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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Workmen are still wandering through the halls, rats are being chased in the basement, and bulletproof glass is being installed in David Letterman's office. Not really bulletproof; that's just the way Letterman likes to describe the protective pane designed to prevent him from accidentally tossing a baseball right through the glass, as he did once at his old NBC office, raining shards on pedestrians below. But Letterman is already gushing over his unfinished suite as if he had just moved into Windsor Castle. "Look at | this," he says, striding into the room in his workaday outfit of T shirt, shorts and sneakers. "It's brand-new. Clean walls. New carpet. Office furniture. I used to have a paper route, and now I have three floors of a theater building on Broadway in New York City. I'm the luckiest man alive."

After a decade of the fabled Letterman irony, one can be excused a skeptical pause. Is he serious? Or is this another Letterman put-on, one of those statements meant to convey its precise opposite -- the way "those fine, fine people at General Electric" on his old show usually meant Dave had had another dustup with his bonehead corporate bosses. Letterman's new headquarters -- located a few stories above New York City's Ed Sullivan Theater, where he is about to unveil his new late-night talk show on CBS -- are clean, all right, but not without intrusion. The smell of roasting chicken wafts up every afternoon from the fast-food place downstairs and causes most of the staff to make faces. "I don't mind it," he says cheerily. "You build the place over a chicken restaurant, what is it gonna smell like -- catfish?"

No getting around it; David Letterman sounds, well, happy for a change. Or, at least, as happy as an insecure, driven, angst-ridden performer with a pathological fear of failure can be. Certainly no one has more of a right to enjoy himself for a spell. For the past two years, Letterman has been the most wrangled-over, gossiped-about, sought-after star in television. When Jay Leno was chosen to succeed Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show, it was Letterman, the disappointed office seeker, who drew the sympathy vote. Last fall, when his contract with NBC was coming due after 11 years as custodian of the post-Carson time period, he was besieged with offers. In January, when he announced he was jumping to CBS for a reported $14 million a year, Letterman reached the superstar pantheon. Starting next Monday when his show resurfaces on CBS at 11:35 p.m. Eastern time -- going head to head against Leno's Tonight Show in most cities -- he will be the point man in the most frenzied battle for late-night viewers in TV history.

This matters, not just because a lot of money is at stake -- about $675 million in advertising revenue this year for a time period that once was a quiet backwater. The struggle is also for the soul of late-night TV, where America goes live and loose, where the rituals of daily life give way, on occasion, to the risky and serendipitous. Late night comes after the cheery sitcoms and earnest magazine shows have gone to bed. It is where Americans have the freedom to rabble-rouse, ruminate or maybe just relax -- their small- scale midnight rebellion.

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