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David Letterman’s final month of long goodbyes is setting precedents and bringing back favorite guests

It’s official. David Letterman’s final month began on Monday.

His lead guests Tuesday on “The Late Show” are scheduled to be the Piedmont bird callers, that foolproof bit of fresh-faced high school kids that he inherited from Johnny Carson. His big guest tomorrow is scheduled to be Bruce Willis, a longtime gold-karat “friend of the show” as Letterman might put it.

Willis has been the kind of big guest who’d sometimes fill in when someone else had to fall out at the last minute – the kind who’d come out dressed in some ridiculous costume or other that would give the show at least five near-foolproof minutes where very few had to worry about home audiences being bored enough to turn it off and go to sleep. (Stupid human tricks from superstars do get your attention usually.)

When a major American movie star is dressed in a chicken suit or in a strawberry milkshake costume (I’m making those up), people tend to stick around to: a) find out why and b) hear the host’s jaunty spritz as it rains down on the head of the volunteer stooge. (Some may have been written in advance by Letterman’s writers who, no doubt, had advance warning that Willis was going to come out dressed as a Clydesdale horse – or whatever – and may have concoted a zinger or three for Dave to use during lulls.)

None of that with Willis is likely this time. This has been the period on Letterman for everyone’s Farewell Tour – all of the “Friends of Dave” who have been loyal and reliable for his 33 years on late night television, now getting their chance to say goodbye for good to late night comedy’s Big Guy, the longest late-night host in TV history and, by far, the one with the most significant impact on American television history.

Unprecedented on his CBS show were the reactions to two shocking events – one national and one personal: 9/11, after which his, the biggest New York late night show at the time, showed everyone else in the medium how to return to work; and his own quintuple bypass confrontation with mortality, even more radical than his final interview about imminent death with a “friend of Dave” who was truly dying, Warren Zevon.

We don’t know what, if anything, a “retired” Letterman will do as a public figure. He may be a guest all over the place. But there is more than a good chance too that, at 68, he’ll do almost nothing more in public at all. Sources on the Internet guess his personal fortune to be in the middle nine figures.

So for the last month, every guest with a long Letterman history has come on with presents, or tributes which, in some cases, were far better than any present could be. Some of us remember when Sen. Al Franken was a “Saturday Night Live” comedy writer and one-half of a comedy team with the taller, thinner Tom Davis who came out together on at least one NBC Letterman show announcing themselves as “the comedy team that weighs the same.” Franken, quite rightly, called Letterman not just a great comedian but a “great broadcaster” with groundbreaking respect for the audience.

Billy Crystal came out to plug his middling new FX show “The Comedians,” but mostly to say a smart but heartfelt farewell and sing a specifically written song for the occasion in the style of his Oscar numbers.

However impatient with sentimentality Letterman might be inclined to be, he’s also a consummately successful professional entertainer. Shutting off the gush valve completely for every longtime guest of the show in its final month would be inhuman and bad sweeps weeks show business both.

Among the extraordinary things happening on the final Letterman shows – with, no doubt, Paul Shaffer’s assistance – are appearances of favorite Letterman pop performers doing some of Letterman’s favorite classic pop songs. Tracy Chapman was pulled out of what seems to be semi-retirement to be on the show to sing “Stand By Me.” John Mayer went on the show to sing every verse of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

Yes, when he started in late night, Letterman may have been the most vehemently hip and anti-showbiz late-night maestro of them all. But he also endured and went through enough to wind up warmer onscreen than his idol Carson ever was. Who else dealt with a publicly humiliating blackmail attempt over an affair with a female underling on the staff which he boldly and publicly squashed? He knows how very conventional a TV talker he’s become, which is probably one good reason he’s hanging it up.

The Letterman of the past year might have been a soft, squishy and juicy target for the anti-showbiz radical who presided over his old 12:30 a.m. show on NBC. But that’s what happens when late-life fatherhood and open-heart surgery teach men a few things that you just can’t learn in comedy clubs and writer’s rooms.

Letterman favorites Crystal, Michael J. Fox, Darlene Love and Alec Baldwin have already said their goodbyes.

Still to come, besides Willis, are said to be Don Rickles, George Clooney, Tina Fey, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Keaton, Steve Martin, Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld, John Travolta, Howard Stern, Oprah Winfrey, Paul Rudd and, quite possibly on his final show, Bill Murray, the man who was his very first late-night guest 33 years ago.

Time has ended forever some final Letterman appearances we might want to see the most: Andy Kaufman – always one of the most amazing guests on his old NBC show – is long gone. Letterman’s old Comedy Store cohort Robin Williams, who was one of Johnny Carson’s final two guests, might have been a historic stunner on Letterman’s final show but his suicide remains a shock for both friends and fans alike.

I am, no doubt, asking for the impossible but wouldn’t it be amazing if on one of the final Lettermans, he figured out a way to feature his onetime close friend Jay Leno – who used to appear on the old NBC show and deliver jokes while eating a submarine sandwich on camera?

And even more impossible no doubt is this: Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if NBC gave Letterman a “one-time only” permission to run all sorts of great clips from his old 12:30 a.m. show?. And let Letterman’s former partner and head writer Merrill Markoe tell the world just where stupid pet tricks came from?

Surely NBC itself could benefit from a single-time suspension of its “intellectual property rights” to say goodbye to such a competitor.

Stephen Colbert won’t take over Letterman’s show until September.

In the meantime, it would be nice if his farewell weren’t just to the man who put CBS into the late-night business but the man who, in Franken’s words, was “a great broadcaster.”

email: jsimon@buffnews.com