It's still too early to say if David Letterman will return to the "Late Show" on Valentine's Day, but next week's shows will weave fresh interviews with favorite guests among the clips.
The arrival of the February sweeps has turned up the pressure for current material, and if a recuperating Letterman doesn't return quickly, "Late Show" may even book guest hosts. "Dave is absolutely not opposed to guest hosts, nor am I," executive producer Rob Burnett told reporters yesterday.
In the meantime, Charles Grodin, Regis Philbin and Paul Shaffer will chat with guests as they watch footage of their previous appearances on the CBS show. Maybe a third of the show, or roughly 15 minutes, will be packaged with clips. The guest roster includes such favorites as Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin.
Don't look for a Letterman lovefest or homage, though.
"The direction we will push people in is to make fun of Dave, to make fun of their experiences. Dave has not passed on; this is not the big thing where everyone's sitting around talking about how wonderful Dave is. We hope it will be funny. We hope it will be interesting," Burnett said, by phone from New York.
"Of all the things I've ever tried to book in my young life, this has been the easiest. We booked this in about four hours. It was one quick phone call to each of the celebrities, and all of them immediately said 'Yes, I'd love to do this for Dave,' " Burnett said. "If only the regular show were this easy to book."
A now-bearded Letterman is on the fast track recovering from an emergency Jan. 14 quintuple bypass. On vacation at an undisclosed location, he stopped in his Manhattan office Monday and is exercising once again. A faithful runner, Letterman walked 3 miles on Thursday.
"He's feeling very strong and terrific," Burnett said. "The 14th [of February] we're not ruling out, but I think it's been overstated. ... We just don't know at this point."
Burnett, who provided Letterman with nightly updates when the show was trying to book first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, said, "The schedule we have over here, quintuple bypass or not, is grueling. It's grueling for me. I'm 37 and have no physical problems."
It's also too early to say if Letterman permanently will cut back his schedule, although the host may initially work just a couple of days a week. He will get a natural break when CBS begins broadcasting the NCAA basketball playoff games in March.
Talking about his longtime boss, Burnett said, "He wants to come back, he can't wait to come back. He's taking his lead from the doctors. What he told me was if he had a regular job, he would already be back at work."
On Monday night, look for Grodin to chat with Julia Roberts and Philbin, all sitting on director's chairs on the stage of an empty Ed Sullivan Theater. No audience, no band.
On Tuesday, Philbin will talk with Jerry Seinfeld and Danny DeVito. On Wednesday, band-leader Shaffer will be in Los Angeles to visit Bruce Willis on a movie set and, possibly, exercise guru Richard Simmons.
On Thursday, the focus switches back to New York, with Philbin chatting with Bill Cosby and Sarah Jessica Parker. On Friday, Shaffer will be in L.A. with Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and maybe Bill Murray.
Since no one knows when Letterman will return, it's difficult to predict who his first post-surgery guests will be. However, pal Tom Hanks could pop up the first week, when Letterman will recount his hospitalization and recovery.
One person Burnett did not contact for pinch-hitting duty is Johnny Carson, some viewers' dream substitute.
"Johnny has been great to us in the past. He has done a walk-on for us in California, he did another little taped piece for us. ... With all due respect to the amazing people we have doing this for us this week, it feels a little bit like squandering a resource here if we were to call Johnny Carson to come in and do this type of thing.
"My gut feeling is that Johnny Carson has made it pretty clear he's done with television, by his choice. It felt almost inappropriate to ask someone like him to come in and tape some stuff for a rerun. It just didn't feel like it was worthy of Johnny to me."
So, has going under the knife changed Letterman? "One difference now is Dave only speaks Spanish," Burnett cracked.