NEW YORK — You don't think of David Letterman as a stop-and-smell-the-flowers type, but here he is, at a major turning point yet savoring his chocolate milkshake.
Perched on a stool at a fast-food restaurant beside the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he has hosted "Late Show" for two decades but will do so only a bit longer, Dave unwinds from that day's taping and graciously submits to a reporter's questions while, more than once, he comments on his shake's deliciousness.
He also thinks today's show was excellent, a surprising appraisal from this famously self-critical star.
It was a smash. Cher did a surprise walk-on. Martin Short belted out a comic eulogy to Dave ("It's the end,/ My pretend show-biz friend!"). Norah Jones sang "Don't Know Why" and everyone got misty.
Every moment seemed precious, and for no one more so than the host. During each commercial break, as Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra rocked out, Dave rose from his desk and shed his suit jacket, then, in his shirt sleeves in the shadows, prowled his stage, an august presence silhouetted against the cityscape backdrop as, almost certainly, he pondered how quickly time is running out.
"I wish tonight's show had been the last show," says Letterman, dressed down now in long-sleeve T-shirt, painter's pants and sandals. "Tonight should have been the last show. 'That's it! Good night, everybody!' I don't know what we're gonna do for the next two weeks."
It isn't hard to detect, or understand, the simmering ambivalence in Letterman's decision to take his leave after 33 years in late night and 22 years hosting CBS' "Late Show," on May 20.
But by now he's done it all. Letterman has carved a place in cultural history with his pioneering brand of postmodern silliness that collared "Late Night" fans on his arrival in 1982 and subsequently was absorbed into the Age of Irony he played a major role in charting.
He personified a prankish, insubordinate style that mocked the world he inhabited on and off the air. Early in his career, he summed up his mission as "smart, shrewd observations" about pretty much anything, with their unifying theme imposed by the fact of their airing on TV: "You and I both understand that this is stupid."
He maintained an arch detachment from most everything, in particular the celebrity world most TV hosts cozied up to.
If he was never quite beholden to celebrities, a story from his childhood helps explain. Back in Indianapolis, he with his dad, mom and sister would observe an American ritual on Sunday nights watching "The Ed Sullivan Show," the CBS variety show that originated for a quarter-century from the very theater he would someday occupy.
"After every act, Ed would go, 'C'mon, now, let's really hear it! Come on, everybody!' And my mom would say, 'I hate the way he begs the audience to applaud the performers. You either deserve it or you don't!' And I think that's me: Yeah, they're performers, but there's no reason you should bend over for them."
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
Granted, when "Late Night" began, A-list stars weren't exactly beating down the doors of NBC's Studio 6A to join Dave. Letterman's solution: Find and launch "stars" of his own drawn from his own staff and the world at large.
"I was never quite sure whether a big star would get better ratings than if you had the Potato Chip Lady," he muses. "I never knew. But we ended up having more of the Potato Chip Lady in the first couple of years."
Such resourcefulness helped put Letterman on the crest of a new wave of comedy that came to be called "found humor" and remains a major part of his legacy, one long ago coined "Lettermanesque."
But don't talk legacy with Dave. He swiftly raises his deflector shield.
"The real credit goes to the writers," he insists. "It was their show that I was doing, especially early on. And then I got to a point I knew how to do what they were wanting me to do.
"We had guys who had worked at the Harvard Lampoon!" he says, flashing a grin. "I attended university in Muncie, Indiana."
As the end nears, "Late Show" has dug into its vaults to replay a sampling of vintage comedy bits, some almost Dada-esque in their absurdity. (On a recent show, a 1993 clip found Dave cruising Manhattan making mischief with his car phone, as when he alerted a news-radio station that traffic was backed up on Amsterdam Avenue, then corrected himself: "Oh, I think it was just a red light.")
Those old clips make him nostalgic for the Lettermanesque-ness he may have since outgrown.
"I realize what the old show was, and we haven't being doing the old show in years," he says. "And that's all because of me."
But no one stays avant-garde forever, especially after a record-breaking, surely never-to-be-matched run that exceeds even Johnny Carson's 30 years on "The Tonight Show." And especially when so many of the elements that certified Dave as cutting-edge have by now become of the cultural status quo.
"God, it's been 6,000 shows!" he says. "I used to have these conversations with (wife) Regina: 'How much longer can I do this? How much longer do I WANT to do this?' There was a lot of that before the decision, and now it's like, 'Holy crap! We have less than two weeks!'
"It was so much fun tonight, just really fun," he says again, wistful at the notion of a great guest like Short seated next to other hosts when he's not around: "I want to be the guy he tells his stories to.
"I'm really, really torn. I know why I shouldn't be doing it anymore, but these last few months have been soooo easy." No wonder. As the days count down, love for Dave is escalating: "With a simple retirement announcement, every day I'm Salesman of the Month."
Letterman's life was anything but easy in October 2009, when an extortion plot compelled him to acknowledge on the air that he had been sexually involved with women on his staff.
He weathered that storm, largely thanks to a candid and contrite accounting to his audience.
"I had one choice: I had to be honest about it," he says. "But it was the worst time of my life. I remember just thinking, 'Oh my God, I've ruined my family,' and that became the only concern. And then: Oh, yeah, you could get fired! You couldn't draw an unlabored breath. 'What is he doing? Is he up there just randomly exploiting women sexually?' That's what people were talking about.
"And it was ME, for God's sakes!"
How about making it somebody else?
"There's always Regis!" Letterman laughs.
On Dave's crisis meter, the scandal far exceeded his emergency quintuple bypass in January 2000.
"The heart surgery was FUN! It was something new to talk about that was ALL ME! Plus, everybody was worried about me, and doing everything they could. People would come and see me and bring me things. Jane Pauley gave me some pajamas and a pair of slippers. It was delightful, like every day was Christmas.
"And the doctors were wonderful. That was 15 years ago, and when I had my regular test in October they said, 'This is exactly the way it was after the surgery.' Those people — I mean, who does a job that well?"
Another miracle of medical science: An antidepressant he's been taking in recent years.
"It saved my life. I used to wonder how other people weren't always screaming and punching the Sheetrock. And then I started this, and I felt like, 'Ahhh, I see!' And now I don't punch Sheetrock and scream as much."
'NO CURE TO BEING 68'
But nothing, no drug or elixir, can turn back the years.
"There's no cure to being 68," he sighs. "The fact that I'm 68 happened." The man who once was an arbiter of hipness feels obliged to acknowledge that "the number of people who are wildly popular on television or music or the Internet that I don't have any knowledge of is endless. I'm constantly going, 'Who is so-and-so? Who LIKES so-and-so?' It's like I'm the drifter who's wandered into town and doesn't know anybody."
He gazes around at his fellow late-night hosts, "and those other people are so much younger, and so more energetic, than I am. You can make a comparison any night, and that'll be true."
Don't try telling Letterman that what he's done so long — host a show and be funny in inventive new ways — isn't a function of youth, like modern dance or cage fighting. No, Dave has made his decision. May 20 is closing night.
And after that? Will he, like Carson — who retired at 66 in 1992 and lived another 13 years — simply disappear from public view?
"I don't think there's anything for me to do," Dave replies. "My wife keeps saying, 'Oh, don't worry — you'll get another job if you want it.' By looking through the want ads?! "'68-year-old former talk show host:" Nothing here, honey. Nothing today.'
"I don't know what's gonna happen," he says, beyond more family time with Regina and their 11-year-old son, Harry. "I hope it will all be good. It's my responsibility to make it good. It's not like heart surgery: 'Could I get a little more morphine?'"
It's not as if he's glum. More like meditative, addressing the question almost no one can eventually avoid, including many of his most devoted viewers: Where did all the years go?
Meanwhile, he's enjoying his shake and pleased with this day's work.
"If you see how wound up I am," he says, "it's because of the show tonight: Cher, Marty Short, Norah Jones! If the last show goes like that, I'll be like this. I hope the last show goes well, because that's what I will take with me. It will reflect nicely on the body of work."
And if it doesn't go so well? He grins: "I'm gonna be miserable for a long time."
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at [email protected] and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore