AFTER DAVID LETTERMAN received a hero’s welcome for deigning to attend Sunday’s Emmy Awards, Jon Stewart summed up the source of that adulation.

Letterman schlepped west to pay tribute to his idol, Johnny Carson, and Stewart observed that “the way he feels about Johnny Carson, I think is sort of the way that all of us, the comedians of our era, kind of feel about him.”

It’s nice, actually, when flowers arrive before the funeral. Yet seeing Letterman out in public — behaving like a TV personality instead of a very public recluse — offered a reminder of how he has suffered for those sins, and why most in the media grant him a pass.

Jay Leno is the good soldier, the nice guy eager to please. He’s available for a cameo in your TV show, a network sales presentation or interview. He pooh-poohs the latenight rivalry, downplaying the acrimony that Letterman still clearly harbors. He even graciously agreed to step aside, albeit in 2009, to clear the way for NBC to slide Conan O’Brien into the 11:30 slot, preventing another succession mess.

In recent weeks Leno provided a taped piece to Martha Stewart’s new daytime show and played himself on HBO’s “The Comeback,” where Lisa Kudrow’s fictional star viewed “The Tonight Show” as the ultimate symbol of regaining her celebrity status.

OLD WEIRD DAVE, on the other hand (not to be confused with “evil Dave,” the unerring impersonator from Howard Stern’s show), pretty much keeps to himself. Indeed, the real Letterman hasn’t sat for an extensive interview since before the world ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, and my requests met with tepid refusals of the “You know he doesn’t do that” variety.

The problem is there’s more to these jobs than that hour a host spends behind the desk each night, and Leno puts in the grunt work where Letterman has begged off. Nor should it be ignored that Letterman sometimes looks disengaged dealing with lesser celebs these days, sparking to attention when he reels in someone with gravitas from the weekend discussion circuit — a Colin Powell or Bill Clinton. (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was booked recently but wisely backed out, citing time constraints due to Hurricane Katrina.)

For all of that, there’s no question which latenight host heirs apparent like O’Brien and Stewart favor, and it isn’t the one perceived to have pandered for viewers with the Dancing Itos. No, despite (and maybe because of) the ratings pecking order, for them and the media the true mantle belongs to Letterman, the tortured genius who never seems to enjoy his talent or success.

ON MONDAY, Letterman kicked off the season by probing and prodding an imperturbable Martha Stewart about her jail time. There they were — two wealthy TV stars, one released from prison, the other living in one of his own making. Even with a nice lead-in from CBS primetime, Leno ranked first.

Appearing on “Charlie Rose” in 1996, Letterman tellingly articulated his admiration for Carson — and thirst to replace him — by saying, “It just makes you sick, because I know what it takes for me to get through a 60-minute effort each night, and then you look at Carson, and it’s so easy, it’s so smooth, it’s so measured. He’s not breaking a sweat. … For me it’s not as easy as it was for Johnny, but, you know, I did want it.”

Having watched Letterman’s “Late Night” show since college, I’ve always been inclined to seek him out, a preference most critics share. The praise heaped upon him, however, ignores how Letterman has hurt his cause by being a too-precious commodity — the maverick who jabs at his bosses and won’t be caught dead at their events.

There’s an element of romance in that, especially for those who lack the clout to similarly thumb their noses at authority. At a certain point, though, people are going to leave a party if they sense that the host doesn’t want to be there either. And love Dave all you want, not only has Leno beaten him but he has done plenty, frankly, to beat himself.

All of which brings us back to Sunday’s rousing ovation and the fans that bow at Letterman’s feet, an admiration that partly stems from a very human emotion — the one where we covet most that which stays beyond our grasp.

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