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‘Late Show’ Reveals Comeback Strategy

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

When “The Late Show With David Letterman” returns Monday for its first full week of shows following a two-week vacation, the host will have a new set and a new executive producer.

The set will aim to give the show more of a hip “downtown New York” feel as opposed to the sweeping Manhattan skyline that currently backs Letterman. The new executive producer aims, he says, to “let Dave be Dave,” adding more real-people remotes and more spontaneous humor in an effort to win back viewers who have deserted the CBS broadcast during the past year.

“To me the best stuff on the show allows Dave’s personality to come out,” executive producer Rob Burnett said. “Dave is great at interacting with people, meeting them on the street, calling the pay phone outside the theater. We’ve just been out shooting a remote segment called ‘Will you be my friend?’ where Dave spends time with a great guy we met on the street. We want to do more remote segments like that--while, hopefully, having a looser feeling to what we do in the studio as well.”

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Burnett, 33, began on the Letterman show as an intern in 1985, became a writer and then was made head writer in 1992. But he comes to his new job amid controversy. Letterman abruptly dismissed his longtime executive producer, Robert Morton, on March 8, the Friday night before the “Late Show” staff went on vacation.

Morton had told Letterman that he wanted to produce prime-time shows, but friends say the producer was hurt by the suddenness of the news, given the two men’s 15-year association.

“We had a lot of difficult things going on, and I just had to make a hard choice,” Letterman told radio host Howard Stern this week. “I consider [Morton] still my friend, and I hope we can continue to work together. . . . We have another position that I hope he’ll be interested in.”

Morton has been offered a newly created executive position with Worldwide Pants, Letterman’s production company, but the word around there is that he may not take it. He has cleaned out his office at “Late Show” and is said to be considering other offers. Morton, whose contract expires in August, declined to comment.

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Some Morton loyalists maintain that Burnett campaigned for his boss’s job, but Burnett denied the charge. “I was not lobbying backstage,” he said. “I was planning to work on a pilot, a show for CBS called ‘Ed,’ before Dave asked me to take this job.”

The Monday before Letterman dismissed Morton, Burnett said, “Dave asked me to hold off doing the pilot and continue on ‘Late Show.’ ” He refused to disclose when he was offered the top job. And while he praises Morton’s creative contributions to the program, Burnett said, “Morty had many conversations with Dave about how he wanted to do prime-time shows. I think Dave felt he wanted someone who was completely committed to doing ‘The Late Show.’ ”

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According to Burnett and others on the show, Letterman’s decision was influenced by the Feb. 19 prime-time special that Burnett co-produced with Morton.

“The prime-time special had a big impact on Dave and all of us, seeing so many funny remote segments packaged together,” Burnett said.

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Despite recent improvements in the ratings, particularly among young viewers, “The Late Show” continues to trail NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in total households, and some critics and fans have complained that it had gotten stale.

“There’s a fine line between repeating yourself and giving people segments they like and are familiar with,” Burnett said. “When we came to CBS more than two years ago, we had Mujibur and Sirajul, Dave’s mom, the newly renovated theater--there was a lot of creative stimulus. Sometimes lately the show got bogged down in heavily written pieces at Dave’s desk. This show moves glacially--and sometimes lately the glacier seemed to get stuck in the doorway.”

Along with Morton, “Late Show” is losing producer Jude Brennan and has seen the retirements of longtime director Hal Gurnee and others in recent months.

“Some people have gone on to do other things,” Burnett acknowledged. “But change can be good. We’ve just hired three new writers, two from Spy magazine and one from an ABC comedy called ‘Pranks.’ ”

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