Late-night comedy and ''Politically Incorrect'' made a dramatic return Monday night, says Ken Tucker
Dan Rather, David Letterman, ...
Credit: David Letterman: CBS

How Letterman handled his first post-terror show

David Letterman, Bill Maher, and Craig Kilborn returned to late-night talk show programming last night, with each of the hosts’ familiar personae heightened — placed in a dramatic relief. CBS’ ”The Late Show With David Letterman” and ”The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” and ABC’s ”Politically Incorrect” all began with what’s called in the business a ”cold opening”: no snazzy music, no opening monologue.

Letterman and Kilborn each sat behind their desks and made serious opening remarks. In his Manhattan studio, Letterman brought his 20-year history as a New York-based host to bear on intense, barely controlled emotions about last week’s terrorist attacks, and gave credit to Mayor Rudolph Guiliani for ”imploring us to go on” with our lives — which for Letterman, of course, means doing his show.

Acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation, Letterman had two guests — Dan Rather, who broke down in tears twice while describing the awful news events, and Regis Philbin, about whom Letterman made one of his night’s few jokes: ”Thank God Regis is here so we have SOMETHING to make fun of.” Regis ventured some humor –”You want a quick end to this? Send Kathie Lee over there,” he said, as Letterman’s smile cracked open and then shriveled; he was not sure whether to laugh or grimace. Paul Shaffer and his band were present, making, as usual, shrewdly appropriate musicial selections between segments, such as Al Green’s ”Let’s Stay Together.” At the end of the hour, Letterman’s sendoff was typically honest and blunt: ”We have no one booked for tomorrow night.”

In his Los Angeles studio, Kilborn noted a generational gap. Younger than Letterman, Kilborn said, ”We weren’t around for World War II [or] the Kennedy assassination,” but he also made clear his ambivalence: ”We have a dilemma on our show. When do we go back into comedy?”

Kilborn brought on political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell, who answered Kilborn’s questions about Osama bin Laden but also said something that must have given Kilborn and all talk show hosts comfort, noting that to continue with entertainment programming was an act of defiance in the face of terrorist intimidation, citing instances from the past including Bob Hope’s wartime revues, and concluding: ”The idea that comedy is not acceptable in times of war is a new idea. We’ve always done it.”

Over on ”Politically Incorrect,” host Bill Maher’s guests were columnist and show semi-regular Arianna Huffington, conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, and Presbyterian minister Dr. Alan Meenan. Maher said he’d keep the fourth guest chair empty all week as a tribute to ”P.I.” regular guest Barbara Olson, who died in one of the planes that crashed.

Unlike Letterman and Kilborn, Maher has a show designed to grapple with serious issues, albeit usually in a light way, so his presentation didn’t have a halting tone. He dove right in, saying, ”I do not relinquish…the right to criticize…our government. This is still a democracy and there are still politicians” whose decisions Maher said he wanted to scrutinize. The discussion was spiked with Maher’s career-long libertarian philosophy, as he excoriated a government bent on creating a missile shield and waging ”the Drug War and the Culture War” — that last a reference to government’s efforts to curb sex and violence in the entertainment industry.

As of Monday night, it was reported that Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central show was not scheduling episodes for this week; plans for Jay Leno’s ”Tonight Show” have not yet been announced. As Kilborn said of the talk show situation in general, ”There’s no blueprint for this.”

What do you think of the way the late-night shows are handling the news?

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