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Oct. 2 2009 - 1:04 am | 169 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

The public and private Letterman

031224F5435R005 David Letterman, host of the L...

The odds are very, very good that David Letterman screwed up: The interoffice affairs that almost got him blackmailed are likely to have occurred sometime during his long relationship with the woman who’s now his wife. That’s a humiliating thing for her and for him, and there’ll be private fallout for it. But as he did back in June, when he wrestled with the propriety of some borderline Sarah Palin jokes right from the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, Letterman turned a personal embarrassment  into something publicly riveting. His account of the attempted blackmail by someone inside CBS — late Thursday the network announced that the alleged extortionist works at “48 Hours” — was by turns funny, scary, abashed, and contrite. Details were few, but they’ll come out, and they’re sure to be worthy of contrition. Whatever personal failings Letterman may have, though, the man’s a born broadcaster, and canny enough to know that he has advantages no blackmailer can match — a big reservoir of public goodwill, and a platform from which to get out ahead of the story. Tonight he was shrewd enough to use them, and human enough to make it feel like something other than a gimmick.


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    It was interesting the hear the audience’s reaction. They at first seemed to think Dave was launching into a long joke, so they laughed at points. Then they seemed to get that he was revealing something serious and the crowd hushed. But because Dave himself would then try to make light of his situation, they laughed again though I could sense confusion still. I suppose if you have to tell the world about this, it’s not a bad idea to guide the audience through a series of emotions so everyone can move on. Though I suspect this will still be in the news until all the details emerge.

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    Yeah, it was a high-wire walk. And he could have done a better job of clueing the audience in about what was coming. But he does these things his own way, and that’s a big part of the drama for me. That confusion and tension in the audience — it was spellbinding, in a weird way.

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    I was pretty much disgusted by the whole thing. The audience laughed because they were basically manipulated into doing so. But worse, to me, is that sex with people who work for you, are dependent on you for their livelihood — setting aside the fact that he’s in a relationship — is fairly dispicable. It’s not two equals engaging in consensual sex, it’s much more than that, and while Halderman’s alleged actions if true are of course criminal and wrong, I’m not sure Dave is any way occupying any higher moral position in light of his actions. In other words, as my grandmother would say, “A pox on bother their houses.”

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      Jeff: I disagree that the audience laughed because they were manipulated into it. I think they laughed because the whole thing was strange and they didn’t know what to make of it and they kept getting cued in different directions. It was nervous laughter, not ha-ha laughter. But: We can agree that a guy who has sex with his employees, whether he’s in a relationship at the time or not, is a dumbass. Even if it’s fully consensual, it’s a bad idea.

      You can argue that guys like Letterman only cop to being dumbasses when they get caught, but in my opinion, cop to being a dumbass he did. And that, too, made the audience titter. The whole thing was just a festival of discomfort.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    sorry to reply to my own comment, but I just read the account of the arraignment, and it occurred to me that *now* he’s got a pretty good screenplay.

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    You’re right about that, but this is what I meant when I said they were manipulated: the set-up gave all the appearances of another Dave story. And for nearly seven or eight minutes into it, he revealed nothing about behavior. Until then it was a funny caper, and the audience responded in kind.

    Had he really wanted to be frank with them, he could have stood up and simply said, “I’ve got something to say, and it’s not funny, but let me lay it out for you.” Then, you bet, the audience wouldn’t have been laughing.

    I think he really screwed them because he made them look like idiots, and my guess is it will come back to haunt him. Greg Garrison told me years ago that his cardinal rule with talk and entertainment shows was “You never fuck with your audience” because they’ll abandon you in a second. Dave violated that rule big time, and one way or another he’ll pay the price.

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      Yep. He could, and perhaps should have done that. My guess is he misjudged the reception he was going to get once the story did take a serious turn, and by then it was too late. He also did some griping about the percentage of foreign visitors in the audience, which in retrospect may have been because he was realizing, too late, that he was going to come up against language issues that could skew the reaction to the thing.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I'm a writer in Santa Monica, CA. I spent some years at Newsweek and some more writing for TV. My freelance journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Slate, The Boston Globe, Fast Company, Fortune Small Business, Washington Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, American Heritage and TV Guide, and on PBS.

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