Analysis: David Letterman skips the apology, goes on the offensive

10.02.09 8 years ago 12 Comments

Mark J. Terrill/AP

The news broke late Thursday (Oct. 1) that on “The Late Show,” David Letterman was going to discuss an extortion attempt that led to the popular host’s recent grand jury testimony and, earlier in the day, the arrest of a gentleman later identified as a “48 Hours” employee. 

A press release from Letterman’s people acknowledged that the host had admitted to sexual relationships with members of his staff. The Internet was all a-buzz and I even put aside Thursday evening programming to watch “The Late Show” early, something I almost never do. 

But the episode began with Letterman’s monologue. And a strange monologue it was for the many, many viewers expecting a candid confessional. Letterman made jokes about Mark Sanford, about Roman Polanski, about O.J. Simpson, about Sarah Palin. He covered 40 years of sex scandal fodder and tabloid favorites as if he had nothing to be ashamed of himself.

And possibly he didn’t. 

After a commercial, Letterman cut to the chase: “I’m glad you folks are here tonight and I’m glad you’re in such a pleasant mood, because I have a little story that I would like to tell you.”

Over roughly 10 minutes, Letterman recounted the basic events of the extortion attempt, cracking rueful and self-deprecating comments as he went along. The audience, presumably not briefed on what was to come, went along with him every step of the way, probably unable to distinguish Letterman’s shaky hands and vocal tremors from his normal affectations.

He couched the extortionist’s threats as being based on “quite a lot of terrible stuff he knows about me.” The audience laughed and cheered and occasional expressed shock at the audacity of the criminal in question.

After nearly eight minutes of vintage Letterman-as-Raconteur storytelling, during which time he described his behavior as “terrible,” “horrible” and “creepy,” Letterman broke the news.

“The creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work on the show,” Letterman said and paused. For the first time, the audience didn’t fill the vacuum. Silence. “My response to that was, ‘Yes I have.'” And here the laughter broke in. Here the cheers began. 

“I have had sex with women who work on the show. Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Yes it would. Especially for the women.”

More applause. More uncontrollable laughter from the crowd.

You can watch the whole thing here:

Here’s the thing I’m certain of: Laughing and cheers are signs of approval and even if you don’t disapprove of the boss sleeping with women (not “a woman”) in his employ, I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you cheer about. Like, “Yay David! Way to bang that writers’ assistant [Or even that respected producer]!” Seems wrong. I wonder what the gender makeup of the audience was, if producers hand-picked a receptive crowd.

But I realized that I didn’t have a vote. Letterman’s audience had decided that yes, Letterman having sex with staffers on his show was cause for celebration. These viewers are presumably Letterman fans and presumably know that he’s been married since March to Regina Lasko, his partner since 1986 and mother to his child. Regina Lasko? Not a staffer on “The Late Show,” in case you were curious.

And it strikes me: I know nothing about Letterman and Lasko’s relationship. I don’t know if they were swingers for 20 years, if they were prone to brief breakups or extended breakups, if they had a policy where what happened in the studio stayed in the studio. I don’t know anything. I don’t know the details of when Letterman’s relationships with staffers occurred, what duration they had or how many dalliances there were. I don’t know any of that. And yet reporters from legitimate and semi-legitimate publications alike were accusing the host of adultery and extra-marital affairs this afternoon without anymore information than you or I currently have.

What Letterman did in his explanation/apology/story was make it clear that whatever happened was none of my business and none of our business and he did it by not lying or shying from the truth. He did it by admitting the truth and raising and eyebrow and practically daring us to judge him. He didn’t do the whole “Good Wife” press conference with Lasko by his side, since that would have been absurdly out of character in the first place. He did what no disgraced politician or celebrity has been able to do in decades of similar incidents. He didn’t drag the story out or take evasive measures. He attacked it and pushed it to the side with astounding alacrity. 

Even though we’re most certainly going to hear more about this mess and it will probably get tawdry and unsightly, Letterman didn’t say a single thing that he can be taken to task for later, that can be disproven or used against him. He didn’t say anything which, were he a different celebrity, other late-night hosts would be able to lampoon.

It helps that Letterman isn’t exactly beholden to any high moral standards. A certain segment of the population, one that never liked him or watched him anyway, tore into him after his idiotic Palin goof in the spring (even this liberal journalist is aware that Letterman blundered both the initial punchline, as well as the aftermath), but it didn’t impact him at all. They’ll probably be the first ones to call for his head tomorrow morning. But he’s not a political leader and to the degree to which he’s mocked other people’s personal foibles, he’s always mocked his own foibles twice as much. 

It also helped that Letterman positioned himself as a complete and total victim in the case, which he presumably was. As nobody has come forward with accusations of sexual harassment or other impropriety, the worst of his crimes would be adultery, which doesn’t look so bad if you put it behind multi-million-dollar blackmail plots and the prospect of genuinely terrible, horrible, creepy stuff. He sneered at the mere idea that the blackmailer would find a story this insignificant worthy of hush money, turning him into a nerd, a prude, a Puritan as well as a criminal. And he dared his audience to be similarly judgmental.

And, sadly, it played to Letterman’s cause that he’s been party to similar circumstances in the past. He had a tragic, schizophrenic stalker. His young son was the subject of a thwarted kidnap plot. He got the squeeze at NBC. Joaquin Phoenix showed up as a guest with a horrible beard and refused to answer questions. Letterman would never play the victim card, but we’re accustomed to looking at this man with understanding and sympathy. It’s probably a facet of his enduring and ongoing appeal.

In the end, Letterman didn’t make a confession or an apology. He did exactly what he promised his audience. He told a story and wove a masterpiece of deflection and displacement. It was a well-written, thoroughly rehearsed, expertly delivered performance. The ratings may tell a different story down the road. Booking agents may have different feelings down the road. But his audience ate it up. For tonight? Their value judgement was the only one that mattered, even if their reaction made me mighty uncomfortable.

What’d you think of Letterman’s story/apology/explanation? And what’d you think of the “Late Night” audience’s reaction to it?

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