I REALIZE EVERYONE’S sick of reading about the David Letterman latenight follies, but there are still a few things I can’t figure out.For example, with all the massive over-coverage, including successive page-one stories in the New York Times, only one concrete development emerged from the imbroglio — a development that the press avoids mentioning. To wit: “Politically Incorrect” was summarily beheaded. Apparently cancellation of this show is considered non-news, but I happen to like Bill Maher’s aberrant meanderings. I thought the show was often fresh and witty, and after a six-year run, its obit deserved some attention–especially since its demise apparently stemmed, in part, from the squeamishness of key advertisers over some occasional words of dissent. Now that we’ve got a little distance, it’s clear the Letterman story should have been boiled down to one headline: Dave’s leaving for vacation and wants a little attention. The whole episode seemed like one of those plays where you instantly dislike all the characters but are still stuck for the evening. Dave was bratty. Disney was heavy-handed. And Ted Koppel more and more reminded me of a professor in my old college 101 courses. He never speaks, he intones. And he expects you to take notes. NONETHELESS, WHOLE FORESTS were chopped down to permit newspapers to cover every aspect of this event, which turned out to be a non-event. Letterman, predictably, is still at CBS, and Koppel seems to be continuing his part-time schedule on “Nightline” — though his current level of gravitas makes Henry Kissinger sound like Conan O’Brien. And Maher, Mr. Unmentionable? Well, he’s been lopped off, though no one apparently has told him the doomsday date. Indeed, the fact that Maher lasted six years and reached almost 3 million viewers nightly seems like a remarkable achievement under the circumstances. What circumstances? Ever try figuring out when the show starts? With “Nightline” often running overtime (concluding in six minutes of commercials) and with 17 weeks of “Monday Night Football,” “Politically Incorrect” was a tough habit to form, even for the dedicated. And ABC never seemed comfortable with it anyway. If Letterman wants more promos, he should look at Maher’s: Insiders at “Politically Incorrect” claim Maher’s photo wasn’t even in evidence on the press tour, nor was he paraded before affiliate meetings. When Barbara Walters wanted to interview a latenight comic about the election on “20/20” she picked Jay Leno, and “Nightline” interviewed both Leno and Jon Stewart about George Bush’s first 100 days. ONE OF THE “Politically Incorrect” producers told me Maher once personally asked Professor Koppel to do a promo for his show — Koppel instead turned over his lecture notes. “Politically Incorrect” clearly had its problems: With four customarily vituperative guests all trying to get heard within what was effectively 22 minutes of airtime, the show occasionally seemed noisy rather than enlightening. Maher’s monologues were terrific, but he didn’t exactly excel at directing pithy questions at his guests. Nonetheless, what other network TV show harbored dissenting, even occasionally blasphemous, points of view? And what will replace it? I realize ABC yearns for another profit center, but is there really room for another by-the-numbers latenight comedy show? Consider the long list of would-be latenight hosts, from Joey Bishop to Magic Johnson. Anyway, the latenight story is now a non-story. The press is finally persuaded that Dave never intended to go anywhere — except to St. Barts. NBC is happier than ever about its decision 10 years ago to go with Leno, the Steady Eddie of latenight hosts. And ABC? Well no one knows exactly what it’ll do, other than pacify Koppel for the time being. And send an exit visa to Maher. Someone should have thought up a better ending to this psychodrama.
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