''I'm back from my annual bypass,'' joked David Letterman, taking the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater for the first time in more than a month. Sidelined since Feb. 26 with a painful case of the viral infection shingles, the ''Late Show'' host ended what was only his second sick leave in 21 years by poking fun at his ailment, clowning with fellow shingles sufferer Billy Crystal, and bringing onstage the doctor who treated him, as he did after his heart bypass in 2000.
''Thirty days it took me to get over the shingles, and according to Donald Rumsfeld, that's right on schedule,'' he said, in one of several jokes that referenced the nation's wartime status as well as his illness. ''You know how they cured my shingles?'' he said. ''Duct tape!''
Dave's first guest was Billy Crystal, who greeted him with a surgical glove-covered handshake, then sat down to trade shingles stories with the host. During the show, Letterman also brought on his dermatologist, Richard Granstein, and had two models dressed as nurses present him with a bouquet of flowers. He played a video montage of the 14 guest hosts who subbed for him during his absence, backed by the song ''That's What Friends Are For.'' In what was probably the show's only joke-free moment of poignance, Letterman also paid tribute to his friend George Miller, the comic who had appeared on Dave's show more times than any other, and who died of leukemia during Letterman's convalescence.