The Late-Night Armistice

Oprah and Dave kiss and make up—but about what?

This week’s buzz about the resolution of the Oprah Winfrey/David Letterman “feud” has had a tinny ring to it from the beginning. The press has been on about La Winfrey’s long-deferred appearance on The Late Show—her first guest spot with Letterman since she sat on his NBC couch 16 years ago—as if the Montagues and the Capulets had finally buried the hatchet and settled down to a cozy spaghetti dinner. But what the hell were the two talk-show legends fighting about in the first place?

Oprah and Dave make nice

In a convenient case of show-business amnesia, both claimed last night not to remember the substance of the rift. Instead, they gushed and flattered their way through what, Letterman kept reminding us, was “the television event of the decade.” And in an even more convenient case of cross-promotion, the new Oprah-produced musical version of The Color Purple opened yesterday across the street from Letterman’s soundstage in Midtown Manhattan, so the encounter ended with a fairytale walk out of the Ed Sullivan Theater and down the red carpet, crowds cheering and flashbulbs popping as Dave kissed Oprah’s bejeweled hand and deposited her in front of the theater for opening night.

Uma and Oprah love Dave 

When Oprah presented Dave with a signed photo of herself and Uma Thurman—wrapped in conveniently promotional purple wrapping paper—the audience chuckled knowingly as I scratched my head over the arcane reference: Oprah? Uma? Oh, right, there was that famously unfunny joke Dave told as the host of the Academy Awards in 1995, where he imagined an introduction between the two women: “Uma, Oprah. Oprah, Uma,” etc. Lame, sure, but you’ve got to be kidding me. You’re a public figure of Oprah Winfrey’s stature, and you’ve taken a decade’s worth of umbrage at someone mocking your first name, at a level of cruelty well below schoolyard standards? Is this what Hollywood scandal has been reduced to? No more starlet’s daughters shooting their mother’s mobster boyfriends, just coddled gazillionaires sulking about someone making fun of their namey-wamey?

But even if the Oscar joke is one cause of Oprah’s ire, it can’t be the only one—she’s been boycotting Dave’s couch since 1989. Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune floats a few other theories as to the genesis of the Letterman/Winfrey quarrel: everything from jokes about O magazine on past Top Ten lists to Letterman failing to pick up a long-ago lunch tab. (What, you can buy everyone in your audience a Pontiac, but you can’t buy Dave Letterman a sandwich?) And what about Oprah’s humorless refusal to acknowledge Letterman’s pleas during the period of the 2001-2002 “Oprah Log,” when he kept a daily record of his fruitless attempts to be invited onto her show as a guest before finally giving up on Day 82?

It would have made for far better television if Dave and Oprah had discussed their obvious temperamental differences and how these affect their approach to their craft. Where she sees her show as a “mission” (a word she used in last night’s interview), mingling feel-good philanthropy with a near-pathological messiah complex, he is a deeply cynical, almost nihilistic figure, whose air of cold detachment only grows as he mires himself deeper and deeper in the world of show-business artifice. In fact, this abyss inside Letterman—the fact that, as he said almost proudly last night, he “isn’t close to anyone”—is the only thing that still makes him interesting to watch.