It's always a little surprising to see Oprah Winfrey look nervous. She is wealthy, she is accomplished and, within the confines of her many TV projects, she is firmly in control. But you could tell that she was waiting for an anvil to fall on her head during her appearance on David Letterman's show last night -- or at least for some prank, fretting as she did that Letterman might have an unflattering childhood picture of her in her hated glasses. She even expressed surprise at how serious Dave was, quizzing her about the troubles in Africa and Oprah's work there.
The interview as such won't go down as great television, since Dave's many gifts do not include conducting artful interviews. He's a comedian, and a very good one, and his show is most inspired when it tries to be silly, irreverent, smart-alecky. That was certainly what Oprah expected, and also -- her claims of a non-feud aside -- a big reason why she hadn't been on Dave's show for 16 1/2 years. Instead, she ended up giving an interview she could have done anywhere, with a host as fawning as she might have found in a dozen other places.
But this meeting of the talk titans was less about what actually happened than the sheer possibility of it. Letterman's run-up to Oprah's visit, his constant and delighted jokes in the days leading up to it, gave him fresh material and energy. Last night, Dave's walking Oprah to the neighboring theater, where ''The Color Purple'' was opening, was more fun than the interview before it. The walk had that what-will-happen-next quality, and Dave seemed to be having a grand old time at it.
More fun still is thinking about what will happen the next time Oprah visits Dave. That's when the fun should really start. She can relax, knowing that even if Dave gets silly, he means no harm. Last night's show was, after all, an hour-long apology, a promise to Oprah that Dave will treat her with respect and admiration -- even if he does occasionally make fun. And Dave, having made penance, will be able to go back to irreverence and whimsy. Fewer people may watch than did last night, but the hilarity will probably be greater.
UPDATE: Whatever you thought of the show itself, the curiosity level was obviously enormous. CBS estimates about 13.45 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched Letterman since 1994 and fourth most-watched ever. (The three telecasts ahead of it are his a 1994 telecast, his 1993 premiere on CBS and a second 1994 telecast. The two shows in '94 benefited from Olympics women's figure skating as a lead-in, during the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding era.)
Letterman pulled a double-digit rating here in Northeast Ohio, crushing Leno and building on his news lead-in. Letterman in late night had a bigger audience around here than anything in prime time except ''ER'' and ''CSI.''
In other words, more than ''Joey,'' ''Will & Grace,'' "The Apprentice,'' ABC's Pope John Paul II movie, ''PrimeTime,'' ''The O.C.,'' ''Reunion,'' ''Survivor,'' ''Without a Trace.'' Yes, some of those were reruns. Yes, Jay Leno also outdrew the likes of ''The O.C.,'' ABC's pope movie and ''Joey.'' Still, this is an enormous coup for Letterman.