Letterman loosens up--Since his surgery, the ''Late Show'' host rails on guests, rivals, sponsors and everyone else

By Aaron Barnhart
Updated April 07, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

On a recent show, Paul Shaffer summed it up nicely: David Letterman ”just doesn’t give a damn anymore.” Indeed, Dave is more unruly, cranky, and brutally frank than he’s ever been. Is it the decaf coffee? No, says Late Show exec producer Rob Burnett, who instead theorizes that the recent outpouring of support helped banish any of his boss’ insecurities. ”He’s now sitting back in the chair — like Johnny Carson did — and driving the car with one hand. And I think Dave is at his best when he doesn’t care about anything.” Here, five examples of post-surgery roadkills.

Byrne Tactics
Letterman rattled actor Gabriel Byrne by laying into Ron Perelman, the billionaire fiance of Byrne’s ex-wife Ellen Barkin. In a March 20 chat, Letterman called Perelman ”bald,” ”fat,” and ”a thug.” Mused Byrne during the exchange, ”This is the weirdest thing anyone has said to me in quite some time.”

A Blow to the Chin
After years of virtually ignoring his rival’s existence, Letterman lambasted Jay Leno March 1, sneering at the latter’s interview with George W. Bush: ”Now, there‘s a real summit meeting.” Dave followed it up with what seemed to be a jabbering, nasal-voiced Leno impression.

More Bush Bashing
Apolitical no more, Letterman said to Tom Brokaw March 10, ”In your heart, you know that George W. makes Dan Quayle look like Winston Churchill.”

Full of Beans
When Letterman began his anti-decaf coffee campaign in early March (”It’s what they’re drinking in hell”), he asked, ”Do we have any coffee sponsors? I don’t care.”

Quiz Show Scandal
After Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek mocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire last month, Dave appointed himself Regis Philbin‘s bulldog, making brutal sport of a photo in which Trebek appears to be wearing lip gloss. The picture’s in nightly rotation with the slogan ”He’s the smartest man in the world — and he wears lipstick!”

(Additional reporting by Ken Tucker)