For his 6,028th and final late-night broadcast Wednesday, David Letterman saved his best—or at least, his "best of"—for last, as the legendary host stepped down after 33 years.
Befitting a talk show legend, Letterman's Late Show swan song was exactly what longtime fans had hoped for: 80 minutes of fun and nostalgia. And from Letterman, no tears, just laughs. Here are the 10 ways his final Late Show was perfect:
1. It had the presidential seal of approval. It takes matters of global importance to unite the surviving presidents—and Letterman's retirement certainly qualified. Four current and former commanders-in-chief (George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; only Jimmy Carter was MIA) kicked off the broadcast by announcing "Our long national nightmare is over … Letterman is retiring!"
2. One last, great monologue. "I'll be honest with you, it's beginning to look like I'm not going to get The Tonight Show!" Letterman's first monologue zinger was a summation of his ultimate triumph: while he never landed the Tonight Show job he so desperately craved after Johnny Carson retired, in the end he got something even better: he replaced Carson in the hearts and minds of several generations as the legendary host against whom all others will be measured. But he wasn't done: "You want to know what I'm going to do now that I'm retired? By God, I hope to become the next face of Scientology." (As if in response, the Church of Scientology ran an ad later in the show). Also, as he pointed out, "When I screw up now, I have to go on someone else's show to apologize!"
3. Wheel good jokes. Both The Simpsons and Wheel of Fortune paid him homage in hilarious video segments. In the Wheel clip, a contestant quickly solves this puzzle: "Good Riddance to David Letterman."
4. A classy passing of the torch. Early on in the show, Letterman took a moment to wish his successor, Stephen Colbert, well when he takes over as Late Show host on Sept. 8. "I'm very excited. I think he's going to do a wonderful job, and I wish Stephen and his staff and crew nothing but the greatest success, so look forward to that," said Letterman, applauding. Class act, Dave.
5. The Top 10 list to top all Top 10 lists. Letterman's final Top 10 list was one for the ages, as 10 frequent Late Show guests shared the "Top 10 Things I've Always Wanted to Say to Dave." The star-studded lineup included Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin ("Your extensive plastic surgery was a necessity—and a mistake"), Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock ("I'm just glad your show is being given to another white guy."), Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale!"—perfectly capped by Seinfeld's heartbroken reaction), Peyton Manning, Tina Fey and Bill Murray. It's a comedy dream team!
6. Yo quiero Taco Bell. While Letterman only shared a few classic segments from over the years, he chose wisely. My particular favorite was the time he manned a Taco Bell drive-thru window in 1996, and finally drove one irritated customer away.
7. Social graces. Oftentimes, Letterman's throwaway lines ended up being the funniest. That was the case again during the finale, during a "day in the life" package when the host made this declaration: "You know what I'm going to devote the rest my life to? Social media!" (He's said he's too old for Twitter now, but just imagine all the fun the Late Night-era Letterman could have had with the medium!)
8. Thanks for the memories. Letterman rarely showed emotion on the show over the years—save for big events like his return after bypass surgery return and his first episode following 9/11—so it was notable that he thanked so many staffers. "These people night after night, have put up with my nonsense," he said, calling them "so much better at their job than I am at my job" and declaring that they "deserve more credit for this show than I ever will." But his most heartfelt thanks was saved for his wife Regina and son Harry, both of whom were in the audience: "Thank you for being my family, I love you both, and really, nothing else matters, does it?" And with that, it was suddenly clear: Letterman might end up being more content in retirement than he ever was behind the desk.
9. "Everlong" redux. In a show that downplayed tears for laughs, Letterman's sole nod to his tougher times was his recollection of his open-heart surgery 15 years ago, and how important it was to him that the Foo Fighters canceled their South American tour to return to the U.S. and play "Everlong"—a song that's "been meaningful through my heart recovery"—for Letterman's first night back. The band returned to play the song one last time Wednesday night, and killed it once again.
10. Four final words—and the best montage ever. Letterman seemed to end the show very simply, saying, "The only thing I have left to do—for the last time on a television program—thank you and good night." But then, the Foo Fighters' "Everlong" performance turned into the soundtrack for a last, frenetic, exhilarating montage of Letterman's greatest moments, from both the Late Show and Late Night. For one final time, we were reminded: that's a hell of a legacy. That's a hell of a legend.
Farewell, Dave, and thanks for everything.