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His very first time is a charm

September 12, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

It was called a TV interview, but perhaps what Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman engaged in Monday was really more a corporate merger of celebrity.

Winfrey, kicking off her 22nd season with shows in New York, sat down with Letterman in the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden for 35 minutes of mutual basking in each other's public selves -- his depressive-seeming and privacy-guarding, hers as empathetic as it is monolithic.

This version of "When Dave Met Oprah" was a quid pro quo from 2005, when Winfrey dropped in on "The Late Show With David Letterman," a media event that ended a supposed 16-year feud.

In a ceremonial exchanging of bits, Letterman brought the "Oprah Log" he'd kept for six months, chronicling each day that passed without an invitation to her show, and she cued the Super Bowl commercial in which Dave and Oprah cuddled on a sofa.

All of it conspired to prevent a conversation from actually breaking out. Of course, in Winfrey's hands, a question like, "So, Dave, people don't know anything about you" is actually a segue to more about Oprah -- in this case, a clip of the photo of Oprah and Dave together that rests on a mantel in her office, alongside Oprah with Desmond Tutu and Oprah with Elie Wiesel.

Now the TV stars are kissing cousins too, hands held in mutual statesmanship. Consider their respective weekends: Letterman's was spent at his alma mater, Ball State University in Indiana, where the school officially dedicated the David Letterman Communication and Media Building, while she was hosting a fundraiser at her Montecito vacation home for Sen. Barack Obama that reportedly raised $3 million for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Winfrey played a clip of Letterman's speech at Ball State; coincidentally, it ended in a punch line about Oprah. That everything inevitably leads back to Oprah is part of her awesome allure as America's narcissist. (The question of who holds more power, Winfrey or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was one of the livelier debates I've seen on cable news recently.)

Letterman, meanwhile, rarely grants interviews, the last one coming in 2002, when he appeared on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" spinoff "Nightline Up Close." Now 60, Letterman has long been as cautious about his public life as his role model, Johnny Carson, aping the "Tonight Show" legend's reclusiveness.

As Carson had Malibu, Letterman has Montana, where he decamps to spend quality time with Regina Lasko and their 4-year-old son, Harry. It's a little interesting that the comedian who invented a new brand of late-night irony spends his downtime in decidedly un-ironic surroundings. Then, too, the remote terrain has real-world implications; for years while living in Connecticut, Letterman was stalked by a woman, the late Margaret Mary Ray, who imagined they were romantically involved, and in 2005 Montana police uncovered a plot by a ranch hand to kidnap the then-16-month-old Harry.

On "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Letterman brought along two snapshots of his son, which seemed, given his history, a kind of brave concession to public curiosity.

"Mommy has to tell him a lot that I'm just teasing," Letterman said of fatherhood. Winfrey insisted that fatherhood had softened Letterman; he concurred.

For much of the interview there was a smear of fog on Letterman's glasses; that he didn't bother to wipe it off became much richer subtext than any of the actual text. For what's foggier is Letterman's endgame -- will he wait for his old stand-up compatriot/arch-nemesis Jay Leno to exit the late-night stage before he takes his own final bow?

Sixty is the new 40, Winfrey told him cheerily and Letterman, clearly self-conscious about the aging process, escaped into the welcoming bosom of a Regis Philbin joke.

"I feel like I'm still in show business," Letterman said in parting. There was some of that trademark Letterman dryness to the remark -- one more self-flagellating aside in the face of her billion-dollar banality.


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