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Being There With Dave

Tickets to Letterman's late-night show are free; the trick, as the comedians say, is in the timing

IN the city of New York, good entertainment rarely comes cheaply. So it's interesting to note that it costs less to attend the ``Late Show With David Letterman'' than it does to ride the subway.

Each weekday at 4:30 p.m., 461 fans line up to see Mr. Letterman free of charge at New York's Ed Sullivan Theater, where his show is taped live. General-admission tickets are free to anyone (over age 16) who requests them, but you may have to wait six months, and you can't request specific dates. Once you have the coveted green ticket in hand, though, it's just a matter of getting to the theater on time.

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It was only a little after 4 p.m. last Thursday, but the block between 53rd and 54th streets on Broadway already resembled an amusement park: People stood in lines behind barricades, listening to young people in company-issue jackets shouting instructions.

``Don't do anything crazy to try to get on television,'' cautioned John, a CBS page. His list of other tempting no-nos included calling out to Letterman, waving at the cameras, and wearing funny hats.

Meanwhile, ``Late Show'' staff members handed out and collected questionnaires that would be used to select audience members for a ``Brush With Greatness'' segment on that night's show.

At 4:45, the audience was ushered into the rather chilly theater and seated in the balcony or on the main floor. They were warmed up only figuratively - by one of the show's writers who explained when they should clap, by the music of Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra (who also played throughout the commercial breaks), and by a clip of a previous ``Late Show'' segment shown on the theater's TV monitors.

Minutes before the 5:30 p.m. taping began, Letterman came out and asked if there were any questions. The unflappable host was caught off-guard by one man's desire to meet - the band, a request he would grant on the air during his monologue.

``We've been together 12 years,'' Letterman deadpanned to Mr. Shaffer at the time, ``and this is the first time anybody has wanted to meet the band.''

Letterman's recent reign as late-night king shows little sign of waning - his ratings still are better than those of ``The Tonight Show,'' and his resume will soon include a gig as the host of the Academy Awards in March.

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His next targets on this program, however, were the three mysteriously chosen ``Brush With Greatness'' candidates, who by now had been seated where the energetic Letterman could easily reach them to chat about their encounters with celebrities. He playfully hit one person with his microphone; he kissed another on the hand. To all three he gave gifts: an autographed photo of talk-show host Tom Snyder, a CBS jacket, and a pot of mashed potatoes from a nearby diner.

Eventually he got around to the usual items: the Top 10 list (``Ways Hillary Clinton Can Improve Her Image'') and the guest interviews - actress Rosie Perez (``Do the Right Thing,'' ``Fearless'') and comedian David Spade from NBC's ``Saturday Night Live.'' Both of them inadvertently used words that would later be censored.

Letterman occasionally uttered a few colorful comments himself during the commercial breaks.

While he was mostly a gentleman - consoling Ms. Perez for her slip of the tongue, or taping promos for his show - he also had some ornery moments, as when he recorded a risque birthday message for Rush Limbaugh. He made one mistake during the taping and had to backtrack - something he parlayed on the air into a private joke between himself and the studio audience.

``You have to come to the theater,'' he explained to the home viewers, ``to really enjoy the show.''

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