How Dave Made Choice To Go Back on the Air

David Letterman’s somber return to television on Sept. 17-the

night that Dan Rather broke down and the host came close a few times

himself-has been praised as one of the great public healing moments in the

aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Normally a

smart-assed master of the irreverent and glib, 

Mr. Letterman located a pitch-perfect tone that night and convinced his

audience-not to mention fellow television performers-that it was O.K. to reflect,

laugh and try to move toward recovery.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Letterman struggled mightily to prepare

that Late Show , much of which was

cobbled together at the last minute and wound up almost entirely ad-libbed.

People close to Mr. Letterman and the Late

Show describe the scene around the office that day as delicate and sad,

with staffers unsure of how to proceed in the wake of the attacks-a feeling

that persisted for the next couple of weeks. But they also say it was Mr.

Letterman himself who took charge of the effort to get back on the air,

assembling a small, loyal band of longtime staffers to plan what would be the

most difficult shows of his life.

The Late Show was in

reruns the week of Sept. 10. But soon after the attacks in New York and

Washington, Mr. Letterman was in contact with executive producers Rob Burnett

and Barbara Gaines-first to check on the staff, but also to make sure that

potentially uncomfortable or distasteful material be taken out of any of the

planned repeat episodes. Not long afterward, Ms. Gaines and fellow executive

producer Maria Pope reviewed the repeats in the Late Show offices.

However, it soon became clear that the repeats wouldn’t run, as

CBS News broadcast for more than 90 consecutive hours and the network preempted

all of its scheduled entertainment programming. The next decision would be

whether or not to go back on the air on Sept. 17. By the weekend, some of the

network’s entertainment shows were running, and it looked possible that Mr.

Letterman could come back that Monday night-if he wanted.

At first, Mr. Letterman was unsure. But then the Mayor’s

back-to-work directive made him think it might be important to return, to show

that the city continued to press forward. “Dave had first thought he couldn’t

possibly do the show,” Mr. Burnett told The

New York Times . “But by the end of

Sunday, we all felt it was not only possible but maybe even a responsibility

that we go back on the air.”

But when the staff arrived at the Late Show offices above the Ed Sullivan Theater on Monday morning,

no one really knew what that night’s show was going to be. Throughout the day,

Mr. Letterman huddled with a group of staffers, including Ms. Pope, Mr. Gaines,

Laurie Diamond, Jude Brennan and longtime writer Gerard Mulligan, to formulate

the texture of the program. Mr. Burnett, who also serves as the executive

producer of the NBC series Ed , was

consulted via telephone.

This was, in essence, an impromptu Late Show “war room,” a kitchen cabinet of Mr. Letterman’s most

trusted aides, most of whom have known the

host for decades. As the week progressed, Mr. Letterman would rely more upon

other voices, including his crew of younger writers. But on that first day,

much of the Late Show would be

arranged by that skeleton crew-and primarily, Mr. Letterman himself.

The first issue was the guest list. Regis Philbin, who’d been

booked far in advance, agreed to appear. This was comforting to Mr. Letterman,

who felt that Mr. Philbin was a perfect guest under the circumstances,

considering his New York roots, his wide appeal and his mild sense of humor.

The Late Show was still

looking for another guest, however. Mayor Giuliani, of course, was everyone’s

dream, but he declined the offer due to more pressing commitments (he did

appear on the show the following week). It was proposed that a news person be

invited to help discuss the Sept. 11 attacks, and Mr. Rather, who has appeared

on the Late Show many times, was the

first choice. He, too, agreed. There would be no musical guest that night,

though Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra

would perform.

Changes to the show’s usual on-air routine also needed to be

made. Mr. Letterman felt it would be inappropriate for him to do a standard

monologue with topical jokes, so it was decided he would first appear seated

behind his desk. There would not be a Top 10 list. The show’s opening music was

also struck: The program would begin not with music and the sweeping panorama

of the city, but with a simple shot of the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater.

Mr. Letterman felt this particular image was important, since it showed that

city life was progressing onward.

Another concern was the audience: Would anyone show up at the

theater that night? Staffers feared a cold, half-empty house, so tickets were

distributed among many of the relief workers in the city, including a sizable

number of Red Cross personnel.

When the audience arrived for taping early on the evening of

Sept. 17, they were met by the Late Show ‘s

warm-up comic, Eddie Brill, who thanked them for coming but steered clear of

jokes. Mr. Letterman, too, spoke to the audience before the show, thanking them

and telling them, in effect, that they would be making up that night’s show as

they went along.

What Mr. Letterman would say on the air, obviously, was going to

be the hard part. He had done difficult shows before-most notably, his February

2000 return following heart surgery, in which he emotionally thanked his

doctors and nurses-but this was different. That episode had been painful, yet

personal. This would have to speak to every

Late Show viewer, since they had all been impacted, at least in a small


Here, the host pretty much took it upon himself. Mr. Letterman’s

initial remarks, in which he tried to make sense of what had happened six days

before, praised Mayor Giuliani and proclaimed New York City to be “the greatest

city on Earth,” were unscripted. No teleprompter or cue cards were used.

Instead, Mr. Letterman relied on a series of notes.

Then came Mr. Rather, and later, Mr. Philbin, serving, as the

staff had hoped, as a comic foil. Mr. Letterman closed the show by saying he

had “no idea” who his guests would be the following night. (They turned out to

be Bryant Gumbel and Tori Amos.)

For the remainder of the week, Mr. Letterman and the Late Show took baby steps. The show

made a cautious return to jokes: Mr. Letterman continued to begin the night

from behind his desk, and he experimented with yuk-yuk jokes that seemed

straight from the Catskills. This was intentional, of course-being too topical

too soon was thought to be inappropriate, so Mr. Letterman told jokes that

could have worked at a wedding. Comedy pieces-goofy ads, fake products-were

similarly innocuous. They also rebroadcast a couple of old Biff Henderson

segments, with the rotund stage manager wandering humorously around small-town

America. Top 10 lists were reintroduced, albeit with kid gloves-i.e., the top

10 words that rhyme with “hat.”

Mr. Letterman relied heavily upon longtime Late Show staff for this material, in particular Mr. Mulligan. They

also combed through the annals of late-night-television history and performed

old standbys. One night they did “Stump the Band,” an old Johnny Carson

classic, but not before contacting Mr. Carson’s former manager, Peter Lassally,

to see if Mr. Carson would mind. Mr. Lassally told them it would be a fine


By the second week, the

Late Show theme song and the opening montage had returned, and Mr.

Letterman was strolling back onstage again to deliver his monologue. It looked

like the same show it had always been-but, of course, it would never be.

Tonight on The Late Show with David Letterman ,

John Cusack, Joe Strummer and Grant Paulsen, some 13-year-old sportswriter kid.

[WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]


October 4

k It’s getting a little bonkers, not

to mention indulgent, the amount of second-guessing and hand-wringing the Sept.

11 attacks have provoked in show business (should Sex in the City alter its opening montage with the towers? Should

the New Yorkers on Will & Grace

continue to be so snippy and shallow? Should episodes of Becker be shipped to the Taliban?) that one starts to believe that

Hollywood has decided the attack was really about what happened to them, and a primary issue is how they should change. As if a

terror-stricken world would never recover without a digitally remastered New

York skyline in Zoolander or the

removal of a big plane-crash scene in 24 .

Ai-yi-yi. We survived Bette, folks.

This hardy nation will find a way to persevere.

But there are a couple of television shows with bona fide issues

provoked by the terrorist attacks, chief among them a little show called Subway

Q&A , which runs on the Metro Channel in New York. Historically, Subway Q&A , which used to be hosted

by Pop-Up Video lunatic Tad Low,

features a guy on a train asking weird questions of the rail-riding populace.

And now? Everyone NYTV knows in this town is more than a little

nervous about the subway, and not just because the guy who eats a breakfast

burrito every morning on the No. 4 express has suddenly switched from bacon to

sausage. We’re nervous because, you know, it’s the train, it’s down there, and

stuff happens down there ….

But Subway Q&A host

Rich Collier said that he’s found a far more hospitable crowd down there in the

wake of Sept. 11. “I used to walk into a car to shoot something … and you could

immediately tell that there’s some weird stuff going on in the car,” he said.

“You know, just negative vibes, people sizing up other people and the whole

sort of weird dynamic.

“Walk on a subway car now, and that is gone,” he said.

Mr. Collier said that people were really nice, and eager to talk

to him. Then again, he said, he was walking around with free pizza. [METRO, 70, 10:30 p.m.]


October 5

P One of the strange developments in

recent weeks has been the weird change in TV’s financial-news reporters. What was

once a bunch of squash-playing Knickerbocker Club types now seem like a band of

war-torn Sebastian Jungers, thanks to their proximity to ground zero.

But you’d feel a bit rattled, too, if you woke up on Sept. 11

expecting to cover Cisco and wound up running up Church Street, scared for your

life. What’s more, the attack and the damage to Wall Street firms have put a

special burden on financial reporters, who now find themselves in front of a

far broader audience. Indeed, financial-news channels were already wondering

how they were going to maintain audiences during an economic downturn. Now

they’re tailoring broadcasts to a larger audience that’s worried about its

financial future. This was especially true on Sept. 17, when the market


“We had to focus on the fact that our audience was going to be a

lot bigger and perhaps less sophisticated than it normally would be,” said CNBC

president Pamela Thomas-Graham. “We are really urging people to focus on being

accessible for this broader audience.”

This morning on Squawk Box , Joe Kernen explains what

“money” is. [CNBC, 37, 7 a.m.]


October 6

$ Tonight’s Saturday Night Live is

hosted by Sean William Scott, who plays that really, really annoying dumb guy

in every teenage movie these days. [WNBC,

4, 11:35 p.m.]


October 7

@ Hey Joan Rivers, it looks like you and Melissa are

gonna have an awfully short bitchfest tonight. There ain’t gonna be a real red

carpet at this year’s bicoastal, low-key Emmy

Awards ceremony. Yes, there will be an actual carpet, and it will be red,

but CBS producers won’t show footage of it in the telecast, and it won’t be

some big fanfest, with thousands of Kelsey Grammer–starved screamers. “The red

carpet as we know it will not exist,” Emmy producer Don Mischer told reporters

on Tuesday, Oct. 2.

So get last year’s Ralph Lauren frock back from the cleaners,

ladies-we won’t know it unless you win some hardware!

The weird thing about the Emmy Awards this year is how people

seem really interested in them-like, how many articles did you read about

whether or not they would cancel it or if the Sopranos were going to come, as

if the Emmys were some giant deal to the public and not the giant, predictable

snooze they actually are? Very weird. Then again, maybe the awards will now be

canceled at the last minute every year, to generate more interest in the


Tonight, the bicoastal Emmy Awards, live from L.A.’s Shrine

Auditorium and Studio 8 in 30 Rockefeller Center. Plan trip to the loo to

coincide with inevitable, windy Aaron Sorkin speech. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]


October 8

& Tonight on Monday Night Football ,

the St. Louis Rams at the Detroit Lions. The

Rams at the Lions? Rams-LIONS? Thank

the Lord they didn’t cancel the N.F.L. season! God bless America! [WABC, 7,

9 p.m.]


October 9

% Tonight on Fox, Undeclared , Judd Apatow’s

latest love letter to dork television critics. [WNYW, 5, 8:30 p.m.]

How Dave Made Choice To Go Back on the Air