January 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

What’s the future of ”Late Night With David Letterman”?

Maybe the thrill of bagging Hillary Clinton as a guest was too much for the old man, but I doubt it: It’s unlikely that David Letterman, the finest, most enduring, and most creative talk-show host of his generation, a man who has laughed in the face of Madonna and in the boot of Crispin Glover, was felled by meeting the First Lady. The news late last week that the 52-year-old Letterman had undergone a quintuple bypass came at a time when he was working at the top of his game; while he’s reportedly expected to make a full recovery and be back at the Ed Sullivan Theater bending over to touch his loafers within two months, it’s a shame that this operation will slow his current momentum.

CBS must be pretty nervous about what reruns of ”The Late Show” (it’s in Letterman’s contract that he can’t be substitute-hosted without his consent) will do up against fresh episodes of Jay Leno’s ”Tonight Show.” Leno, already the time-slot talk-show leader, will probably pull even further ahead, even though I suspect most Letterman loyalists will have the good sense to avoid Leno’s crass carny show.

In fact, Letterman’s canny producer, Rob Burnett, may even be able to keep ”The Late Show” competitive while his boss recuperates if he follows a suggestion I offer: Why not turn Letterman’s unfortunate absence into a Festival Of Dave, a succession of reruns that will be Letterman’s Greatest Hits. One night, air Dave’s infamous dustup with a surly, expletive-hurling Madonna; the next night, run that hour which peaked with wacky actor Glover nearly kicking Dave in the head. How about showing the original Andy Kaufman-as-wrestler show that inspired the scene that Jim Carrey and Letterman himself helped re-create in the current movie ”Man in the Moon”?

I know. The problem is that NBC hasn’t in the past permitted Letterman and CBS to air clips from his ”Late Night” show, but perhaps public outcry could shame the parsimonious peacock network into caving in. But even without the NBC shows, Dave’s done enough good-to-great work on his current network to fill 2 months’ worth of shows. The key, in my opinion, is to air the best ones FULL-LENGTH — don’t chop them up, as in an anniversary show. TV producers don’t seem to realize the pleasure fans take in seeing entire shows, complete with out-of-date references and Dave’s shifting-over-the-years hairlines.

What shows of Letterman’s would YOU like to see rerun, if that’s the way Burnett and CBS decide to go? Write in and we’ll make sure the ”Late Night” consortium receives your suggestions. And we’ll pass on our sincere best wishes for Dave’s rapid recovery.

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