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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For several weeks, the Letterman crew has been taping "remotes" that will look little different from the taped bits familiar to fans of his old show. So far, Letterman has gone on a tour of the CBS Broadcast Center, manned a drive- up window at McDonald's and escorted Zsa Zsa Gabor through a New Jersey neighborhood in a segment titled "Do You Have a Question for Zsa Zsa?" (Letterman's postmortem: "Only one person asked her about slapping the cop. I thought that was odd.")

Nor does Letterman seem troubled about the much publicized dispute with NBC over the rights to his signature bits, such as the Top 10 list and Stupid Pet Tricks. The Letterman camp has conceded some points; it has changed the title of the show from Late Night to Late Show with David Letterman, for instance. But the Top 10 list and other familiar bits will be back, Letterman promises, though possibly under different names. "I would never put CBS in a position where they would have to legally defend me," he says.

Meet the new, cooperative, user-friendly David Letterman. At NBC, Letterman was a notorious malcontent, getting upset over real and perceived network slights, like a cost-saving proposal that he share studio space with The Maury Povich Show. At CBS he has schmoozed with affiliates, had nothing but kind words for network executives and recorded dozens of on-air promos, which have run ad infinitum since mid-July -- a campaign, says Letterman, that "is now officially embarrassing even me." Some of the spots, in their snide way, seem intended to reveal a softer side of the acerbic late-night host. In one, Letterman talks about his two sisters. The older one, he says, taught him, "When you go to the bathroom, close the door"; and the younger one was "one of the smartest people that I've ever been around" but "won't give me her phone number."

Yet Letterman, 46, remains an aloof, almost opaque celebrity. In conversation he is articulate, disarmingly modest and genuinely, effortlessly funny. Having shed 30 pounds since last year, he seems more relaxed and upbeat than ever before. Yet he guards his emotions tightly and talks only reluctantly about his private life.

Colleagues say one reason is that there isn't much of it. Letterman, by most accounts, is consumed by his work, has few close friends and spends little time socializing outside the office. His current girlfriend, Regina Lasko, used to work on his show (she is now production manager for Saturday Night Live), but most staffers were unaware of their relationship until the two had been dating for months. She shares his lower Manhattan loft, though he still spends much of his time (more than she would like, he admits) at his house in Connecticut. Letterman has mentioned her name publicly only once and regrets it. "People started following her family around," he says.

Others attribute Letterman's reclusiveness to his Midwestern reticence and a sincere discomfort with playing the celebrity game. "It's good taste," says Steve O'Donnell, who spent eight years as the show's head writer. "He doesn't want to lay that stuff on you."

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