David Letterman looks back on legendary late-night career

Nearly 22 years after Bill Murray's memorable entrance as David Letterman's first guest on the Late Show here on CBS, Dave is counting down to his LAST broadcast this Wednesday Night. Visiting Dave this past week at the Ed Sullivan Theater was another Hoosier from Indiana ... our own Jane Pauley:

In his final days in the Ed Sullivan Theater, David Letterman is reminiscing.

"There was a big, gray, plastic trash garbage can here. And I was up in the balcony and I had a football with me. And I said, 'I-- let me see if I can drop the football into the trash can from up there.' One shot, bang, zoom. And I thought, 'Oh, this is-- this is a sign of something.' So I-- do we have the thing here? Let's try it again. Do you mind, Jane?"

We were game.

"Well, we can do anything you want. We have to go up here. Somebody stay down here. Somebody get the can, I'll be upstairs," Letterman said.

We were of and running, along the catwalk and into the balcony. It took him 10 tries.

"I'm just happy I was able to do it."

"Yeah, and you were. That means you can't leave."

"Okay, no, no, we have to leave," Letterman said.

And leaving he is, with an astonishing lineup of guests in his final weeks on the air.

"This is really a nervous place to sit, the one you're sitting in. Next to Dave when you're on his show, I-- I have been honored to be among the 18,000 guests, do you remember?," I asked him.

"Yeah, yeah, many, many times when we both worked at NBC, for sure," he said.

"No, seriously. Do you remember stuff? Do you remember people?" I pressed.

"I-- you know ... I don't remember things we've done on the show. People are always saying, and -- and here lately we've bee showing video of -- of things we've done on the show. I have no memory of it. No memory of it. And I don't know if you had this trouble with The Today Show, but driving home at night or when I get home, Regina will say, 'Well, who was on the show?' And then it's like, 'Yeah, who was? I don't know, was it -- it mighta been Reese Witherspoon. But then again, it mighta been Regis Philbin. I don't -- I'm just not sure."

I started appearing on Letterman's show in the early days. Once, he thought it would be fun to make our voices sound like we'd inhaled helium. I wasn't so sure.

"I want to apologize about the helium thing," I began.

"What? See, I don't remember. You - you were on helium?"

"No, you had some -- some little thing where -- where if we spoke, you spoke or-- our voices sounded like..."

"That we were on helium, yeah, yeah, yeah."

"And I wouldn't say a word. And I must have taken a note -- note, paper, something from your desk. And I -- I wrote notes. But I just-- you did whatever you could to make me ..."

"Right. But see, you -- you behaved the way humans are expected to behave. My behavior was aberrant. So I owe you an apology."

There's often something faintly apologetic about David Letterman, which goes back, as we do, having both grown up in Indianapolis. I recalled an appearance we made together in the 1970s.

'You told the high school kids about your feelings about your success. You said, 'It's like robbing 7-11s. The money's good, but you know you're gonna get caught.'"

"I hope I said that. In those days I was -- probably not you -- waiting to be tapped on the shoulder, 'Okay, the real guy's here. You can go home now.' That's -- that's what I was always motivated by, that fear -- the fear of failure. And then I have to, 'Oh darn.' And then, you know, I wasn't chosen again so I go back home. That was always the concern."

In high school, Letterman was not a candidate for most likely to succeed. But that's where he found his calling.

"I knew exactly what I wanted to be. My sophomore year in high school they offered a speech class -- public speaking class. So I signed right up. All right, first day of class, everybody has to stand up and give an impromptu speech about themselves. And I got up when it was my turn and I gave the speech -- it had to be, like, two minutes or something. And I sat down and I said, 'Wow that was easy,' to myself. And I had never said that about any other class in my academic career prior or after. The fact that I could put something together that seemed to fill the requirement was -- I couldn't do it in any other class. I couldn't do it in algebra, I couldn't do it in English, I couldn't do it in history. I couldn't do it anymore. Metal shop, maybe."

After college at Ball State, Letterman became a local jack-of-all-TV-trades.

"I started when I was 20 years old in 1968 or something in Indianapolis," he recalled.

"Yeah, I remember you. ... the weather and the weekend movies. You were ... hysterical," I said.

"No, no, maybe not."

One of the most important decisions he ever made was to get serious about comedy and move to Los Angeles. Within a few years, he had landed an appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson that would change his life.

"And it's white hot adrenaline. That's all it is. Then you go and you sit down and you talk to Johnny. And it's like you're sitting on the knee of the Lincoln Memorial and Lincoln is talking to you. You know, it's like, 'Holy God, it's the guy on the $5 bill is talking to me.'"

More appearances on "The Tonight Show" led to a morning show.

"At 11:00 a.m. -- 'cause it was bizarrely a daytime version of what you do now -- my office would be filled with people watching, you know, your -- your show. It was -- it was brilliant," I recounted.

"It wasn't brilliant, Jane. It was-- but it was-- it was like standing on an overpass looking at a chain reaction collision, you know, that goes okay, nine cars, 10 cars. 'Oh look, it's 100 cars.' It couldn't have been more poisonous. They had to get away from it."

The show lasted just four months.

"I really thought that's it. You get one shot and away you go," Letterman said.

Though Letterman was a ratings disaster in daytime, NBC gave him a shot at late-night.

"I started out, for God's sakes, at 12:30 following Johnny Carson. So that was a pretty safe place for a kid who didn't know what he was doing."

And that's what the -- the network said, 'Find some kid who doesn't know what he's doing, the only one in America, or that would be -- here he is from Indianapolis, Dave Letterman.' No," I joked.

"That's, no that's exactly how that ..."

"And they continued to give you paychecks ... to do this ... for them."

"Yes. But it -- it was all different. I couldn't get a show now."