13.8 Million Viewers Bid Farewell to David Letterman

Sendoff Draws Fourth-Biggest 'Late Show' Audience

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David Letterman's 77-minute finale delivered the biggest audience for "The Late Show" in more than 20 years.

According to Nielsen, Letterman's farewell averaged 13.8 million viewers, making it the fourth most-watched "Late Show" of all time and the biggest episode since Feb. 25, 1994. That particular show, the all-time biggest for "The Late Show," led out of CBS's Winter Olympics coverage and featured guests Michael J. Fox and hippy-dippy patchouli-pop band Spin Doctors. It averaged 14.2 million viewers.

Mr. Letterman's sendoff was so big -- the final Top 10 list was delivered by a roster of talent that included Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld, Peyton Manning and returning champion Bill Murray -- that it even beat out Oprah. Ms. Winfrey's bury-the-hatchet appearance on Dec. 1, 2005, drew 13.5 million viewers.

A late-night constant for 33 years, Mr. Letterman announced his retirement during an April 2014 taping. In a nice bit of symmetry, the news broke via a tweet sent by Mike Mills, the former bass player for R.E.M., who was a guest on that night's show. R.E.M. made their national TV debut on NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" in 1983.

Stephen Colbert will take the reins of "The Late Show" on Sept. 8. Workers at the Ed Sullivan Theater this morning were spotted dismantling the set mere hours after Foo Fighters played Dave off.

While the finale put up big numbers, it didn't quite match the turnout for Johnny Carson's last turn as the host of "The Tonight Show." The May 1992 closer averaged a whopping 41.4 million viewers, of which 23.9 million were members of the adults-18-to-49 demo.

Mr. Letterman also failed to top Jay Leno's second departure from "The Tonight Show," which drew 14.6 million viewers on Feb. 6, 2014. (That despite initial estimates that showed Mr. Letterman leading there.)

Mr. Letterman easily bested Jay's deliveries (11.9 million) the first time NBC showed him the door back in 2009.

The longer running time gave CBS a chance to sneak in a few extra ad pods, most of which were dominated by movie trailers and entertainment promos. Among the films that were featured in the breaks were "Tomorrowland," "Jurassic World" and "Entourage." CBS aired two teasers for its upcoming thriller "Zoo," while FX bought time to hype the summer premiere of season two of its hit vampire series "The Strain."

In the end, Uncle Dave threw his loyal followers a near-perfect farewell party. Along with his celebrity guests -- the three surviving ex-Presidents and President Obama sent him off with Jerry Ford's valediction to Dick Nixon ("our long national nightmare is over") -- and the aforementioned Foos, Mr. Letterman aired an array of clips that served as a bittersweet reminder that his deadpan subversion of late-night mores will be sorely missed. Snippets of the Dada genius that was Larry "Bud" Melman were intercut with Stupid Pet Tricks, a "Kids Say the Darndest Things" segment and a stunt in which Dave pranked surly and bewildered Taco Bell patrons.

After thanking CBS chief Les Moonves and his predecessor Howard Stringer (who now "is in charge of a very successful string of nail salons," according to Mr. Letterman), Dave wound down with the words, "All right, that's pretty much all I've got. For the last time on a television program, thank you and good night."