David Letterman: New Dave Dawning

After 11 years, David Letterman is the man of the hour in late night. Now if he can only learn to enjoy it.

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Yet Madison Avenue has a poor record of foreseeing seismic shifts in TV viewing patterns. As he moves closer to the mainstream, Letterman may find the mainstream has met him more than halfway. Letterman's hip, ironic, show-biz- hardened sensibility has, in the decade since he arrived, moved to the center of the culture in everything from sitcoms to Spy magazine. Billy Crystal used to poke fun at Tonight Show blather on Saturday Night Live ("You look mahvelous"); now he hosts the Academy Awards. Knockoffs of Letterman's Top 10 lists have turned up everywhere but on the backs of cereal boxes. Leno himself has appropriated, clumsily, Letterman-style bits (Jay too makes phone calls for people picked from the audience). The only late-night host who still seems to regard Merv Griffin as an acceptable role model is Arsenio Hall, and he introduces rap groups and wears an earring.

None of which appears to be causing much concern among Letterman and his brain trust, who have spent the past month settling into their new digs and holding twice-daily meetings to plan their new show. Much of the activity has been on the architectural front. In 12 furious weeks, the old Ed Sullivan Theater -- where Elvis and the Beatles were once presented by the Great Stone Face -- was given a complete overhaul. In his new setup Letterman will have a more cavernous auditorium, a bigger audience (about 400 seats, nearly double the capacity of his old NBC studio) and a whole new neighborhood for his snoopy cameras to roam around in. "You can leave the stage, go down three or four steps, open the door, and you're right on 53rd Street," says Letterman. "I can scream every night at Miss Saigon. I can literally holler at her. I can make enough noise on our sidewalk to disrupt their show every night."

A few other changes are being planned. Shaffer has added two more members to | the band, renamed it the CBS Orchestra and rescored the bluesy theme song to give it "more pizazz." Guests too are likely to be ratcheted a notch higher in marquee value. "At 11:30, with such heated competition, you have to have guests that are more surefire," says executive producer Robert Morton. "On the old show, we had more breathing room. We might put on a guest who wasn't a great talker but someone we really liked. Now we're going for the best possible performers." Among those scheduled for the first week: Robin Williams, Martin Short, Debra Winger and John Mellencamp. (In a nice bow to tradition, Letterman's very first guest will be Bill Murray, his inaugural guest on NBC in 1982.)

But Letterman and his staff dismiss any notion that the show will be toned down or changed in any substantive way to suit the earlier time period. In a series of brainstorming meetings on the subject, Letterman and his producers considered several ideas -- expanding the opening monologue, switching from a single chair for guests to a Tonight-style couch -- and rejected them. Says Morton: "We decided we do a pretty darn good show."

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