MUNCIE, Ind. — David Letterman didn't bring Oprah Winfrey to Ball State University for laughs.
It was more an examination of Winfrey's transition from a childhood defined by poverty and abuse to an adulthood celebrated for its wealth and generosity.
Letterman and Winfrey shared their Monday afternoon conversation with a packed house at Emens Auditorium, where every seat was draped with a souvenir "Dave + Oprah" T-shirt.
A rock-concert atmosphere preceded the chat, as members of the Cardinals student body chanted "Chirp! Chirp!" while awaiting the arrival of two media superstars.
Winfrey — wearing a red dress and red-bottomed Christian Louboutin shoes — shouted a salute of "Ball State!" when taking her seat at center stage. Ball State alum Letterman steered the event out of rah-rah territory by asking a series of serious-minded questions.
The comedic titan could have been mistaken for a painstaking author working on a Winfrey biography.
He staked a geographic path when asking about her early days in rural Mississippi (where Winfrey said she was "beaten on a regular basis"); her tween existence in Milwaukee (where she was raped and sexually abused); and teenage years in Nashville (where she thrived on public speaking and started a career in television).
"Everything that has ever happened in your life contributes to the call and the journey," said Winfrey, explaining that she wouldn't trade her hard times for a different back story.
When Letterman prodded and repeatedly circled back for clues to why Winfrey ascended to "Oprah" status while countless youngsters in bad situations do not, she answered in spiritual terms.
She cited a "power greater than yourself at work in your life," talked about biblical readings giving her an edge in school, and recalled telling herself "It's going to be you and Jesus" when family members failed to protect her.
Letterman, the Indianapolis native who's hosted a network late-night talk show for 30 years, fully dispelled any perception that he and Winfrey are professional foes.
He mentioned that Winfrey's founding of a boarding school for girls in South Africa cemented his admiration.
"You weren't a television personality," he said. "You were transcendent."
Winfrey talked about students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls at various points in the program, and noted that several are now enrolled at U.S. universities.
Letterman's summary statement on Winfrey arrived with, "This human experience of yours is stunning."
Winfrey shared a secret of her esteemed interview technique ("Everyone wants to know, 'Did you hear me? Was what I said important to you?' "), but she had few chances to dig into Letterman's story.
She did coax Letterman to contrast his family's history of discipline to Winfrey's: His mother, Dorothy, was whipped with a razor strop as a youngster. Dave was spanked.
The "Dave + Oprah" show ran more than 90 minutes, with Ball State president Jo Ann Gora twice walking onstage with an implied signal to wrap things up.
Letterman reserved a few minutes at the event's conclusion for audience questions submitted as tweets. One asked about Winfrey's current relationship with members of her family. "Forgiveness is letting go of a past that can't be changed," she said.
A rare example of Letterman levity emerged when Winfrey mentioned her longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham and his master's earned at Ball State. "I'd like to see that transcript," Letterman quipped.
Bridget Funk, a Ball State senior who is studying advertising, said she expected a more balanced conversation at Emens.
"I would have liked to hear a little more from Letterman," she said. "And I wish we could have heard more tweeted questions. But I enjoyed it, and I camped out for tickets. I'd say it was worth it."
In the hours before the event, Ball State students radiated school pride.
"How many other schools can say Oprah and David Letterman came to campus? Not a lot," said freshman Rahissa James, who circled Emens in hopes of a chance meeting with Winfrey.
Alicia Herder, a junior who attended Carmel High School, spent pre-show time working on video editing homework at Bracken Library.
Herder, a theater directing-telecommunications video production double major, said she draws inspiration from Letterman's BSU roots.
"You can attend this institution — which isn't Stanford or USC or UCLA — and make a really successful career," Herder said.