Matt Demers used to show up to high school looking haggard, sleepily moving about the halls. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Demers said people would ask. “Well, I watched Letterman last night,” was his standard reply.
On Wednesday, Demers, of Ottawa, Canada, was ready for one final late night with his favorite host. He and dozens of other Letterman fans lined up waiting to enter the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in New York for the final “Late Show” taping. They packed the sidewalks, eagerly milling about and sharing stories about the soon-to-be-retired Letterman. Hours before the taping was set to begin, the crowd congested a full city block.
Letterman's final episode marks the end of an era and a resounding good-bye to the gap-toothed host with a crooked grin and a sharp wit after more than 30 years of late-night television. The last show will reportedly feature the host’s favorite band, The Foo Fighters, one night after Bob Dylan and comedy legend Bill Murray appeared. But for fans waiting outside, the last show was a chance to say goodbye to a host with whom they personally identified.
Letterman felt like a genuine person to his viewers, said James Kimmel, a 29-year-old musician from Waco, Texas, who landed a ticket to the taping along with his brother, Clinton. “He’s real,” Kimmel, who watches the show most nights, said. “If he’s not feeling well that day, you can tell.”
Letterman’s famous self-deprecating humor was a big draw for many fans. His sly wit changed the form of late-night TV, as he grilled celebrities in interviews or bounced wildly into a Velcro wall. The most fondly remembered sketch, however, seemed to be the host’s practice of cathartically tossing fruit from buildings.
“Who else throws watermelons off the roof of a building?” said Victor Fumuso, 70, who was in line to watch the final taping. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Demers, 32, planned to go out for drinks and celebrate as if he were a part of the show after the taping, he said. He became so captivated by the show as a youth he’d persuade his high school English teacher to play his favorite clip from the prior night’s episode to his class, post-lesson. “My whole sense of humor is based on Letterman,” Demers said.
The fans guaranteed a seat at the taping Wednesday night won the tickets after entering a lottery and answering a Letterman-based trivia question correctly. For the diehard “Late Night” enthusiast, the questions were simple: Who doesn’t know the show’s animal handler’s name?
“I don’t know if there’s a word to describe how I felt,” said Tammy Lynn, 45, after receiving a phone call telling her she had won a ticket. “I went on about a five-minute screaming tirade.”
Lynn grew up watching Letterman, a rebellious kid staying up late. “If I can get a selfie with Dave, or shake his hand, it will be a perfect trip,” she said before the show.
Bruce and Barry Schwartz, twin 63-year-old brothers, have watched the show since it began. They remembered watching Letterman as a “cutting-edge” new host.
“He appealed to younger fans -- we were younger back then,” Barry Schwartz said. “You grow up together, you age together.” The brothers mentioned that Letterman doesn’t like fanfare and seems to prefer the average person to a celebrity. They hoped for a final episode that would play out like the ones they used to record on a VCR -- one full of punches.
Dave Myer, a 63-year-old musician from Milwaukee, hoped to see Letterman at his best. “I just hope it’s not a highlight reel,” he said, jokingly adding he was holding out hope for a free-car giveaway à la Oprah Winfrey.
As the pack of people along the sidewalk grew Wednesday, so did the excitement. Television cameras bustled in and out, and more audience members waited beneath the shadow of the well-known marquee of "The Late Show." The final taping was on the horizon, and soon Letterman’s run would be over, his slot to be filled by comedian Stephen Colbert.
“I might cry, to be honest," Demers said with a laugh. "I told my girlfriend to bring tissues.”