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Bringing up Daddy: Dave delivers the poop on his new life

To some, David Letterman is still perceived as a wary and weary cynic. The granddaddy of the hip irony that now permeates pop culture, he still has the reputation in some circles as TV's grouch nonpareil, a man whose sadistic streak can make young actresses shake in their Manolo booties.

I have three words for those people: Baby Letterman Fever.

The Letterman reality has changed significantly over the years, as the 56-year-old talk-show host has opened the file on his private life. We've hung out with his mother, we've shared the emotions of his quintuple bypass, we've watched him clasp Dan Rather's hand after 9/11, and we've even weathered unsightly shingles with the guy. And now, since the birth of his son on Nov. 3, we are front row and center to his life as both a doting new father and the boyfriend of Regina Lasko.

Indeed, "The Late Show With David Letterman" has developed into one of TV's most intimate hours, as we've gotten to know the heart and mind of curmudgeonly Dave better than those of any of his competitors and progenitors, notably the reticent Johnny Carson.

The very day after the advent of Harry Joseph Letterman, named for Letterman's own father, who died at age 57, Letterman was back at work regaling us with baby jokes and hospital stories. "I could never imagine ever being a part of something that turned out this beautiful," he said, adding, "I can't say enough about poor Regina," who went through prolonged labor. Letterman also confessed to his first post-baby guest, the paternal Regis Philbin, "I just exploded and couldn't stop crying and laughing simultaneously."

It has been particularly interesting to see which guests Letterman has invited on the show since he became a father. Talk-show hosts are notoriously strategic about the celebrities they choose to join them, and they don't bring on the provocative Howard Stern -- who appeared last Thursday, for the first time in five years -- unless they're willing to delve into the personal realm. Stern fulfilled all expectations, beginning with a general query -- "How is it that Dave has a baby and we really don't know anything about the woman who had the baby?" -- and then proceeding to the specific: Does Letterman love Regina (yes), was the baby an accident (no), do the two live together (yes), and will he push a baby carriage in public (maybe). Stern also asked if Letterman plans to marry Lasko. "Yes, absolutely," Letterman said, "I'll be getting married. When, we're still negotiating."

The marriage question is the sort of nosy business usually reserved for paparazzi-hungry stars such as Ben and J.Lo. But Letterman is also attracting it these days, with guest Madonna inquiring into his plans on Tuesday night. "I just want to know when you're going to tie the knot," she said, "because I have to tell you, marriage is a great thing." Again, Letterman told the world, "It's coming, we'll get married."

Poor Dave? Rest assured, if Letterman didn't want to talk about such matters, he wouldn't have brought Stern or Madonna onto the stage. He would have filled his docket with the likes of Amy Brenneman, who didn't once mention young Harry during her appearance. Whenever Letterman discloses bits and pieces of his life on his show, with the help of a Madonna or a Stern, the ratings lift -- as they have in the past two weeks. "I want Dave to have a baby once a year," CBS president Les Moonves tells Time magazine this week. "I think it will help his ratings a lot. We at CBS have welcomed Harry into the world."

Of course, the last two weeks on "The Late Show" have also seen a stream of irreverent baby jokes and age gags, with the host noting, "The baby is beautiful. . . . I hope we'll both have teeth at the same time." Letterman may be softening up, but he does still have his bite.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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