NEW YORK – Ratings for Late Show have swelled about 60 percent over last year in the wake of David Letterman's tearful return six days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The Sept. 17 show was first among the late-night comedy shows to tape a new episode after the attacks - and featured straight-laced CBS newsman Dan Rather weeping openly about the tragedy.
Regis Philbin came on later to provide some much-needed comic relief.
Letterman, who opened the show with a monologue questioning the terrorists' motives, has been praised for plainly voicing much of what was on people's minds that week.
But Late Show officials say ratings - good or bad - are not exactly on their minds right now.
"Ratings have never seemed less important to us right now," said Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett.
"It's something you always have to focus on a little bit if you have a TV show, but at the moment the ratings seem even more trivial than they usually do as a topic."
All the late-night shows took about a week off following the attacks. And each subsequently faced the daunting task of figuring out when it would be OK to add jokes to their shows.
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn all returned the night after Letterman, on Sept. 18.
But Letterman's ratings have been skyrocketing the most ever since.
For the two weeks covering Sept. 17 through Sept. 24, The Late Show average about 5.6 million viewers. For the same two weeks last year, the show averaged about 3.5 million viewers.
"It is a lot of flying by the seat of your pants," Burnett said. "Every day feels different from the day before. Every week feels different from the week before.
"It doesn't surprise me that Dave is the person people watch to set the agenda of how these shows are to be done.
"I think Johnny [Carson] had that mantle way back when he was doing his show during the Vietnam War," Burnett said. "And I think people looked to Johnny to see what was appropriate.
"Now I think people look to Dave, and it makes perfect sense," Burnett added.
The Tonight Show has also enjoyed a surge in its ratings, although it's hard to compare year-to-year data because NBC was airing the Olympics in Leno's timeslot during mid-September 2000.
Thus far this season, Leno has average about 6.5 million viewers a night - about 12 percent more than his total season average last year of roughly 5.8 million.
"The furthest thing from any of our minds was how the numbers would be affected," Burnett said. "It's just not the focus for us right now. I think the focus continues to be how to navigate through this odd time in comedy.
"There's no one's judgment that I trust more than Dave's," Burnett said. "He always has this enormous sense of what to do and how to do it.
"That's mostly what the conversations are, what kind of material feels right to be doing," he said.