On a recent Monday night, after receiving one of those hootin'-and-hollerin', Arsenio-style ovations that open Late Show with David Letterman these days, Dave deflated the crowd's enthusiasm by cracking that it's ''receptions like this that make me wish we had a much better show.'' A year ago, when Dave was the undisputed King of Late Night, that remark might have seemed like mere self-deprecating modesty. But given Dave's recent slump-both in the ratings and creatively it carried a chilling ring of truth.
As CBS comes crashing down around him, Dave seems unable to rise to the occasion. He's lost the infectious joie de vivre he radiated soon after leaving NBC. And his dispiritedness has reached the point where he doesn't even seem to prepare for interviews anymore; he appeared genuinely shocked when My So-Called Life's Claire Danes informed him she was 16, and had to apologize for mistakenly introducing her as one of the stars of Clueless. ''You were clueless,'' Danes kidded him sharply. Dave pinned the gaffe on executive producer Robert Morton, who has lately been subjected to the kind of pointed needling Dave used to reserve for bandleader Paul Shaffer. Maybe Dave was just mad at Morty because The Tonight Show had scored a much vaunted victory over Late Show the previous week.
Dave now rarely directs his hostility at his guests and that may be part of the problem. While he still asks the occasional cheeky question (''Were you taking the film to Fotomat?'' he quizzed Kevin Costner about Waterworld's bloated budget), Dave too often kowtows. Did he really have to thank Hugh Grant for appearing on his show by declaring a ridiculously obsequious moratorium on Divine Brown gags?
And with his female guests, Dave doesn't stop at butt kissing. His on-air fondling makes him seem like the Richard Dawson of Late Night. After welcoming Julia Roberts with one of his patented lingering hugs, Dave brought the segment to a slobbering halt by gushing, ''Look at that bone structure! My God! Wow!'' Yes, Dave, we know she's a pretty woman get over it.
Dave's gee-you're-purty shtick isn't the only routine he's beaten into the ground. Trying to copy the success of his mom's trip to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and Mujibur and Sirajul's cross-country jaunt, Dave sent an Ed Sullivan Theater engineer to the Midwest in search of fresh corn. When the bit fell flat, he admitted, ''I'll be the first to tell you, this ain't workin'.'' And I'll be the second.
How does one explain Dave's decline? Much as I'd love to blame the influence of Jay Leno, Dave claims that he hasn't seen The Tonight Show since Johnny's departure. Yet Dave has praised both Conan O'Brien and Beavis and Butt-head, so maybe it's their fault. There's been a creeping Conanism in Dave's material of late (both even told the same Hugh Grant joke recently), and you could almost hear Butt-head snicker when Dave prank-called a guy named Dick Assman.
Dave has pulled himself out of ruts before, so there's no reason to believe he's lost it forever. Perhaps if CBS is taken over by Westinghouse, Dave will channel his anger at a new target (he's already begun goofing on the company's freezers). Bear in mind this grade is relative to Leno's D, but I fear the formerly A+ Dave has sunk to a B-.