I feel sad for David Letterman, because in spite of the reasons he put forth in his latest mea culpa Monday night on The Late Show, he caved in, I believe, out of misplaced fear that he might be banished from his late night throne.
He won't admit it, but I believe it's true. In my article last week I felt he went too far when he went on and on about how he would never, ever tell a sexual joke about a fourteen-year-old. He looked straight at the camera and then said something to the effect of, "Hey, I'm sorry we made a mistake as to who was at the game, but you have to believe I was talking about Sarah Palin's adult daughter Bristol." All this, though there was little question that the vast majority of people who had watched knew Letterman's joke was about the Palin daughter who'd gained national fame as an expectant teenage mother.
It wasn't a great joke, but it was typical Letterman humor. This is a man who routinely makes fun of people in the news, often with fantasy references, so the Alex Rodriguez sex tryst fell right in with his normal fare. The sexual escapade was obviously phony and concerned a young woman who'd been much talked about in the national media regarding her youthful promiscuity -- a young lady whose fruits were paraded at the Republican convention and during the campaign by her ambitious mother.
Why couldn't Letterman joke about Bristol? You mean it's okay to make constant fun -- even today eleven years later -- of Monica Lewinsky, still the butt of his monologue barbs, not to mention unkind comments about her weight? And as to his probable left-leaning politics, it didn't stop Letterman from ad nausea comic slurs about Bill Clinton and Hillary's conjugal relationship.
I repeat, no one of any reasonable intelligence thought he was talking about the fourteen-year-old Willow Palin. It was her mother who framed it as such, due to some bad research on the Letterman staff's part, as there was only a passing mention to an unnamed Palin daughter at the Yankee game. It was Sarah Palin, a two bit governor of one of our nation's smallest states and the bottom half of a failed presidential campaign, who, in her zeal to stay in the spotlight, jumped at the chance to get back at one of the many comic commentators who've previously enjoyed many jokes at her expense. And she kept repeating it and repeating it even well after Letterman -- in a smart move to quickly defuse the controversy -- clarified rather emotionally last week on his show that it was Bristol who was the gag's target.
Did Palin change her tune and say, "Oh, but even though you were talking about Bristol it's still not right," which might have been questionable due to her daughter's adult age, not to mention her appearances on TV talk shows about abstinence. But she didn't and chose to ignore the truth, and at that point Palin was no longer a protective mother but an out and out liar.
However, she is not alone to blame, because the media wouldn't let up and gave Sarah Palin far too much leash, rarely questioning her motives or forcing her to deal with Letterman's clarification that the remarks were about Bristol. Indeed, many of the scathing TV attacks featuring Palin let her put forth blistering remarks, characterizing Letterman as a lecher and possibly a pedophile. There were TV reports that actually ended the story there, with no follow-up information that Letterman repeatedly had denied the joke was about the younger daughter, no doubt leaving some watching the news to believe Palin had all her facts in order.
The media coverage was so absurd that, according to Letterman, he felt obliged to apologize again. In particular, because of a remark condemning him by Mark Shields on the PBS Jim Lehrer Report. For Mark Shields to continue spreading Palin's lies about Letterman's joke, saying it was "indefensible," and that Letterman must have been aware he was talking about a 14-year-old was insupportable. It apparently hit Letterman hard, though, leading to his second apology last night.
Look, Letterman is in show biz and is probably a bit egocentric and neurotic. He kept going on about how his intent didn't matter, that it was the perception that counted. But how could there be such a perception, except for the media driving it with unrelenting zeal?
So Letterman buckled under the pressure, and that's too bad, because what he has done in this unusual act of cowardice -- he was one of my heroes -- is open the door for other groups to complain and/or to make him think far too much about satirizing anyone in the future. Satire full of silliness, setting famous people in places and situations clearly untrue in order to pay off the punch line. And his barbs spare almost no one or group.
For goodness sake, he has continually made fun of short people with his constant references to New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg as such. He has mocked old folks, including his mother, about whom he has told nonsensical jokes about her drinking. He has contrasted our president's schedule with John McCain's, giving images of the Arizona U.S. Senator that make him look like someone with borderline Alzheimer's disease, engaged in run of the mill tasks to fill his time. He has offended gay folks with jokes like, "Did you watch the Tonys last night? [after applause]: You must all be gay." And he routinely mocks the ethnicity and competence of New York City taxi drivers.
So I worry, I really do, where all this will lead. It may make CBS happier and it may reassure Letterman's future on his late night forum, but will the show be as good if he has to worry about what he's going to say? Ironically, his monologue prior to his apology had zingers and political humor, and he made fun of the controversy, but all at his own expense. Apart from self-deprecatory remarks, will he now start to censor himself beforehand with his writers and, worse, when he interacts with his guests on the panel? All it has to take is another person to seriously complain and mislead the media and public as Sarah Palin has shamelessly done.
Letterman may insist this is the end of it and he will go back to essentially the way things were. I hope he does, but I won't believe it's true until he gets back on the proverbial horse which recently threw him and summarily launches another zinger at Palin when she deserves it.
Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com