The late-night chatmeister sat down for his first interview in five years as a favor to the person whose job Letterman almost claimed.
Letterman, who opted to stay with CBS and rejected a very public courting from ABC to jump networks and take over the Nightline time slot, sat down with veteran newsman Ted Koppel for a rare Q&A.
The one-on-one, taped last month, aired Monday night on the premiere of Koppel's new half-hour interview show, Up Close, which airs on ABC in the post-Nightline slot.
It was also the least Dave could do.
During the interview, a very congenial Letterman talked about ABC's generous offer and how he came to seriously consider it, which would've put Koppel--often regarded as ABC News' sacred cow--out to pasture.
"It's like dating. You show up at the prom with a girl and you look across the floor and you think, 'Maybe I'd be having more fun with that girl over there,' " said Letterman. "I just think it's human nature. But in practical terms I don't think I could ever have really made that move."
Noting that he was "very comfortable" at CBS, the 55-year-old gap-toothed comic also pointed to age as a factor in his decision to stick with the Eye, his home network since leaving NBC in 1993 after losing the Tonight Show gig to Jay Leno.
"It would have been an enormous challenge to go anywhere--not just ABC," added Letterman. "And I think at a certain point in a person's career...the comfort and ease and confidence of surroundings and environment are far more important than undertaking a new challenge."
For Koppel and his once beleagured Nightline staff--snubbed by one ABC exec as "increasingly irrelevant"--landing the media shy Letterman for Up Close was a bit of payback.
"Since we always like to make our friends at Disney happy, we considered who to invite for our first guest," Koppel said on the show. "That's when it struck us, the irony. They wanted Letterman, so here he is."
The Late Show host, who ended up staying at CBS for a reported $31 million annual salary and said at the time that his decision came in part because he respected Koppel, got up close and personal. Aside from talking about the potential network-hopping, Letterman mused about his career, his quintuple bypass surgery two years ago and the difficulty he had returning to work in the aftermath of September 11.
Regarding his open-heart surgery, Letterman said he felt like he was "in the Hall of Fame" when he woke up, heard a voice talking to him, and he knew he was going to be all right, especially since high cholesterol and heart trouble run in his family.
He also told viewers not to be frightened when looking out for their health.
"I think the only advice I can give to people is, geez, just don't be scared about it. For the love of God, don't let it frighten you. I mean, I recognize that as human nature, but that's the wrong instinct because these people--you know, it's like to going to tune up mufflers," Letterman said of his doctors.
Koppel noted that when the comic invited his heart surgeons on Late Night, it was one of the few times he saw Letterman get choked up. The other time was Letterman's first post-September 11 show, just six days after the terror strikes.
Letterman said he was conflicted about whether to do it and wasn't even sure by 4 p.m. that day whether to go on with the show, but CBS and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuiliani encouraged him to do it.
"We kind of all returned to our posts, because we felt like, 'Well, they want a show, so we've got to do something.' And I guess I was just kind of trying to talk myself into why it was okay to do a show," said Letterman, who admitted breaking his usual tradition and not watching a playback of that day's show.
And Letterman also got a political crack in, recounting how he was approached by the "silly men" behind one of the presidential contenders just days before the 2000 election and asked to put the candidate in a skit--not an interview.
When Koppel asked whether it was Bush or Gore, the comedian demurred.
"I just thought, are they really that desperate?" he said. "I mean, has something indicated to them that this will make a difference in the outcome of the election?"
Koppel's Up Close will continue airing in the midnight weekday slot as a placeholder until comedian Jimmy Kimmel's late-night revue debuts this winter, filling the void left by the cancellation of Politically Incorrect