IT WAS more hardline than punchline, more tears than jeers as America’s late night comics returned to the airwaves after the terrorist attack.

NBC’s “Tonight” show and CBS’ “Late Night” took weeklong breaks after the September 11 assault and America saw different sides to hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman when they went back on the air.

Usually cynical Dave skipped his opening monologue, canned his popular top-10 list and comforted an emotional Dan Rather, who became visibly choked up speaking about the attacks during a guest appearance.

Normally jovial Jay, who went back on the air one day after Dave, turned misty-eyed during his return-night opening monologue as he recalled the lives lost. And he held back on any ad-libs as his guest U.S. Senator John McCain promised the U.S. would remove terrorists “from the face of the earth.”

Top TV critic Bill Mann told The ENQUIRER that Letterman, in particular, “was unusually human as he consoled Rather. Even those who are Letterman fans appreciated that Dave didn’t try to find anything to laugh about in this terrible national tragedy.”

On the other hand, Mann said that ABC’s “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher, “blew it,” when he went back on the air.

No one, said Mann, wanted to hear the comic call Americans “cowards” for “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away” in previous military actions.

“He should have just kept his mouth shut,” said Mann.

“This is not the time for blame or cynicism — this is a time for the country to be united as one. That Maher couldn’t sense that, appalls me.”

Maher later apologized for his comments, saying his views “should have been expressed differently.”

But Mann said, “At a time when we need our larger-than-life TV heroes to help us heal and move on, Maher chose to pick at the wound. He should rename his show ‘Simply Inappropriate.'”