Tom Shales on TV: David Letterman's Long-suffering Fans Dealt Another Blow

Letterman has had to apologize several times for various acts.
Letterman has had to apologize several times for various acts. (Cbs Photo Via Associated Press)
Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

One of many sad things about recent stanzas in the ballad of David Letterman is that now, in all media, Dave will be lumped in with other sexually misbehaving celebrities, even though he stands head and heart above most of them.

We the long-suffering admirers of Dave have had our fealty tested on several occasions -- as when he promised a young woman from the audience $10,000 if she could swish a basketball through a hoop. When she did, he tried to back out of the deal. Deplorable!

His recent on-air confession that he's had sex with many women on his "Late Show" staff was, however, quite a bit worse.

Letterman's competitors -- Conan O'Brien on NBC, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC -- may see the scandal as a stroke of good luck, not bad, for Letterman, who has managed to be in the news fairly often in 2008-09 thanks to such shenanigans as his feud with Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. When Palin struck back against Letterman's jokes, the publicity value was incalculable.

Similarly golden, cynical as it sounds, is the attention-getting hanky-panky with female employees and a mad blackmail plot allegedly concocted to separate Letterman from $2 million. Word got around on Thursday that Dave was going to spill these spectacular beans on that night's show and, not surprisingly, the ratings shot up 36 percent over the usual. The tune-in Friday night, after the story had broken everywhere, was 4.33 million viewers as compared to 3.79 million for the corresponding Friday night in 2008.

For some, Letterman's low points of recent years included the night Dave was slightly beastly to Paris Hilton, the "star" who made her name in Internet porn and whom Dave teased about having spent time in jail (asking her about friends she'd made in the slammer). But the true Letterman aficionado was much more disappointed when Dave delivered a long, tortured, odiously obsequious apology to Hilton a night or two later on the show. Perhaps the producers figured Hilton was going to be turned into a star -- despite a hideous absence of talent, even by current standards -- and they might want to book her again in the near or distant future.

Another Letterman apology, this one to Sarah Palin over a misunderstood (and, indeed, sloppily phrased) joke about her daughter, was similarly overdone and mawkish. A fan wanted to say "Dave, Dave! Enough already! She's only a two-bit politician!" Maybe some worm in the CBS corporate offices forced Dave into it. Maybe he did it to preserve the hard-won peace between him and surly CBS CEO Les Moonves, a grouch with all the charm of Mr. Hyde.

But all past indiscretions supposedly pale when compared with Letterman's admission, on the air and with a studio audience present, of his sexual adventurism within the show's staff. Because of it, Letterman says, he was the intended victim of a bizarre blackmail scheme allegedly concocted by a disgruntled producer from "48 Hours," the mildly trashy CBS newsmagazine.

Letterman has, of course, been victimized before, on multiple occasions that became very public. Previously, the most famous was often in the news: how an almost-middle-age woman, fixated on Letterman, stalked him, posed as his wife and even broke into his house. After using her as the basis for many jokes -- most of them self-deprecating -- Letterman showed touching compassion to the woman, working with some of her family members to help get her psychiatric treatment.

She spent a decade hounding Letterman and then, in 1998, died, never really having been cured of her obsession. Letterman had stopped the jokes when he became aware of how sick she was.

Some of those who've seen the current Letterman mess as a golden opportunity to trash and attack him claim that it's fit retribution for the jokes Dave has made about naughty-boy politicians and their sexual high jinks. Letterman can continue to lampoon sleazy political figures with no real fear of hypocrisy, however, because a TV comic is not an elected official responsible for the well-being of the nation or its citizenry.

Letterman's monologue is not a nightly sermon full of moral lessons preached to politicians or the public. His stance is that of the proverbial court jester, a clownish figure with a mandate to prick the powerful -- not set himself up as a model of virtue.

Could Letterman's misbehavior be compared to the disreputable legislator who ranted and railed against homosexuals, and worked to deny them the right to marry and other civil privileges -- and then was caught soliciting anonymous sex in an airport men's room? That's socially destructive misconduct with the potential for inflicting harm, pain and injustice on a portion of society and on society at large. Letterman's misadventures contain potential harm, pain and injustice only for the individuals specifically involved -- and since there have been no allegations about the sex having been nonconsensual or any partners having been underage, it's all unpleasant but hardly some sort of threat to the public welfare.

And although Letterman has many fans among American women in presumably widely divergent age groups, he is hardly known as a sexual bandido. When I interviewed him for Playboy more than a decade ago, I asked him to talk about his "first time." He balked, claiming modesty, and feigned shock at the question. "All right then, how about talking about your second time?" Said Letterman: "There hasn't been a second time."

Over a century of movie and TV comedy, male comics, however fabled their off-screen sexual exploits, have traditionally been asexual figures on the screen. Comic heroes may have longed for and even lusted after desirable leading ladies, but sexually they were all bark and no bite. What Letterman has done, or allowed to happen, is foul up our perception of him by allowing his private self to share air time with Public Dave, the one we know and love -- the wisecracking, self-deprecating, overgrown adolescent who has one of the keenest, cleverest and funniest comic minds of all time.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company