At the Ed Sullivan Theater, the hot seat turns
Sunday, January 30, 2000

Special from Newsday

    The debate rages, churns, and roils. Friendships are strained. The
subject just won't die. The New Hampshire primary? The stock market? Susan
Lucci's future on Broadway? No, silly. Really important stuff: Should Dave
have a guest host?

    Somewhere in the New York area, David Letterman is recuperating from
open-heart surgery. He is doing well, very well, and his eventual return is
measured in weeks. In the meantime, there's a show to put on and a February
sweeps looming. And so, the Second Big Question: Should CBS and Letterman
squander the recent ratings gains by airing repeats? (Everyone agrees that
even a roomful of chimps could easily pick any number of top-flight

    The answer is ridiculously obvious. Yes, "Late Show With David
Letterman" should have guest hosts. More the merrier. Sooner the better. And
just to add a little edge to this debate: Letterman also might want to
consider a semipermanent guest host after he returns.

    At this moment, Letterman and his trusted lieutenant, Rob Burnett, are
conferring on the "guest host" issue. Burnett, executive producer, said last
week that they "have never been opposed to the idea of a guest host, [and]
it's something we'll consider along with a lot of other options."

    "Late Show" aficionados have had intemperate disagreements on the
subject. Columnist Aaron Barhhart recently posted a diatribe against the
idea on his respected Web site, noting that a guest host "is one
of those ideas that sounds like a can't lose -- that is, until somebody
actually tries it."

    Now, I offer eight reasons why this would be a brilliant idea. (Not 10?
Sorry, this was all I could think of.)

1. Rotating hosts would be fun for viewers. Bring a different one in each
night, and repeat the process the following week. Keep each night's guest
host a closely guarded secret. Even the studio audience won't know until he
or she walks onstage, and, of course, viewers will tune in just to see that
night's face. This could make for absurd fun: Any idiot can do this job one
night, and viewers could judge just how competent a guest host is. If
they're utterly incompetent, all the better.

2. No usual suspects, please. Regis Philbin is a wonderful dude, but he's
also overexposed. Why not the unexpected: a sports figure (Derek Jeter), or
news (Tom Brokaw), or quasi-singer (Kathie Lee Gifford, a not unamusing
guest over the years), or TV star (Bill Cosby), or reclusive movie star
(Paul Newman, who's a Letterman pal).

3. OK, usual suspects please. Fine, if it's usual suspects you want, then
there are a boatload of 'em. Jerry Seinfeld (his name has been mentioned
about 885 times so far). Bill Murray (the classic Letterman guest). Tony
Randall (in recent years, it seems, his only job has been to appear on "Late

4. Give Chris Elliott a one-nighter (but no more). Chris who? One of the
more amusing Letterman regulars from years past (the Panicky Guy, the Guy
Under the Seats, Marlon Brando). That's who. Elliott would be a nice blast
from the past and could introduce taped highlights of some golden oldies
(the Monkey Cam; the Velcro Suit).

5. Alternate guest hosts in studios on each coast. No need to do "Late Show"
each night from the Ed Sullivan Theater; warm up that fancy one CBS built
for Dave at CBS' Television City when he joined the network in '93. This
way, the show could avail itself of Left Coast guest hosts who might be
otherwise averse to making a cross-country trek for a one- or two-night

6. Two words: Johnny Carson. Yes, the Great Carnac has been widely mentioned
as a possible guest host, to which I say this: A singularly brilliant idea.
We're not asking you to come to New York, Johnny. Just put down the tennis
racket, get in the limo, and go over to the CBS lot. Don't even stay for the
whole show. Just come out. Bow. Accept the adoring applause. Let people see
that you are still in reasonable health (are you?). Tell a couple of jokes.
Accept more adoring applause. And then ... do whatever you want. Every paper
in the country will cover this lavishly. It will be one of the TV events of
the year.

7. Do a few all-music shows. Give the night over to Paul Shaffer and the CBS
Orchestra, and let Paul introduce a few choice acts. Dave's favorites? Blues
Traveler, David Sanborn, Lou Reed, among others.

8. And, yes, this could warm Dave up to the idea of a permanent guest host
after he returns. We love ya, Dave, but the hard truth is, you just had a
quintuple bypass and you are not immortal. Why not lay off your grueling
schedule just a bit? A guest host could help. In an interview several years
ago, Letterman told me, "Everybody has a built-in viability, and I know I'm
not kidding myself. I can't work into my mid-60s the way Carson did. My
father was dead by the time he was 53, so I don't want this job to kill me.
In anybody's life you look at these landmarks as they come and you act on
them as they come or you don't ... How much longer would [I] like to do
this? Well, my contract runs through the year 2000. We'll see what happens
then." (Note to worried readers: His contract has been extended.)