Humor muted as late-night shows return

Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2001

NEW YORK -- David Letter man didn't try to be funny and Bill Maher didn't hide his anger as their late-night shows returned to television.

Letterman, his halting voice, opened CBS' ''Late Show'' on Monday seated behind his desk with a somber, five-minute monologue focused on last week's terrorist attacks.

The Indianapolis native, who has worked in New York for 20 years, paid tribute to the city's police and firefighters and its mayor.

''If you didn't know how to behave, all you had to do at any moment was watch the mayor,'' he said. ''Rudolph Giuliani is the personification of courage.''

Letterman struggled to make sense of the attack, saying some people attributed it to religious fervor.

''If you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense?'' he asked.

CBS News anchor Dan Rather was an emotional guest, breaking down as he tried to explain what it was like at one of the disaster sites. Later, he wept as he recited a verse of ''America the Beautiful,'' saying Americans will never hear the lyrics the same way again.

In Los Angeles, ''Politically Incorrect'' host Bill Maher said the attack had altered his show as well as the country.

''It's going to be a little more serious. I think that's OK. It's OK with you?'' he asked the audience, drawing applause.

One of the ABC show's four guest chairs was empty to honor commentator Barbara Olson, who died in the plane that hit the Pentagon.

Humor still would have a place, Maher said. Declaring himself ''mad at my own government'' for failing to protect Americans, he said that ''ridicule, sarcasm, belittlement'' could be an outlet.

''Those things make us laugh. It doesn't make us bad people,'' he said.

The ''Late Show'' wasn't entirely comedy-free. Guest Regis Philbin tried to allay Letterman's stated doubts that he had come back on the air too soon.

''Do you think Kathie Lee will come back?'' Letterman asked of Philbin's former talk show co-host, Kathie Lee Gifford.

''There is somebody who could end this in a hurry,'' Philbin replied. ''You want a quick end to this, send Kathie Lee over there.''

NBC's ''Tonight'' show with Jay Leno and ''Late Night'' with Conan O'Brien return to the air Tuesday night. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and musical group Crosby, Stills and Nash were the scheduled guests.

Comedy Central has kept ''The Daily Show,'' a satirical show that runs four times weekly at 11 p.m. EDT, on reruns since the attack. The network decided Monday not to bring the show back live this week, spokesperson Tony Fox said.

''When you're talking about a show that is a news parody and the news is so consumed about this tragedy, what's funny about what's unfolding here? Nothing,'' he said. ''As someone at the show said succinctly, irony is dead for the moment.''

Comedy Central also removed reruns of its sitcom about the president, ''That's My Bush!'' from the air and has painstakingly gone through its tapes to make sure it is not showing anything insensitive, Fox said.

The humor magazine The Onion also said it would publish no new material this week, instead putting out a ''rerun issue'' of light articles that were previously released.

Syndicated newspaper humor columnist Dave Barry told readers in Monday's column: ''No humor column today. I don't want to write it, and you don't want to read it.''

Instead, Barry wrote about the nature of Americans.

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