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FILE UNDER: WRITTEN BY XANDER

Which show had the best supporting cast? CHEERS? SEINFELD? THE SIMPSONS? Now, there's a show literally with a cast of thousands. Well, what about the LATE SHOW?

THE LATE SHOW MVP'S

A good rule of thumb: the quality of the LATE SHOW isn't based on the relative success of Dave's monologue or on that evening's lineup of guests. It's the desk piece or, more importantly, the host chat that makes or breaks the show.

Dave may well be the last honest man in broadcasting. He is completely incapable of faking it either to himself or to his audience. When he's in a good mood, you know the show is going to be loose, lively, and rambunctious. When he's in a particularly foul mood, he has no problem sharing that with the rest of America as well. To be perfectly honest, that makes for pretty damn compelling television in and of itself.

I mean who doesn't get a vicarious thrill when Dave makes some oblique remark regarding his prickly relationship with CBS, specifically with Les ("You Talking to ME") Moonves? My favorite LATE SHOW moments of 2002: Letterman's five minute riffs on outsmarting a pair of papparazzoes trying to take his picture or the time he scared off a carload of drunken, elderly joyriders when they got lost at Casa Dave.

I've always wondered how much of this is actually scripted and how much is just the old guy's flights o' fancy. I have a suspicion such long running comedy bits like the Oprah Log ("Ya know, Oprah hates me," he would say just a little too happiliy) and the Words of Wisdom from Dr. Phil ("What a hump!") came about by some offhanded comment Dave had made.

The winning relationship Dave has with 21 habitue and noted monkey aficionado, Stephanie "Monty" Birkett evolved so casually, I just assumed it was an inspiration born as an afterthought. The detailed minded Letterman, wanting to make his show more accessible to the younger generation ("The kids, they love me"), naturally, would turn to the young people upstairs in his office. ("Hey, you're just a kid. How old are you, anyway? 18? 19?""I'm 25, Dave").

Dave has long mastered the art of the riff. He has the ability to hit upon a seemingly mundane (YooHoo, Richard Simmons, a Stupid Pet Trick gone horribly awry) and spin it into comedic gold ("Last week, I was attacked by wild dingoes").

But Dave can't do it alone. If you are to riff, you need someone to riff to. He clearly understands the importance of support. Johnny Carson had his Mighty Carson Art Players, the company of actors who would assist whenever he did commercial or television parodies. Letterman, ever the realist, prefers to use staff members as foils or accomplices all in the name of comedy. Call them what you want, Dave's Peeps, his posse, whatever. They constitute the LATE SHOW's MVPs. And in this column, I will be doing a shout out to four members.

STEPHANIE BIRKETT (pronounced Briquette): I always get a kick out of the chemistry between Dave and his assistant. It doesn't seem like the typical boss/employee dynamic. It's more like he's the meaner, older brother Stephanie never wanted. Whether teasing her about her various (Dave-imposed) nicknames or merely asking about her weekend, he seems revitalized by her participation. The recent segment when Stephanie demonstrated her ex-boyfriend's alleged hip dance moves (with able assistance from Rupert Jee and Dave's own personal physician, Dr. Lou Aroni) seem all the more hilarious because Letterman thought it was such a hoot.

RUPERT JEE: The owner of the Hello Deli has proven his worth to the show in many ways. And he seems to be truly a very nice man. I used to love all of the location shoots Rupert participated in. The segments all followed the same format: Have Rupert act crazy and irritate the hell out of strangers on the street.

I've always felt Letterman was greatly influenced by Andy Kaufman in that he likes to play with the weird science of fame and thus, the accepted notices of performance, testing how much he can get away with before an audience (or innocent bystander) will snap. When he would venture into the streets himself, he was clearly going as TV's David Letterman and people would respond to him as such. While it might boggle the mind to imagine Calvert DeForrest was 'acting' when playing the part of Larry "Bud" Melman, it was clearly established that this was a fictional persona. Likable, nonthreatening Rupert wasn't hiding behind such a facade. And that is what made the comedy more real, more dangerous, and much more funny.

PAT AND KENNY: No regular segment makes me laugh harder than "Pat and Kenny Reads Oprah Transcripts." Last week, it was both soothing and completely unsettling to watch Pat Farmer play the part of Oprah and the ciggy lovin' Kenny go through the paces as Nicole Kidman. I loved it.

It's hard to put into words the wonderful teamwork on display here. I could liken them to Mutt and Jeff but that's too anachronistic. Bert and Ernie? Too Muppet-ty. Penn and Teller? Too fringey and let's face it, magicians, eh. The best that I can come up with MIDNIGHT COWBOY's Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. If Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo turned up as stagehands at the Ed Sullivan Theater, they would be something like Pat and Kenny.

Who are your favorite LATE SHOW MVPs? Let me know who you like.

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