Get Well, Dave, but Why Not Hire Guest Hosts?

Best wishes on a speedy recovery. Sure was a great run up to the operation. Top form with Hillary. Total class the way you broke the heart news with Regis, who handled it perfectly. Great television.

The people who work for you are too blinded by loyalty to suggest this, Dave, but it’s really in your self-interest to let a series of guest hosts sit in for you over the next six to eight weeks.

Right now, CBS and your own production company, Worldwide Pants, are in bunker mode. They feel they must protect you from people volunteering to take your show for a while, everyone from Rosie O’Donnell to Howard Stern. They feel they have to stomp on those wishful calls in the press for weeklong cameos from Jerry Seinfeld or even Johnny Carson.

It leaked into the Hollywood Reporter that there were discussions within CBS about installing one of your own Worldwide Pants employees–Ray Romano or Craig Kilborn–behind your desk, and your loyalists went wild in denying it, screaming and carrying on the way they did in the movie version of The Late Shift .

But now is not the time for a bunker mentality. You’re in a position of strength, Dave. Why do you and your people always seem to forget that?

“Dave’s been a superstar for CBS for many years, and we can’t wait to have him back at work,” said the CBS statement. “In the meantime, we plan to provide viewers with the best of Dave in repeats.”

At least they didn’t call them “encore presentations.” But still! Go ahead and do the show-biz thing. Give a call to one of your show’s longtime friends. Steve Martin. Norm Macdonald. Dana Carvey. Garry Shandling. Hell, maybe even Tom Hanks could take some time out from his schedule to do something nice for his TV buddy Dave.

Here’s what we’re thinking: People would enjoy the guest hosts, yes, and the ratings might even creep back up to 6′s and 7′s, numbers you haven’t seen very often since your first glorious year at CBS, when things were clicking and you seemed to briefly enjoy being top dog. But while people will enjoy watching Billy Crystal or whoever else is entertaining the tourists at the Ed Sullivan Theater, they would be secretly pining away for you! The anticipation for your return would be much greater than it will be under the current plan of deadening rerun after deadening rerun (oh, God, we can hear those musty old Monica and O.J. jokes already).

Look, Dave, you don’t want to drive people into the arms of Jay Leno for any reason at all. Make them watch Late Show , even if it isn’t Late Show With David Letterman .

Get your mom to host, or Martin Short. He looks like he needs the work, now that his daytime talk show has been dropped in New York. The guest host plan sure would go a long way toward keeping your ratings up during the crucial February sweeps period, which begin in the next couple of weeks.

Listen to Grant Tinker, a legendary studio boss and onetime NBC president (before the era of pinheads and weasels): “There probably could be four or five people who are sort of Letterman fans who would keep his spirit alive while he is away,” said Mr. Tinker. “I don’t think he’s too concerned about one-tenth of a rating point up or down. He cares about the show, obviously. If the franchise is going to be enhanced by several people sitting in for him and talking about him, that could be a good middle ground.”

Right! Whoever subs for you will be talking about you and joking about you and leading everybody up to your big return–and then you can take back what you lost on that night so long ago when Hugh Grant apologized on The Tonight Show for picking up a street hooker.

By switching guest hosts each week, no one would get a firm footing on your stage. It would be clear that whoever is there is just there for you, as a favor to you.

Your hero Johnny Carson was strong enough to have guest hosts. Steve Martin. Don Rickles. David Brenner. Joe Garagiola. Steve Lawrence. Kate Smith. Our own Peter Bogdanovich. Even you, Dave. And then there was Jay Leno.

But Mr. Carson had a late-night monopoly. No one does the guest host thing anymore. You’ve been sitting in your seats at CBS and NBC for 17 years with no understudy. And you don’t see Mr. Leno letting someone sit in his. Or Conan O’Brien letting go of his desk for even a moment. Things are too competitive these days.

Late-night has to be fresh and topical to work. You could lose a full ratings point, over a million viewers, pretty quickly. It also could hurt your guy, Mr. Kilborn, who won’t have as strong a program leading into his during the sweeps.

Of course, Mr. Tinker is a good network guy, and said maybe reruns could be O.K., too. And surely that’s what the guys at CBS will tell you, too. They have to, lest they upset you or your people.

But look at Mr. Carson. He let that Joan Rivers become his “permanent guest host” for a while. Sometimes she even pulled better ratings than her mentor. But on her own, at Fox, she tanked. Johnny remained the king and stayed right where he was until Bette Midler serenaded him off the airwaves.

And that’s what you should do, Dave. Be the king. Be strong enough to let somebody else drive for a little while. Order your minions to get those crusty reruns off the air with wildly changing Daves–fatter, thinner, older, younger–from night to night. It’ll make your return all the more yearned for, an occasion for frenzy. Remember Jack Paar!

One Driver Meets Woody and Letterman

Douglas Rodriguez, 55, was behind the wheel of the gray Lincoln Town Car he drives for Douglas Car Service. He dropped off Tina Louise (Ginger from Gilligan’s Island ) on East 46th Street, but wasn’t much impressed.

“I don’t really like actors all that much,” Mr. Rodriguez said, driving west.

He has been driving for a living in New York for 25 years and has had many encounters with celebrities.

“I was looking to pick up Woody Allen on Madison Avenue and 76th Street, and there was snow everywhere. There wasn’t a car in sight. I think it was ’94, when they had all those snowstorms. And so I spotted him and I backed up to pick him up, I figured maybe I can get this guy. So at first I said 15. No, he wanted to give me $7 to bring him across the town. I said, ‘Seven dollars? That’s a cab ride.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s what I usually pay.’ I said, ‘But this is not a cab, this is a Town Car.’ But he didn’t want to pay the 15. Then I said, ‘All right. How about 20?’ He says, ‘But you just said 15! I asked you to make me a better deal!’ I said, ‘I made you a better deal–but a deal for me, not for you!’

“So, sure enough, he turned me down again. And I brought somebody up to 86th Street and First Avenue. I come back and, sure enough, he’s still standing there in the crevice, you know? And I pull up and he looked at me, walked up, and he says, ‘All right! You get $10.’ I mean, I’m not asking him for a lot of money. I asked him for 15. Which is not a lot of money, when you can’t find a car.

“So he turned around and he says, ‘No!’ So I went around the block, and he started walking over to my car, and I says, ‘Fifty dollars! Fifty! Fifty dollars for you, sir!’ Now I wouldn’t take him for 20. Ha! and I never let him know that I knew who he was.”

Mr. Rodriguez stopped the car by Washington Square Park. In the front seat next to him was a gallon of water, Altoids and a copy of Investor’s Business Daily . He was wearing a gray suit, a white shirt, a blue tie. He said he was born in the Bronx and lived in an orphanage until he was 16.

Once, he said, a “black guy” shot at him twice in his cab and missed both times. He said he felt “the wind” of one bullet going by his ear. Another time, a female “crackhead” tried to slice him in the face with a razor blade, missed, but got him on the arm. There’s a good-size scar.

The news came over the radio that David Letterman needed a bypass.

“I picked him up on 50th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue,” he said, remembering his Letterman encounter. “So he gets in the car, and I didn’t recognize him at first because he didn’t have his wig on. You know, he has a hairpiece? He was complaining to somebody who writes his jokes about writing better jokes, and the punch line wasn’t good on that one or something, something like that. And he had a little toy, and he just gave it to me, because everybody’s just giving him toys all the time.”

What was Mr. Rodriguez’s take on Mr. Letterman’s heart condition?

“I feel that somebody of his stature should have a dietitian. He should have a dietitian to take care of his health, that’s the most important thing in your life! It’s not like he can’t afford it. He could ask her, ‘Well, what’s the best foods to eat? What should I avoid? How big a meal should I eat? What combinations of food should I eat?’”

“So he’s kind of a dumb ass in a way?”

“Yeah! He’s not too smart! I mean, he’s very clever on his show and everything, but he knows his father died of a heart attack, so he should know that his health is very important, he should watch it.”

“So you kind of don’t like these people, actors and famous people?”

“They’re stuck up. Some people are nice, like somebody like Oprah Winfrey. She tries to help people, but this guy’s like an egotist, Letterman. He has to be the center of attention, that’s the idea that I got. Because he was really yelling at this guy in my car, because nobody was laughing at a couple of jokes that he had, and he was blasting this guy. Give him a break! The guy’s trying to write some jokes, all right, so he tried!”

–George Gurley