Road to Kandahar: Letterman’s Trip Planned by U.S.O.

David Letterman’s stealthy, whirlwind Christmas visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan was a surprise even to people close to the Late Show host. Accompanied by Paul Schaffer and stage manager Biff Henderson, Mr. Letterman left New York on Monday, Dec. 23, and traveled to Kandahar, where he spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with members of the armed forces.

For a high-profile guy, Mr. Letterman’s Afghanistan trip was a well-kept secret. Only a handful of staffers knew he was going. It’s not certain if CBS president Leslie Moonves knew-he was away on vacation Dec. 27 and unreachable-but it’s clear that Mr. Letterman didn’t want to kick up a lot of fuss about his plan, which he briefly discussed on the air during a Dec. 26 Late Show taped just hours after he, Mr. Schaffer and Mr. Henderson returned to New York.

“This was a very personal affair for Dave,” said U.S.O. director of entertainment Mitch Marovitz, who helped orchestrate Mr. Letterman’s visit and accompanied the Late Show trio to the U.S. base in Kandahar. “He just wanted to go out and say thank you. He certainly didn’t want anyone to have the slightest inkling or feeling that he was doing this for publicity. This was personal.”

Mr. Letterman was clearly moved by the experience. “These people over there truly are America’s best,” he said when he talked about the trip on the Late Show. With Mr. Henderson, a Vietnam veteran, seated beside him, he showed off a handful of snapshots he took himself and joked that the troops were unimpressed by his show-business background.

“Hey, TV boy, where do you think you’re sleeping tonight?” Mr. Letterman said in a mocking voice as he displayed a photo of an Army tent in the desert. He also showed a photo of himself sharing a cigar with the troops. “If my cardiologist is watching,” Mr. Letterman said, “that’s not a cigar.”

Mr. Letterman’s trip was arranged on very short notice-barely two weeks. In December, his agents at C.A.A. contacted the U.S.O. about a possible visit to troops overseas, said Mr. Marovitz. The Pentagon was thrilled about the idea, Mr. Marovitz continued, and a Christmas visit was scheduled, since it coincided with a break in Mr. Letterman’s Late Show schedule.

Mr. Marovitz said that Mr. Letterman flew himself, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Schaffer to Oman on Dec. 23 via private jet. From Oman, the Late Show group hopped a ride aboard a fat-bellied C-130 military transport plane and arrived in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve night. Once they were there, Mr. Letterman spent a lot of time talking to soldiers and obliging photograph and autograph requests. A number of soldiers brought him Top 10 lists, some with jokes not suitable for broadcast.

“He was a regular guy-easy to approach, easy to talk to,” Mr. Marovitz said. “He had no trouble coming up to the soldiers, and the soldiers felt totally at ease coming up to him.”

Later that night, the Late Show bunch met with more than 2,000 troops inside an old hangar on the base. On a makeshift wooden stage, Mr. Schaffer-who brought his own keyboard along-played a couple of Christmas carols, including “Silent Night,” as the soldiers sang along.

Then Mr. Letterman spoke. According to Mr. Marovitz, the Late Show host’s speech was more a heartfelt thank-you than a Bob Hope–style one-liner fest. In his brief remarks, he expressed his gratitude to the men and women in the armed forces, and thanked them for their hospitality. Then he, Mr. Schaffer and Mr. Henderson signed autographs for everyone in the crowd.

Mr. Letterman also brought gifts: 5,000 T-shirts with “LATE SHOW AFGHANISTAN” printed on them. And, though it might pain his cardiologist even further to hear, he delivered something else for the troops: cigars.

“He brought them over,” Mr. Marovitz said.

On Christmas morning, Mr. Letterman and his Late Show cohorts spent some more time with the troops in Afghanistan before heading back to Oman, where they had a dinner with military personnel there. (Mr. Letterman had also been scheduled to visit a base in Bagram, but a runway closure forced the group to cancel). After their Oman stopover, Mr. Letterman, Mr. Schaffer and Mr. Henderson flew back to New York, where they arrived in time to tape two shows in the Ed Sullivan Theater on Dec. 26.

Though Mr. Letterman has a history with the armed forces-he has featured troops in his shows and is known to enjoy having the enthusiastic servicemen and -women in his audience-this was his first official troop visit through the U.S.O., Mr. Marovitz said. And since Sept. 11, Mr. Letterman has shown a particular passion on issues related to the War on Terror, from his poignant Sept. 17, 2001, broadcast to his continued bookings of journalists, authors and other non-showbiz guests to discuss the current unrest.

Mr. Marovitz, whom Mr. Letterman thanked by name during his Dec. 26 broadcast, said it was obvious that the Afghanistan visit was important to the Late Show host. “We all recognized how he is a pretty private person, and how much this whole event must have meant to him,” he said.

Tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman , Dave does the hot-guest/cold-guest thing with Nia Vardalos and Barry Sonnenfeld. It’s a repeat. Don’t worry: the hot/cold thing still applies. [WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]

Thursday, Jan. 2

If you think reality TV has gotten inane, imagine how Alan and Susan Raymond feel. They’re the husband-and-wife team behind An American Family , the groundbreaking 1973 PBS series that examined the Louds, a real-life suburban family living in California. Compared to rapid-cut cheesy fare like Road Rules , the staid, sober An American Family now looks like a Terrence Malick movie.

“Reality TV is pretty much a game show,” Susan Raymond said the other day. “They just invented this catch-phrase word to make up a genre that pretty much doesn’t have any reality in it at all.”

Said Alan Raymond: “Our joke is that there isn’t that much reality on The Real World .”

O.K., it’s an old joke. But now the Raymonds are back, a bit sadly-but no less provocatively-with Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family , an epilogue/documentary about the life and times of Loud child Lance Loud, who America first met as a teenage extrovert growing up wild in Santa Barbara, Calif. Mr. Loud memorably came out as a gay man in An American Family , and is regarded as a pioneer in the portrayal of gay people in television-weird, since he was merely playing himself-and later went on to careers in both music and journalism. He died of liver failure caused by a hepatitis C and HIV co-infection on Dec. 21, 2001. He was 50.

The Raymonds had kept in touch with Lance and other members of the Loud family over the years-they revisited the clan in 1983 for An American Family ‘s “Episode 2”-and Lance wanted the filmmakers there to chronicle his final days living in California. He died only a couple days after the Raymonds filmed him for the last time.

“He was the most honest member of the family,” Ms. Raymond said.

Said Mr. Raymond: “He was a pathfinder.”

They noted that one of Lance Loud’s final dreams came true, and remains so: Lance’s parents, Pat and William, have gotten back together. The couple memorably divorced decades ago.

And the Raymonds aren’t totally down on all of today’s reality TV. They do have one show they like: The Osbournes .

“I think it’s the only link from American Family ,” Ms. Raymond said. “The Osbournes are a family, they are related, they live with each other, and they are fascinating.

“Of course,” she continued, “they are edited for laughs, and fine-tuned.”

Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family airs on PBS on Jan. 6 at 9 p.m. Tonight on PBS/Channel 13, nurse that hangover to a nice, soothing Stage on Screen performance of Waiting for Godot . Pass the Advil! And the Aleve! [WNET, 13, 9 p.m.]

Friday, Jan. 3

You know it’s time to huddle the executive producers together and re-examine the material if you wake up on Dec. 26, read the New York City local ratings and realize you’ve been beaten by a bunch of burning sticks.

But that’s exactly what happened to a couple of shows in our area, as WPIX’s “Yule Log” scored some not-so-measly ratings on Christmas morning.

In fact, the Yule Log’s ratings beat that of The Montel Williams Show (sorry, Montel) and The Rob Nelson Show (don’t know who that is). It also defeated repeats of A Different World, Moesha and Cosby on Channel 9, as well as WCBS’s Christmas snowstorm coverage and Guiding Light .

Tonight, Craig Kilborn welcomes the ratings-grabbing Yule Log to the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn . [WCBS, 2, 12:30 a.m.]

Saturday, Jan. 4

We only watch the Metro channel when we’re kind of brain-dead, and so we felt especially out of our mind in the wee-wee hours of Dec. 27, when we turned on the hometown cable channel’s subway chat show Subway Q&A and saw it being hosted by … Dick Cavett! For a moment, we thought we’d stumbled upon the most depressing career dénouement of all time, but no such luck: It was merely a guest-hosting gig-and worse, it was a repeat, more than a year old. We must have really been out of it. Tonight on Metro, those still hungover from Waiting for Godot can catch the New Jersey Devils versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. [MET, 70, 7 p.m.]

Sunday, Jan. 5

Tonight on ABC: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory . Still creepily delicious. [WABC, 7, 7 p.m.]

Monday, Jan. 6

With Monday Night Football ‘s season over, ABC trots out Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday , and guess what: It’s noisy, overblown and, finally, boring-just like Monday Night Football ! [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, Jan. 7

On HBO, A Beautiful Mind . Thought you’d blocked seeing this thing out of your head, didn’t you? It’s back! On your TV! [HBO, 32, 8:30 p.m.] Road to Kandahar: Letterman’s Trip Planned by U.S.O.