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Dave's right back where he belongs; TV: Letterman returns to his duties as host, reminding everyone how much he was missed.


Finally, a reason to stay up past 11: 35 again.

Monday night marked the return of David Letterman to late-night TV -- perhaps not reason enough to make the stock market surge or cause an increase in church attendance, but good news nonetheless.

If the five weeks since Dave underwent quintuple bypass surgery have proven one thing, it's this: Jay Leno and his nightly love-ins are no substitute for Dave. (In fact, the Dave re-runs and people talking about Dave are preferable to Jay Leno.)

In his first show back, taped Friday and broadcast Monday, Letterman showed no signs of slowing down. If anything, he appeared feistier than normal and anxious to mine comic gold from events of the past weeks.

"Wait 'til you hear what happened to me," quoth Letterman after a prolonged standing ovation from his studio audience. "You are not going to believe this."

Introduced by announcer Alan Kalter as "Blue Cross/Blue Shield's Man of the Year," Letterman eschewed some of the standard "Late Night" trappings -- there was no Top-10 list (though one was planned) and no comedic pieces outside the opening monologue -- in favor of a show that was exactly what his fans were hoping for.

There was plenty of talk, both factual and humorous, about his surgery. There were old friends dropping by, including Regis Philbin, Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld. There were even walk-ons by his doctors, an all-star surgical team assembled from all over the country.

But best of all, there was evidence aplenty that Dave has no plans to soften his approach. Among those targeted in his first-night-back jokes: Hillary Clinton, CBS, the Super Bowl halftime show and even his former employers back at NBC.

Concerned that people didn't really grasp what he had gone through, Dave explained that bypass surgery is a procedure designed to increase blood flow to the heart. A bypass, he noted, "is what happened to me when I didn't get 'The Tonight Show.' "

Paul Shaffer howled, the audience roared and Letterman grinned that gapped-tooth grin we've all been missing.

Our own Top 10

Since there was no Top-10 list Monday, here's one of our own: "Top 10 most heartening moments during Monday night's show."

10) Dave almost broke down while introducing the doctors and nurses who "saved my life."

9) But that didn't stop him from ragging on them. "I couldn't have been more proud when these guys carved their initials in me," he said by way of tribute.

8) WJZ anchor Denise Koch spoke for many when she closed the late news with, "We'd better stop talking so he can come on."

7) The scant applause greeting the news that Thursday's guest-host would be Kathie Lee Gifford.

6) The Foo Fighters, who interrupted their South American tour to bring the house down with a roaring version of "Everlong."

5) Letterman's take on decaffeinated coffee, after switching to it for Monday's show: "It stinks. It's like non-alcoholic gin."

4) Robin Williams, who showed up in doctor's scrubs, carrying a cooler with some other spare body parts for Dave, including Michael Jackson's old nose and one of Cher's ribs.

3) The office building across the street from the Ed Sullivan Theatre, emblazoned with the message, "Keep It Pumping, Dave."

2) Letterman pledged to display his scar but didn't.

1) Every member of the studio audience got a special bypass T-shirt, complete with a scar running down the front.

Dave's return pumps ratings

Proving there's nothing like heart surgery to pump up the numbers, Monday's "Late Show" trounced the competition, both locally and throughout the country.

Overnight ratings from 47 markets give Letterman a clear victory over Leno, with a 9.3 rating, 23 share, compared to 4.7/11 for "Tonight." Ratings measure the number of viewing households (each point represents just over 1 million households); share is the percentage of TV viewers watching the show.

In Baltimore, Dave finished with a 9.8/24, compared to Jay's 3.9/10 ("Nightline" on ABC garnered a 3.3/8). Each local ratings point represents just under 10,000 households.

Popular 'Homicide'

And speaking of ratings, "Homicide: The Movie" dominated Charm City's TV screens Feb. 13, finishing with a 24.8 rating, 33 share. On CBS, "Sally Hemmings, Part 1" earned a 16.1/21, while ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" got a 13.4/17.

Nationally, "Millionaire" earned a 17.8/25, compared to 13.5/20 for "Hemmings" and 9.2/14 for "Homicide."

Chilly morning radio

I'm not certain why anyone would want to travel to Iceland in the winter -- why vacation where it's colder? -- but WLIF-FM's morning team of of Michael Filippelli and Merrie Street are doing just that.

They'll be broadcasting Monday from the island's Blue Lagoon Resort -- the first time, apparently, a U.S. radio station has broadcast live from Iceland. They'll be joined by 20 winners of a contest sponsored by WLIF and Icelandair.

"Michael and Merrie In the Morning" can be heard from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays on WLIF-FM (101.9).

Who wants to play lottery?

Authorities ordered a television station Monday to stop broadcasting the Swedish version of the popular quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," ruling the program is more a lottery than a real contest.

The government Lottery Inspection Agency said TV4 would need permission to run a lottery and ordered the station either to change the format of the program or stop broadcasting it, the newspaper Aftonbladet reported.

A TV4 spokesman confirmed the ruling but said the station had filed an appeal in civil court and planned to air the final two shows in their present form.

"The decision from the authority for lotteries is based on their point of view that they think you could only make guesses in the program to take high prizes, and we deny that opinion," program director Jan Scherman said. "This is a competition where you only can win if you have the knowledge."

Contestants in the Swedish show must answer 15 multiple-choice questions to win the ultimate prize worth more than $1.1 million. Nobody has won the jackpot since the Swedish version began last month, though one contestant won the equivalent of $288,000, Scherman said.

Sun wire services contributed to this column.

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