverse, like a song off his Christmas album?
In the end, the man Dave called “the greatest songwriter of modern times” did a song written by somebody else — the jazz standard “The Night We Called It a Day,” which was included on Shadows in the Night, Dylan’s new record of Frank Sinatra-associated songs. (The Chairman of the Board had covered the song for his first solo recording in 1942.)
While his moodily-lit band laid down a gorgeous web of sound, Dylan wandered distractedly about the stage, gazing warily off into the distance as if he was expecting the impending arrival of roving bandits or a giant spider; he even meaningfully grabbed the mic stand a couple of times between verses, as if to say, “Come no closer, massive arachnid, lest ye desire a taste of this.”
Dave took the stage following the song’s conclusion to offer his thanks; Dylan briefly shook his hand then drifted away, his attention still focused on someone or something beyond the lights. There’s still no word on what tonight’s Late Show finale will entail — but if it turns out to involve a showdown between Dylan and a giant spider, well, just remember who called it first.