The premiere of NBC's new David Letterman show was a shaggy triumph. It's going to be awfully nice to have this warm little outpost of acerbic mirth waiting there in the Yukon of post-midnight programming. David Letterman, the light at the end of the tunnel. Or something.
And when Johnny Carson does retire, NBC can just slide Letterman back into Carson's time slot, and there we'll be for another comfy couple of decades. "Late Night with David Letterman" picked up Monday night where Letterman's old and inventive daytime show left off, although former inspired cutups and sidekicks like Rich Hall, Edie McClurg and Wil Shriner were unfortunately not in evidence.
The spectacularly unpredictable Bill Murray, one of America's most unassuming millionaires, was in evidence, however -- the way, say, King Kong was once in evidence atop the Empire State Building. Guest star Murray catapulted out from the wings and completely flustered Letterman, one moment demanding the crowd give the host a standing ovation (his second of the night), the next accosting him with, "Well, I wish that you would quit trying to run my life, David. Seriously."
Murray can shatter and satirize about a dozen phony baloneys at a time. "I had a chance to strangle Richard Nixon and I didn't, and I regret it," he said soberly. After a commercial, he was suddenly contrite, apologizing for his outbursts and explaining it was all due to his metabolism -- "a salt problem. I just need a certain amount of maintenance." Soon he was entangled, engulfed and embroiled in the definitive version of Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical," tumbling and writhing furiously through what he claimed were aerobic exercises; as the network faded to black, Murray could be heard screaming, "I'm hurt! I'm really hurt!"
It was the kind of jubilant anarchy that you always hope will break out on talk shows and hardly ever does, the sort of thing that used to demolish Steve Allen's program, and Steve Allen, with welcome regularity.
Letterman proved himself capable of presiding over hospitable video intimacy in his daytime show -- an Art Linkletter for the '80s! -- and he seems even more at home beyond the blue horizon. He's awfully conservative for such a young fellow, hardly the troublemaker type, and yet he does have a promising, sly irrepressibility. Refreshingly, he appears anxious to break the shackles of the desk-and-chat format. He took viewers on a tour of the backstage area with a minicam (the control room was deep in the rollick of Oktoberfest) and, in pretaped segments, investigated such "Shames of the City" as flagrant misspelling in a deli window sign.
Some of the old creative team from Letterman's daylight follies are with him on the new program; a few others, like conductor Paul Shaffer, were among the hallowed ranks of the original "Saturday Night Live" (which is like saying they graduated magna cum laude from the best university in the country). Sometimes too smart-alecky, sometimes too smirky, Letterman, nevertheless, has the look and feel of someone who wears well, and what he does is Real TV.
"Why am I watching this?" you may ask yourself as Letterman and Don "Mr. Wizard" Herbert inflate the nipple on a baby bottle with gas from a bottle of club soda. Why? Because -- it's television, dummy.