David Letterman Illustration by Roberto Parada
Lynette Rice
April 18, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

According to the Merck Manual, cleaning the skin to prevent further infection is a good way to treat shingles. It doesn’t say anything about cleaning house. Yet, when David Letterman returned to the ”Late Show” after a five-week bout of shingles — a nasty nerve-cell virus that can be stress induced — the late-night host said so long to a longtime director, good riddance to the cue-card guy, and rejiggered his production team. ”It’s probably the most significant change since Morty [former executive producer Robert Morton] got axed in 1996,” says a source close to the show.

The most stunning move involved Jerry Foley, a Letterman loyalist of 14 years who directed the show for the last eight years. Insiders say the four-time Emmy nominee was there one day and gone the next — leaving staffers to speculate that Letterman suddenly fired Foley to reduce stress. ”I think it’s one of those jobs where you are underappreciated on a daily basis. You can do 1,000 things right but if one thing goes wrong, it’s really glaring,” says the source, adding that Foley was a bold risk-taker. ”The show was full of these comedy grab shots. He was a perfect match for Dave.”

It’s questionable whether the same can be said for executive producers Maria Pope and Barbara Gaines, ”Late Show” vets whose duties were potentially diluted with the return of Letterman’s longtime show runner and most trusted lieutenant, Rob Burnett, and the sudden promotion of consulting producer Jude Brennan to executive producer. Before the moves, Pope and Gaines had run the show’s day-to-day operations — and won three of the show’s five consecutive Emmys. Meanwhile, Burnett oversaw the NBC drama ”Ed,” but kept a hand in ”Late Show.” With ”Ed”’s future in doubt (NBC has yet to say whether it will order the show for a fourth season), Burnett is back full-time. Throw in Brennan (who, says one former staffer, ”was always capable of running that show”) and you’ve got a ”Late Show” top-heavy with four executive producers. ”The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” has just one.

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