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Letterman has the stuff to conquer late night

The talk show host has figured out a stealth strategy: Rely on your friends, stay enigmatic and give the people what they want.
/ Source: msnbc.com

Should David Letterman find himself with time on his hands this weekend, he might think about writing a book … about how to stage a quiet climb to the top of late night in three simple steps.

His June 9 ratings win over “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” was his first since O’Brien took over the post and his first win over the show in eight months, but it’s also a sign of things to come from Letterman.

The reason: to pull this off, Letterman didn’t need to dispatch any fancy Sherpas of showbiz to get the job done — he relied on three basics, which will continue to serve him well.

Call in your friends: Howard Stern appeared on the June 8 episode of the show, his first appearance in a year and a half. Stern put it right out there that “it was a big night,” the night he could possibly beat O’Brian in the ratings (though he didn’t).

More importantly, Stern talked about Letterman’s loyalty. Even if Stern was prodded to use the L-word, you wouldn’t have known it — and it planted a seed. You, longtime viewers, have the chance to stay with Dave. You, new viewers (i.e., Leno transplants), should know this Letterman is actually a good guy.

Reveal yourself, but remain enigmatic: During Julia Roberts’ June 9 appearance, Letterman resumed the slow drip of detail about his March 19 wedding to Regina Lasko, when he told Roberts that Regina took his name and that he’d “never been more deeply in love.” Sure, droll, gunpoint delivery was employed to deliver the latter bit of news, but that’s Letterman, too.

Most importantly, there was no flood of info, as interesting as that would seem in the short term. The more you know about a celebrity, the less interesting they become. Letterman knows the dosage required to keep people interested, yet at arm’s length.

Give the people what they want: Stupid human tricks came back June 10. A band can’t pull off a comeback tour without the songs that put them on the map; Letterman can’t keep a foothold on the No. 1 spot without the segments that were an essential part of his appeal in the first place.

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To be fair, it probably wasn’t to the “Tonight Show’s” advantage that on June 9 they had Stanley Cup Finals as a lead-in instead of an entertainment show. While that alone might not have been enough to tip the scales, some say it was Julia Roberts that helped Letterman more than Letterman himself. That’s a tough argument to make since Roberts hasn’t even been a considerable box office draw in recent years (her last film, “Duplicity,” grossed only $40 million domestically).

And no discussion of Letterman’s week can take place without bringing up Sarah Palin. Without going into laborious detail, regardless of your stance on his original inflammatory remarks, Letterman’s response to Palin can be categorized as deft and well-executed. It won’t hurt him. If nothing else, the summit just came into clearer view. The race to the top is really on, and in the end, the competition will be good for all involved.

Weekend box office won’t shake ‘Hangover’ Two big releases land in theaters this weekend. I don’t imagine that Eddie Murphy’s “Imagine That” will make a big impact. Murphy’s star has fallen fast and to depths too great for his name alone to pull people in to see his fantasy comedy over “Up.” (Even though “Up” is in its third week, it will still fare well.)

“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” however, will do quite well. As the only action-thriller on the block, it’s great counter programming, and Denzel Washington has female appeal.

All that said, “The Hangover” can’t be ruled out. Not only did it go on to win last weekend once the final numbers came through, but it posted a $7.6 million Monday, $6.5 million Tuesday and $6.6 million Wednesday. That’s strong enough to say that come Monday, we will still be nursing a “Hangover,” but “Pelham” won’t be far behind.

Courtney Hazlett delivers the Scoop Monday through Friday on msnbc.com. Follow Scoop on Twitter: @ courtneyatmsnbc.