Letterman opens new show on CBS

August 31, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- "There can only be one first show," writer Dave Shepp said yesterday from the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater. "And this is it!"

With that, the nearly 500 fans waiting to watch David Letterman make his CBS debut burst into frenzied applause. It wasn't just the prospect of seeing guests Bill Murray and Billy Joel that had the crowd excited, nor was it the prospect of getting a first glance at the new set of "Late Show With David Letterman" or Paul Shaffer's new six-piece CBS Orchestra -- although clearly, that was part of it.

No, these folks were cheering their lungs out because they knew they were a part of television history. The first shot of the Late Night Wars was about to fired, and they were there. Baltimoreans saw it last night at 11:30 on WNUV (Channel 54).

How was it? Very much like the old Letterman show in many ways. There was the Top-10 list (dubbed "The Late Show Top 10" for legal reasons), which enumerated the best things about being on CBS. There was an opening monologue (and a funny one at that). There was a taped piece showing Mr. Letterman interviewing people in New Jersey about what they wanted to see more of on TV. There was Biff Henderson, Calvert DeForrest (whom NBC wouldn't let Mr. Letterman call "Larry 'Bud' Melman" anymore), Bill Wendell, Hal Gurnee, Laurie "Rose" Diamond, Robert Morton, Barbara Gaines and many of the other behind-the-scenes people Mr. Letterman has pulled into the limelight.

Indeed, Mr. Letterman did seem in better spirits than he was at NBC. Even though he poked fun at the saturation campaign CBS ran to promote the new show, there was no grouchiness in his delivery, no bitterness in his smile. He seemed genuinely happy to be up there, whether chatting with Mr. Murray, joking with Mr. Shaffer or simply being Dave.

Granted, maintaining that Lettermanian poise took some doing, particularly with wild man Mr. Murray on hand. Not only did Mr. Murray go to the usual extremes, including bussing the host on the cheek and spray-painting "DAVE" on Mr. Letterman's desk, but he even dragged Mr. Letterman into the audience, where he passed out dollar bills as Dave shook hands.

But there were differences, too -- like the new set. Although the basic desk-on-the-right, band-on-the-left arrangement remains, the new Letterman stage is bigger than its predecessor. Where his old desk was backed by a Manhattan-in-miniature panorama, the new show has 12-foot models lurking behind Mr. Letterman and the band, including Carnegie Hall and a theater with a blinking marquee.

There are also more seats for the audience, with about 300 on the floor and another 150 in the balcony.

Needless to say, everyone in those seats was extremely happy to be there. Most had stood in line for hours (there were already 70-some people waiting outside the Ed Sullivan Theater by 1 p.m., three hours before the doors opened for the 5:30 p.m. taping). Those who got in did so only because they had been smart enough to send a postcard to CBS in June and were lucky enough to have had that card drawn in the Letterman ticket lottery.

"It's just sheer fortune that I got tickets," said Phyllis Wheelan, 41, a commercial real estate broker from Tarrytown, N.Y. Ms. Wheelan is a Letterman fan of long standing -- she watched "Late Night" being taped at NBC. "I've never seen any other show: 'Oprah,' 'Donahue,' none of them," she said proudly.

Heidi, a 25-year-old from New Rochelle who declined to give her last name, has not been watching quite as long as Ms. Wheelan. But she was eager to see whether the move to CBS would improve Mr. Letterman's attitude. "I noticed that Dave got pretty sad over the last few years," she said. "But this is a great move for him."

Even at the end of the show, his new attitude was evident. When he had to retape one sequence to cover a mistake (Mr. Letterman, while invoking the ghost of Ed Sullivan, initially said that Mr. Sullivan had been on the air for 20 years; the second take was done so he could correctly say "28 years"), he couldn't help but goof around. "Is this really worth the trouble?" he asked, laughing.

Yeah, it was. Because if that first show was any indication, David Letterman looks even better than ever on CBS.

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