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TV Funnymen Hit Serious Note

Veteran newsman Dan Rather showed the strain of reporting last week's devastating attacks on America as he choked back tears during a guest appearance Monday on comedian David Letterman's late-night TV show.

The normally cool-under-fire Rather momentarily lost his composure while taping Letterman's first broadcast since last Tuesday's coordinated assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by airline hijackers.

Sticking to a somewhat muted format for the segment, which aired Monday night, the usually irreverent host of the CBS "Late Show with David Letterman" skipped his opening comedy monologue and popular top-ten list.

Rather, who has been averaging about 15 hours a day in the CBS Evening News anchor chair during round-the-clock news coverage of last week's tragedy, became visibly choked up while he spoke about the attacks.

As the seasoned newsman paused to regain his composure, Letterman put his hand on Rather's arm, telling him, "I know you're a great newsman, Dan, but you're also a human being."

Letterman's only other guest for the show was fellow talk show personality and friend Regis Philbin, who hosts the ABC game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Letterman, who was on a regularly scheduled production hiatus last week, decided to return Monday in response, in part, to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's appeal for New Yorkers to get back to their routines, executive producer Rob Burnett said.

"Late Show" producers were especially sensitive about doing anything that would offend a studio audience presumably still shell-shocked by last week's events. The show is taped at the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown Manhattan, about 2-1/2 miles from the devastation downtown.

Craig Kilborn, host of CBS' "Late Late Show," began his program with a monologue about not being in the mood to be funny. His first guest was a foreign affairs expert, a dramatic departure from the show's usual smorgasbord of jokes and celebrities.

On ABC, "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher kept one chair empty on the stage, in memory of conservative commentator Barbara Olson, who died in one of the plane crashes last week.

Olson was a frequent guest on the program, which adopted a more somber tone than usual.

"Things have changed in America, so we're going to change our show a little bit," explained Maher. "It's going to be a little more serious. I think that's okay. It's okay with you?"

The comedian-turned-pundit doesn't plan to impose a permanent moratorium on the sometimes outrageous remarks which are the trademark of the program.

"We've lived through shock, anger, grief, fear. We're going to live through some more of it," said Maher. "But you know what? We need a release, too."

On NBC, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," plans to return to the airwaves Tuesday with a show that will also be more subdued in tone, according to insiders. Leno's guests his first night back will be Arizona Senator John McCain and the veeran rock trio Crosby, Stills & Nash, who are slated to perform on the show.

As of Monday, it was unclear whether Leno would perform his usual opening salvo of jokes and one-liners. One source close to the show said writers were "struggling" to craft a monologue that would strike a balance between "what's appropriate and what's not."

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