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Don Imus better find that old fire, and fast

There’s only one thing worse than a shock jock who makes fun of everyone except the person he’s sucking up to on the air at that moment — a shock jock who’s realized the error of his airwaves.

Imus was back in the morning drive time on Monday, promising that “the program is not going to change.”

As promises go, that one was up there with Britney Spears swearing that she’s going to give up clubbing and never leave the house without first making sure she didn’t forget to put on some undies.

The program was changed from the opening, and had to be. It was a kinder and gentler Imus who returned after being exiled last April for his infamous “nappy-headed ho’s” comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

He devoted the first half hour of the show to talking about that exile and how richly he deserved it. “What happened is about what should have happened,” he said, and he probably just forgot to add that his agreeing with CBS’ decision to fire him didn’t stop him from suing to collect $20 million for being terminated before his contract ran out.

Much of his monologue related to his four-hour meeting with the Rutgers women’s team the day he was fired by CBS. And the entire show featured a chastened man who had put himself in an envelope smaller than a postage stamp and refused to push the edges of even that confined space.

Maybe it was a first-show kind of thing and the zingers and insults will return. Lord knows there are no end of legitimate targets for what we remember as the Imus wit. But on Monday, it was all about showing how much he’s grown and matured. And, while it’s a fine thing for a man of 67 to finally grow up, morning drive-time radio runs on testosterone-driven humor delivered by grown men with the maturity of a 16-year-old who’s broken into his old man’s liquor cabinet.

The I-Man, as his old friend and straight man Charles McCord still calls him, said he wanted to tell the Rutgers women about how he wasn’t that kid, about all the wonderful things he’d done for so many charities, so that they would understand that he was really a good guy who said a bad thing.

“I wanted them to know that what this show is about. That that’s what we did, we made fun of people, (but) that I had done a lot of good things in my life,” he said. That’s when he realized why he was wrong.

“Sometimes when you’re talking to somebody — like in an argument with your spouse — you hear yourself talking and you realize how foolish you sound,” he said. “That was so irrelevant to how they thought. It sounded like just one lame excuse after another.”

He spoke with a depth of emotion that made you believe he was sincere in his desire never to do to anyone else what he did to the women of Rutgers. And if you’d have been there in the Townhall Theater in Manhattan where he broadcast live before a crowd of fans who paid $100 each for the privilege of seeing his return, you had to applaud him.

And then you had to wait for him to deliver on that promise of not changing his show — other than to demonstrate some racial sensitivity.

To prove he hasn’t changed, he said, “Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan, and I’m back on the radio.”

But that was it. He took a shot at Cheney and Hillary, which was way too easy — like standing in a broom closet and trying to hit the wall with a handful of gravel. And then he made nice to everyone.

When the guests are funnier ...He’s still getting great guests — presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, U.S. Senators Chris Dodd and John McCain headed his list on Monday — and his discussions with them are engaging and thought-provoking. But when Goodwin is funnier than he is, he’s got a problem that had better be fixed.

In the old days, he couldn’t complete a sentence without calling some person a nitwit or describing something as hideous. On Monday, he left those words at home along with every other pejorative that had made him the most famous old crab around.

In the interests of adding diversity to his program, he introduced a new cast member, Karith Foster, an African-American from Plano, Texas, who studied at Oxford University, worked for Barbara Walters, does stand-up comedy and describes herself on her Web site as “really a Jewish girl from Long Island trapped in this body, which technically makes me a JA-AP (Jewish African-American Princess).”

Foster introduced herself with a bit of stand-up schtick that involved electricity, sidewalk subway grates and a dog that I could swear I heard on Comedy Central sometime within the last quarter century. She got a chuckle or two.

He also has a new sports guy, who is also African-American. His name is Tony Powell, and on his Web site he modestly describes himself thusly: “What do you get when you cross the charisma of Eddie Murphy, the irreverence of Chris Rock, and the Old School charm of Bernie Mack? I have no idea, however, I do know that when you add a quick wit, great storytelling ability, and the performance chops of a seasoned pro you have Tony Powell.”

If that Tony Powell shows up, there may be hope for the old show. Unfortunately, the Tony Powell who did show up was as funny as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Michael Bolton’s greatest hits. There might be an audience for that sort of thing, but it’s not driving to work at 7 in the morning.

It’s a tough situation for both Imus and his audience. They grew to love him because he brutalized everyone and everything and because he was always pushing an envelope that was bigger than the known universe. They weren’t looking for good taste but for tasteless jokes. If they were interested in perspective and introspection, they’d have been listening to NPR.

Monday didn’t matter, as his fawning audience, who applauded wildly every time he cleared his throat, attested. But a lot of people are going to be tuning in this week, looking for some of the old Imus acerbity. It would be in his best interests — and those of his new employers — to deliver.

Normally, you’d say they deserve some time for the new cast to get acquainted and find its rhythm. But his audience found that it could survive quite nicely for nearly eight months without him. If he doesn’t give them something of what they came for, they’ll very quickly remember that there are other things to listen to on the way to work — things that will wake them up instead of putting them to sleep.