The Letterman/Koppel interview is heartbreaking. In his first interview in six years, Dave responds honestly to Ted's questions about Sept. 11, heart surgery, and that nasty little late-night contretemps, says Ken Tucker
Ted Koppel, David Letterman
Credit: Ted Koppel: Bob D'Amico; David Letterman: JP Filo/CBS

The Letterman/Koppel interview is heartbreaking

Monday night on ABC, Ted Koppel did his bit toward replacing Bill Maher’s canceled ”Politically Incorrect” by having conservative pundits Dinesh D’Souza and E.J. Dionne squawk about the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling about the Pledge of Allegiance on ”Nightline.” (All that was missing was a hooting studio audience and a leggy blonde, although I’ll bet that foxy Dinesh’s gams would give Ann Coulter’s a run for their money if he ever hitched up his trousers.) Meanwhile, over on CBS, David Letterman was letting stagehand Biff Henderson loose on the streets of New York City with a bullhorn, booming wisecracks at innocent citizens, and following that up with the biggest movie star of the moment, Tom Hanks.

A bit past midnight, however, Maher’s real replacement-programming began: “Up Close,” which Koppel promised would examine ”humanity, one person at a time.” (Zounds! Ted said he knew he’s got this “Up Close” gig only until Jimmy Kimmel cooks up his new show for September, so Ted’d better start cramming more humanity into each half hour fast, if he wants to make a dent in us.)

Anyway, David Letterman was Koppel’s first guest, in what Ted touted was Dave’s ”first television interview in six years.” The result, against all expectations, was amazing. Letterman is notoriously guarded — Midwestern-stern and New York-cynical. Ted is notoriously uncomfortable interviewing celebrities — his pride in being a ”hard news” guy, y’know. Combine this with the fact that Koppel’s bosses had offered Dave Ted’s timeslot a few months ago and you had the makings of 30 squirming minutes.

I feared the worst when, having concluded ”Nightline” in his usual suit and tie, Koppel inaugurated ”Up Close” wearing what looked like a white rain poncho. But then he and Letterman started talking. Koppel said they had to address the awkwardness of that ABC wheeling-and-dealing that ultimately came to naught. With great skepticism, he asked Letterman whether a fellow of his wealth and fame could possibly have had his head turned ”just because they woo you,” and God bless him, Dave said forthrightly, ”Yes.” It was a great moment in celebrity honesty.

Then, speaking for multitudes of malcontents all over the country, he explained his consideration of moving from CBS to ABC by saying simply, ”Anybody can create their own misery.” Who among us has never felt this about a job change?

Letterman admitted that having heart surgery was ”the most exciting thing that ever happened to me,” which jibes with his portrayal of himself as a workaholic recluse.

Koppel avoided going Barbara Walters on us, yet he still elicited mist from Letterman’s eyes by having the comedian recall his first post-Sept. 11 broadcast. The moment was quite moving, all the more so when Koppel, recognizing that he’d touched Letterman more deeply than the reporter had perhaps intended, said, for no real reason, ”You seem to be a nice man.” Letterman’s face creased in a smile and he quietly returned the compliment.

The member of humanity writing this piece had goose bumps.

What did you think of the Ted and Dave Show?