NEW YORK – David Letterman was ushered into retirement Wednesday by four presidents declaring "our long national nightmare is over" and a succession of stars delivering a final Top Ten list of things they always wanted to say to the late-night host.
The taped intro of President Barack Obama and former Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush referenced President Gerald Ford's declaration to the country when he took office following the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon. Letterman sidled up to Obama to say, "you're just kidding, right?"
Ten stars from Steve Martin to Tina Fey delivered the final Top Ten list of "things I've always wanted to say to Dave." Julia Louis-Dreyfus, with Jerry Seinfeld standing nearby, said, "Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale."
Number One was Bill Murray: "Dave, I'll never have the money I owe you."
Letterman said goodbye after 33 years and 6,028 broadcasts of his late-night shows on CBS and NBC. The final "Late Show" broadcast ran long, some 17 minutes over its usual hour, and CBS let the show air without cutting it.
The transplanted Hoosier, who made Top Ten lists and ironic humor staples of television comedy and influenced a generation of performers, will be replaced by Stephen Colbert in September.
Letterman joked in his monologue that he's been on the air for so long that the hot show when he started was "Keeping Up with the Gabors." He said that Stephen Hawking figured out that the 6,028 broadcasts included "about eight minutes of laughter."
"You want to know what I'm going to do now that I'm retired?" he said. "By God, I hope to become the new face of Scientology."
Letterman, whose wife Regina and son Harry were in the audience, was serenaded at the end by the band Foo Fighters. They sang, "Everlong," the same song they played when he returned following heart surgery in February 2000.
Several audience members who filed out of the theater after the show had tears in their eyes.
"It was really incredible," said Will Landman of Long Island, New York. "It was the best way he could go out."
Letterman "was guarded but you could tell it was really hard for him," said John Bernstein, who flew in from Los Angeles to see the finale.
"You could see his emotion," he said. "But I think he's feeling a lot more than he's showing."
His last few weeks have been warmly nostalgic, with Letterman entertaining old friends like Murray, Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Julia Roberts. Anticipating the end, viewers sent Letterman to the top of the late-night ratings the week before last for the first time since Jimmy Fallon took over at NBC's "Tonight" show and they competed with original telecasts.
From his start on NBC's "Late Night" in February 1982, Letterman's comedy was about more than telling jokes. He attached a camera to a monkey's back, tossed watermelons off a roof and wore a suit of Alka-Seltzer to plunge into a tank of water. Celebrities used to being fawned over either clicked with his prickly personality or didn't, and when Cher called him a more profane version of "jerk," it became a memorable moment.
He shifted to CBS in 1993 when NBC gave the "Tonight" show to Jay Leno instead of Letterman, a slight he never forgot or forgave.
Letterman even began his final monologue Wednesday by joking, "It's beginning to look like I'm not going to get the `Tonight' show."
The tricks subsided as Letterman mellowed with age and fatherhood. His audience welcomed him back after a heart bypass, listened as he became the first late-night host back on the air after the 2001 terrorist attacks and saw him acknowledge to inappropriately having sex with a subordinate.
Rival Jimmy Kimmel paid tribute to Letterman by not making a fresh ABC show on Wednesday, where he usually competes in the same time slot. Fallon opened his Wednesday monologue by saying: "I want to thank you for watching this on your DVR after you watched Letterman."