New York Daily News - David Letterman Article

When David Letterman returns to his CBS "Late Show" Monday at 11:35, after a week's vacation, he'll be coming off his best November ratings period in seven years, moving his closest to Jay Leno's NBC "Tonight Show" in almost a decade (1 rating point less than Leno's 5.4).

He'll also be coming off a month of very strong shows - and, with a new baby at home, a probable stretch of near-sleepness nights. I strongly suspect these three November events - the birth of Harry Joseph Letterman, the streak of entertaining programs and a renewed competitiveness - are anything but unrelated.

The night Letterman returned to the show, after taking off to be with girlfriend Regina Lasko as she gave birth, bandleader Paul Shaffer joked with his old friend. "If this doesn't soften you up," Shaffer said after offering his congratulations, "nothing will."

Soften up, he has - even when fighting a bad flu and the equally bad publicist who advised Paris Hilton to cancel her "Late Show" booking. Quite clearly, Letterman came back to work as a proud papa, with the willingness to not only ask the questions that everyone wanted to hear (as he did with Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge), but to be asked them, too.

That's what made his two-way interview with Howard Stern, repeated last Monday, less than a month after its initial telecast, such riveting television. Stern, making his first appearance on the show in years, was a strong enough force, and an adept enough questioner, not to let Letterman off the hook about his new status as a father, and, eventually, a husband.

Madonna, too, had an interview of a different sort with Letterman, probing him as much as he probed her. It makes you wait with bated breath for the next time Cher gets booked.

There are a few noticeable tweaks to the show - a bit more venturing by Letterman outside the studio, and a few more cold opens, as when Letterman got Ridge to field a joke phone call about a "deeply embedded" fugitive. ("Afghanistan?" Letterman asked. "No," Ridge replied. "Neverland Ranch.")

But even when the elements are tried and true, like the Top 10 List or Letterman trying to guess his mother's Thanksgiving pie selections, they have enhanced charm now. During the pie segment, Letterman had his mom rattle off the ages of her five grandchildren - and when it came to her youngest, it was hard to tell who was prouder.

The writing has been sharp, too. When the Michael Jackson scandal broke, Letterman's monologue included a classic line: "The police finally came up with a mug shot scarier than Nick Nolte's."

And Shaffer has been contributing in an inspired way as well, from an unprintable ad lib about Paris Hilton to playful music selections for particular guests. (When Mike Myers of "The Cat in the Hat" entered, Shaffer and his band played Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On.")

Since he started sitting behind a talk-show desk, Letterman has been mercurial and evasive about his private life. Paradoxically, though, it's when he has revealed his inner self - whether after his heart surgery or 9/11 - that he has been the most potent and singular as a broadcaster. As a proud parent myself, I suspect that Letterman is in for the time of his life - and his fans are due for their best shows ever.
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December 5th 2003
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"Birth of new Letterman. Dad Dave at top of game"

By DAVID BIANCULLI
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