I watched Oprah Winfrey's return to Dave Letterman's show last night, and it was a strange, and I'll go ahead and say it, exhilarating experience. (I know, I need to get out more.) Far from the genial and boring celebrity chat it could have been, there was palpable tension throughout the interview, and it was a long one. The tension, in this case, derived from a guest expecting at any moment to be mocked, and a host trying desperately to assure his guest that she was in safe territory.
Usually on the Late Show, before the first guest comes out, Dave does a dopey and not terribly funny gag of some kind, varying between dropping something in water to see if it will float (a kind of Mr. Wizard-style homage to bored, dumb-guy "science"), to having pre-selected audience members answer surrealistic trivia questions about cuts of meat. Then the top-ten list, and then the first guest. Last night, they ran through all of that as quickly as they could, and all of it was Oprah-related. No matter who the guest has been, politicians, heads of state, movie superstars, I've never seen the show roll out the red carpet like that. Dave Letterman's been hounding Oprah to come on the show for a long time. It seems every time I tuned in during the past year or so (which was infrequently) there's been some reference to Dave asking Oprah if she'd come on the show, and being rejected. Their doomed-to-failure quest was kind of funny and a good gag for them. And so, in the strange, rarified world of the Late Show, an actual appearance by Oprah would be akin to, say, George W. Bush himself appearing on the Daily Show. A huge deal. You could tell he and Paul Shaffer were both a little nervous before she came on. I was getting nervous vicariously. And then he calls her out.
It was very strange to see her in that setting. I've seen Oprah a bunch of times in the 20-some odd years she's had her own show, and it was weird to see her a) outside her studio, and b)in a place where she felt she wasn't safe. It was clear from the onset of the interview she was expecting sly, mean-spirited mockery from Dave, and she seemed ill-at-ease. But Dave was very solicitous and very complimentary, saying a number of times how "great" she looked, setting his hand on the arm of her chair to show her how sincere and engaged he was. He kissed her hand like five times before and after the interview. She wasn't shy about calling Dave out on one of his antics over the years. She said, and I'm paraphrasing, "Just to show you that it's over, whatever there was is now over, I brought you a present." He opened a box and before the viewers could see it, he laughed. "Are you sure it's over?" he asked. Then he took it out and held it so the cameras could see. It was a signed photo of herself and Uma Thurman, referencing his Academy Awards gag where he made fun of their names. By the end of it he was asking her to describe at length the charitable work she's doing in Africa. As she talked about it (a school for girls in South Africa, among other things) she kept asking, "You sure you want to hear about this?", thinking that their interview was supposed to be light and frothy. And at other times she'd break in with, "I can't believe you're being so nice to me." Judging by the frequency of this declaration, one might suspect Oprah was expecting Dave to pull out a gun and shoot her in the knees. He did not -- he made no jokes at her expense (though one small one at Dr. Phil's) and directed his mockery solely at himself. When it was over, he led her to the theater where her production of 'The Color Purple' is playing on Broadway. They held hands the whole way (pictured above), with flash bulbs going off non-stop-- kinda weird, but it made for soem good photos to show, with a single image, that the "feud" was now officially over. Anyway. It wasn't a funny interview, but it did prove that either Dave has put away forever his "Mean Dave" persona, or, more likely, that he's just put it away for Oprah.
All right, that's it for this week. Hope everyone has a good weekend.