For David Letterman, it was a little touch of Harry in the night:
On Monday, Nov. 3, at 11:58 p.m., Mr. Letterman and his longtime girlfriend, Regina Lasko, became the parents of a nine-pound, 11-ounce, 21-inch boy, who took his first public breath at New York Hospital on East 68th Street, near York Avenue.
Mr. Letterman, 56 years old, announced the birth-which had taken place while his program, which was being guest-hosted by his band leader Paul Schaeffer, was being broadcast on the east coast-on the CBS Late Show Tuesday night.
“I could never imagine ever being a part of something that turned out this beautiful,” Mr. Letterman told his audience, holding a photograph. “He’s 9 pounds, 11 ounces…21 inches long.
“Here’s the name of the boy, I named him after my father. My father – this is interesting perhaps only to me. My father passed away when he was 57. I’m 56 years old and yesterday I had my first child. So I named him for my father and his name is Harry Joseph Letterman. So God bless Dad and God bless Harry.”
Then, of course, he went into the Lettermanese:
“First thing I took him home and dangled him over the balcony.”
Minutes later, he turned the event-a blissful one for a man who has undergone the works in the past few years-open-heart surgery, shingles, anxiety, self-doubt-into part of his rather courageous Eric Eriksonian evolution as a human being.
He also presented a Top Ten List called “Reasons I’m Excited to be a Father:”
1. There is now tangible evidence that I have had sex
2. Two words: Swedish nanny
3. Anxious to put to use all the practice I’ve had raising my pet monkey, Kenny
4. Great new excuse for not hanging out with Regis
5. I stocked up on moist towelettes from the hospital supply room
6. Asking Mom to watch baby perfect way to keep her away from dog track
7. Only the most cold-hearted state trooper would ticket a guy with an adorable baby
8. My used hairpieces make cuddly, fuzzy pals
9. All of America will get to watch him grow up on television, just like Cody Gifford!
10. Instead of “You suck, Dave,” I can look forward to “You suck, Dad.”
It was, as usual, pretty damned funny TV writing. And, all in all the moment, as so many things Mr. Letterman has been involved with in past few years, was pretty damned human, courageous and moving. From the most ironic American comedian-the man who practically gave his generation irony-Mr. Letterman has, like the country he speaks to, become direct, scarred, and strangely, emotionally direct.
Which put him at odds with the weird attack that NBC had opened up Monday, which took shape in The New York Times , as NBC Entertainment chairman Jeff Zucker declared decisive, incontrovertible victory in the Late Night Wars, telling Bill Carter rather gracelessly, “There is no more late night war.” And: “The national media has always been more drawn to the dark, brooding cynicism of Dave, rather than the populist wit of Jay.”
Dark, brooding ….
Could Harry have showed up at any more crucial moment in the battle? Yes, it was true, as Mr. Zucker emerged “crowing,” The Tonight Show with Jay Leno led Mr. Letterman by two million viewers, and two million is a great many viewers. But leaping into the fray to help his new daddy from day one comes what new warrior? Harry! Showing his father’s humanity, his decency, his growth as a human being! Could any baby do any more?
And 3.8 million viewers or not, David Letterman is now playing to an audience of one.
Congratulations, Dave and Regina.
And congratulations, Harry Joseph Letterman, on having a great dad.
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 5
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Cody Gifford, the 13-year-old son of Frank Gifford, the former New York Giant and Monday Night Football broadcaster, and Kathie Lee Gifford, formerly of Live with … , was performing his version of child labor.
“Skateboarding,” he said for the third time without a perfect take, “is a sport that attracts rugged individualists.” Then he gave his lines the old gee-whillikers heavy lift. ” Really rugged.”
With his rumpled shirt, spiky blond hair and button nose, he looked and sounded like Dennis the Menace as directed by Chet Forte.
” Beautiful , Cody!” cried his acting coach, Denise Simon. “Your sense of humor is great.”
Cody rubbed his nose. He gave a half smile and blinked.
Nowadays, the boy whose every diaper change was once breathlessly documented by his mother for a twitchy, sporadically interested Regis Philbin in the 1990’s-in what might have been classic TV that we didn’t appreciate at the time-is a real-life sports anchor just like the old man, reading teleprompters for Kids News , a recently syndicated program that can be seen Saturdays at 7 a.m. on Time Warner Channel 55 in New York.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff like this before, I guess,” said Cody, who last co-starred with his mother in a TV movie called Model Behavior in 2000. “I don’t know-just being around my mom and dad sometimes, you just kind of get used to it.”
He and nine other precocious baby Wolf Blitzers and li’l Paula Zahns-including Haley Cohen, the actual 14-year-old daughter of Ms. Zahn-were recently assembled into a news squad by Albert T. Primo, the veteran producer who invented the original Eyewitness News in the late 1960’s while working for WABC in New York. The stout, white-haired Mr. Primo, an old buddy of Mr. Gifford’s since the early 1970’s-and a former consultant to Ms. Zahn at a CBS affiliate in Boston-has big plans for his multicultural cast of aspiring actors and singers.
He’s hoping Cody, Haley, Mwanzaa, Filipe, Natalie, Lily, Lauren and John can be the Mike, Morley, Lesley and Andy for Gen AAA, reaching a potential market of 12-year-old news junkies that Mr. Primo believes isn’t being served by kid-unfriendly programming on cable or the network news. It’s like the Morley Mouse Club.
Mr. Primo hired another former ABC producer, Alan Weiss, to produce and manage the show.
Mr. Weiss was motivated by a similar alarm at how kids were exposed to hard news. “When my kid was 10 years old,” he recalled, “she said, ‘What’s this story about the President and the stains on a blue dress?’ I said, ‘Where did you hear this?'”
Delivered and sometimes reported by kids 10 to 15 years old, Kids News programs a soft-serve version of current affairs, from Israel’s recent attack on Syria to nuclear tensions with North Korea, using computer-generated maps and arrows to demonstrate international conflict instead of, say, raw footage of smoldering rubble.
With that, the producers mix in interviews with the comedian and musician Jack Black, segments on candy conventions, the pitfalls of bullies, a visit to the Democratic Presidential debates-during which a 12-year-old reporter is condescended to by each candidate-as well as the occasional educational snoozer on fire safety. With its generic audio “whooshes” and 80’s electric-guitar soundtrack, it’s got a sweetly retro-PBS feel, like that old 70’s staple The Big Blue Marble , with a pinch of Saved by the Bell thrown in for what passes for cool.
Mr. Primo, who wants to franchise the Kids News model all over the globe, admitted that getting kids to pass on Cribs for the news won’t be easy.
“This is the most difficult demographic to attract, frankly,” said Mr. Primo. “You know, MTV and places like that have captured their attention. MTV News is doing stories about rock bands. MTV News should be doing stories about North Korea and Iraq, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“When the other networks see this-it’s just like Eyewitness News ,” he continued. “When they saw it and they got it, then they all started to emulate it. And I fully expect that they’re going to get it within the next six months.”
Mr. Primo said he was aware that former Vice President Al Gore was sniffing around the slightly evolved version of his audience, trying to cook up a cable news channel for younger adults. “If he does that, I think he has a chance,” said Mr. Primo. “If he keeps talking about doing a liberal news network, he’s doomed to failure.”
In the studio green room, Cody’s 73-year-old father and New York Giant great was hanging around, reading over the day’s news lineup. Mr. Gifford wore a yellow fleece pullover, a pair of sporty Oakley sunglasses propped on his head and some stone-washed jeans. He said his son’s foray into news broadcasting had taught the young man some valuable lessons-for instance, the perils of file-sharing. After recording a voice-over about recent lawsuits against kids his own age, Cody had dumped all his music files, he said.
“Cody, have you stopped downloading?” Mr. Gifford asked.
“Yeah,” said Cody.
Mr. Gifford, a confessed Fox News Channel fan, said kids had a natural inclination towards fairness and balance that adults didn’t seem to have.
“They have a native instinct about right and wrong,” he said, while adult news tended to be fraught with political bias. But at least people could pick and choose what they wanted out of it.
“If you’re to the far right, you’re always bitching about the liberals,” he said, “and the liberals are bitching about the far right, but somewhere in there, if you really are curious, you can get the right information.”
He recalled something that Don Meredith had once told him, a kind of warning for, say, CNN: “If you’re in the middle, you’re gonna get hit by cars going both ways.”
That made him laugh.
Suddenly, a little electronic melody began to rise up from the shopping bag between his legs.
“Cody’s phone,” he said, a little surprised. “It’s a new world.”
He reached down and pulled out a purple-and-blue cell phone.
“Cody’s secretary,” he said. He gave a wink.
“Hi, Kathie,” he said, “Uh-huh. Yeah, I know.”
The producers insisted that the last names of the kids with non-famous parents not be used. But on the green-room couch, Haley Cohen-with a fresh coat of lip gloss on her mouth and blue eye shadow over her sleepy eyes-sat leafing through a copy of The Da Vinci Code , a little bored, waiting for the shoot to begin. She wore a tight-fitting purple jean jacket and Levis. She seemed exceptionally poised.
Did she like watching the news?
“Well, I find it interesting to watch,” she said, “but sometimes you just have to turn it off, because it’s very harsh, very blunt and to the point, and it’s all, I don’t know-I turn on the news sometimes and it’s really sad sometimes because there’s practically no good news anymore, and that can get depressing, and we’re trying to balance the hard news with the fun stuff so it’s easier to watch.”
She said she’d hobnobbed with her mom’s broadcasting pals, Connie Chung, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, Peter Jennings and Lesley Stahl. To get the gig, she went with Ms. Zahn to the CNN studios and shot a demo in her mom’s chair.
“It was really funny, because I’d never done anything like that before,” she said. “I didn’t really feel uncomfortable. But at the end, I just started laughing because it was so, I don’t know-random.”
“You know, she looked good, but she clearly, clearly needed coaching,” said Mr. Primo later. So he hired Denise Simon “to coach Haley personally.”
The younger kids were mostly oblivious to the news business. They thought it was boring and depressing. Some found the shooting tedious, and the producers had to keep them awake. Haley’s sighs and yawns disturbed the audio on Mwanzaa’s take at one point. And later: “We need more energy from her!” demanded a producer. After multiple takes with Cody, an exasperated Mr. Weiss declared, “Maybe by midnight we’ll get it right!”
“It’s hard!” said Cody.
The rest had other stuff on their minds. Natalie, 14, a blond, blue-eyed singer in ripped-up Levis and black Chuck Taylors, loved Britney Spears. “I’m signed with a manager, so I’ve been doing this for a very long time,” she said. “I’m really focused on my music career right now also. I’m working on a demo with my producers. I’m trying to get it sent out to all the record labels and trying to get a record deal.”
Any heroes in the news business?
“O.K., well, I guess I like all the people who do the news,” said Natalie. “There’s not one in particular I like. I mean, I know they’ve got the MTV News or whatever, and I guess that catches my attention more.”
Cody said he and his dad watched the news together, mainly the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly.
“I think he doesn’t kid anybody,” observed Cody. “He just kind of tells it as it is, which is really good.”
But, he added, “my parents are good friends with Paula Zahn, and we’ve been over to her house for dinner and stuff like that. I saw her last night on CNN. I thought she was good.”
Cody said the reason he deleted all the music files off his computer was because “my mom hated it, because she’s a singer and she thinks that it’s stealing,” he said. His friends at school, he insisted, still downloaded.
But there’s always skateboarding, right?
“Yeah, it’s pretty fun,” he said. “I actually lost my skateboard, so I’m looking for it right now. I think my dad didn’t like it and threw it away, you know.”
Kids say the darndest things! Cool beans, mama.
Saturday, Nov. 8
$ The Reverend Al Sharpton will guest-host Saturday Night Live on Dec. 6. Will we see Darrell Hammond’s long-awaited Howard Dean impersonation tonight? Will they bring Chris Kattan back to do Wesley Clark? Tonight, tune in for Andy Roddick. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]
Sunday, Nov. 9
% Some Mr. Wiseguy over at Fox figured that former HBO Mr. Show –man David Cross was an edgy downtown comedian who could add a little edge to their new sitcom Arrested Development , which stars former 80’s heartthrob Jason Bateman. And they were right! Mr. Cross, as a gayish former psychologist turned actor, is fabulous. But considering his 2002 comedy CD on edgy Sub Pop Records, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! , in which he inveighs against George W. Bush, blind post–Sept. 11 patriotism and Catholics, you have to wonder if his Australian master might sniff out the pinko in his midst.
Actually, said Mr. Cross, Mr. Murdoch is a big, big fan.
“He loved it,” said Mr. Cross. “He got it. And I’ve told him this, too: He’s my favorite billionaire. We definitely hang around, and he gets my jokes and stuff. And I tolerate the anti-Semitism for the sake of the relationship.”
“Yeah, he’s got a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood and we watched a couple of college football games. The Maryland–Georgia Tech game last week. He puts out chips and soda. Shasta. He’s way into Shasta. I thought he was a multibillionaire, but he does lead this down-to-earth, almost Unabomber existence. This place was like a bachelor pad, with a fridge and beer and a dirty sofa, and he was growing pot in his closet.”
We don’t believe it. No way, man.
Check out Arrested Development quick, because it’s so edgy it could be on Trio soon. [Fox, 5, 9:30 p.m.]
Monday, Nov. 10
* Roger Ailes, don your gloves, buddy!
Charlie Reina, the former Fox News producer and the self-styled David to Fox’s Goliath, is now challenging the company’s chief to an on-air debate.
“Roger-or Sharri Berg [Fox News V.P. of news operations]-if they want to come on and talk about this with me, I’ll be glad to do it,” he said by phone from his home in suburban New York. “I just want to tell the truth. I’ll take a lie-detector test.”
Mr. Reina decided to expose the allegedly unfair news practices of Fox News by discussing its daily talking points for producers, now known as “The Memo,” to Jim Romensko’s Media News Web site on Thursday, Oct. 30. According to Mr. Reina, 55, his former employers often made it implicitly clear where to come down on news stories.
When “The Memo” hit the Web, you almost wanted to hold your breath waiting for the blowback. Was Mr. Reina afraid after he hit that send button?
“Afraid? No, not afraid,” he said. But he was disturbed by Fox News’ reply, in which Ms. Berg quoted an unnamed employee characterizing Mr. Reina as a special-projects producer who “NEVER” worked in the newsroom, which he said was patently false. “She quoted someone else smearing me,” he said. “I don’t know whether that’s actionable, but you can’t get away with a lie by quoting someone else.”
But a Fox News spokesman called Mr. Reina a disgruntled former employee with an ax to grind.
Mr. Reina said he doesn’t expect to be employed in TV again.
He’s starting a woodworking shop. “I guess retirement will come a little earlier,” he admitted. He makes tables, chairs, bookcases, bathroom medicine chests, radiator covers. “Shortly after I left Fox,” he said, “I went to New Hampshire and took a course making Windsor chairs.” He said that he expects to get his shop off the ground in the spring, and when he does, he’ll sell Windsor chairs, which usually run about $750 each, for about $500.
Would he make Mr. Ailes pay more?
“No, no, don’t you print anything like that!” said Mr. Reina. “I didn’t say that!”
He didn’t. But tonight, on The O’Reilly Factor , Mr. O’Reilly escapes all bias. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]
Tuesday NOV. 11
7 While the Bush administration’s so-called road map for peace languishes under more pressing foreign-policy concerns, New York’s Sesame Workshop has initiated its own brand of puppet diplomacy in the Middle East.
Mr. Sharon, Mr. Arafat, meet Mr. Big Bird. According to the creators of U.S. export Sesame Stories , the goal is “to help lay the foundation for future stability, prosperity and hope for peace … by presenting positive images for children in the region.”
So what will kids in the Middle East get to see: Cookie Monster and Elmo holding hands and skipping down the Gaza Strip? Not quite. A preview tape screened by NYTV revealed three separate versions of the show produced for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, all featuring culturally correct Muppets like Kareem the green Arab rooster and Noah, a bright red fuzzy Jewish Muppet. The Palestinian show also features packs of toddlers singing cheerful songs-“If you don’t succeed at first, keep on trying”-while the Israeli show tells the story of three discontented frogs who decide they don’t want to be green anymore. They get over it.
According to Gary Knell, the president of Sesame Stories , explaining the politics of the region isn’t the goal. “You have to remember that we’re dealing with 3-to-7-year-olds,” he told NYTV. “You can’t go into the history of the Palestinians and Zionism.”
But, he said, “this is not about Palestinians hugging Israelis-that’s unrealistic. What it is doing is opening kids’ minds up to other people. These things are not seen on their local TV.”
We just want to know one thing: Where was Oscar the Grouch during the Iraq debate? [WLIW, 21, 9:30 a.m.]