The Foo Fighters, dressed in black tie for the occasion, played over a super-sized, rapid-fire montage of still photos and clips spanning both "Late Show With David Letterman" for CBS and "Late Night," the NBC show he hosted from 1982 to 1993.
The last "Late Show With David Letterman" ran 20 minutes over its usual hour-long run-time. The late afternoon taping ran long, but CBS executives agreed to allow the run-over, according to a spokesman for the host.
The show opened with a video of President Gerald Ford giving his 1974 speech after Richard Nixon's resignation with the line: "Our long national nightmare is over." The famous line was repeated by former White House occupants
Full coverage: David Letterman retires
Letterman made his entrance the same way he has thousands of nights before. His silhouetted figure was seen running at the rear of the stage before he walked out from behind the set. As has been the case for months since he announced his retirement, there was thunderous applause from the crowd at the Ed Sullivan Theater that was on its feet.
The top 10 list -- a signature routine on both of Letterman's late night programs on CBS and NBC -- was delivered by a lineup of luminaries that included
Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra played the Ohio Players song "Fire" as the final list was read.
Letterman's last monologue was filled with the self-deprecating humor that made him a favorite with late-night audiences and an inspiration to a generation of comics.
"I'll be honest with you," he said. "It's beginning to look like I'm not going to get the 'Tonight' show."
He joked of post-retirement plans.
"I hope to become the new face of Scientology," he said.
He also pointed out that "when I screw up now, and Lord knows I will be screwing up, I'll have to go on somebody else's show to apologize."
He also introduced a fake clip from the game show "Wheel of Fortune" in which the answer to the puzzle was: "Good Riddance to David Letterman."
Clips of past shows included Letterman's routines with children from over the years and a 1996 remote in which he worked the drive-in window at a Taco Bell. He also presented several clips from his short-lived 1980 morning show, including one that showed his NBC studio catching fire.
Letterman also had kind words for his successor, former Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert, who will take over "Late Show" in September. "I'm very excited," Letterman said. "I think he's going to do a wonderful job."
Letterman ended the show with thanks to CBS executives, Shaffer, his staff and his family. His wife Regina Lasko and their son Harry were shown in the audience at the theater. Letterman waved to them from the stage. "I love you both and really nothing else matters, does it," he said.
DAVID LETTERMAN'S FAREWELL: