Shales on TV Live: More About Letterman

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Oct. 6, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact, his columns and a reminder about David Letterman: Let's Remember That Letterman's a Clown, Not a Cleric or Congressman.

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


Princeton, N.J.: Of course it's fair. He got a lot of laughs at others' expense about extramarital affairs, but when his chickens came home to roost, it's a different story? That is hypocrisy, plain and simple, Tommy.

Tom Shales: Hello -- welcome. I fear I'm really going to get trounced and bounced around this week. Oh well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, as SuperChicken used to say to Fred, his lion companion -- uhhhh, never mind that. Now it seems David Letterman is in the news ... surprise. Princeton NJ -- what a beautiful town -- says "it's hypocrisy, plain and simple." Maybe. But considering it is too late to Un-Do the affairs, didn't Dave behave pretty well in trying to apologize, come clean, and avoid blackmail?


The Truth: Tom,

Hi. Why are so many folks giving Letterman kudos for acknowledging these past flings? The only reason he is doing so is because he got caught.

So if I rob a bank and then admit to it, do I then get set free?? BTW I am writing this from prison so I already know the answer to my question. HA

Tom Shales: Always nice to hear from prisons. He only confessed because he got caught -- well, yes, I guess so. I think a lot of us would behave the same way in similar circumstances, however. By the way, I don't think of myself as Dave's Big Defender. I do like him, he has made me laugh frequently and heartily for something like 25 years -- and while he showed very bad form, he didn't really commit a CRIME, did he?


Craig from Scotland: I have spent many a late night watching and laughing with Dave. My favorite show, and an excellent example of Dave's humanity, was the first show after 9/11. I have never met the man but I get the sense that that particular show reflects the "real" Dave.

Given the events of the past week, however, he needs to gracefully exit the stage. If Dave feels that the only person he may have harmed in these affairs is his current wife, why did he pay for one of the women he had sex with to go to law school? The whole thing is wrong and icky.

It is time for Craig and his puppets to take over the 11:30 time slot.

Tom Shales: Craig calling all the way from Scotland! Blimey! Oops, that's British. Of course it's not really Craig, it's a fan of Craig. I'm not, though I can see his appeal. I am suspicious of "foreigners" who live in the U.S. for years and years yet still don't lose their accents. I guess this sounds like prejudice, but Craig's Scottish accent is very irritating to me, and sounds like he hypes it artificially to sound more "cute" - like a leprechaun. Oops, that's Irish. Well, I do not think Dave should quit, and I don't think Craig would make it at 11:35. Just an opinion (or 2)


Kalamazoo, Mich.: My impression from several of your columns is that you are not much impressed by Jon Stewart. You have found multiple opportunities over the past several years to take what I perceived as shots at him. I'm sincerely curious what you dislike about Mr. Stewart and/or The Daily Show? Thank you for your time.

Tom Shales: Not much impressed? I can't stand him. Again a matter of form largely - why does he shout? (same thing for Seth Meyers on SNL's "Weekend Update"). Why do people on television shout and scream when they have very nice and expensive microphones to amplify their voices? I think Jon Stewart's delivery is WAY over the top, not just the shouting but the over-stressed punch lines, the facial tics and freaky faces - I'm sorry, I have always found him an aggressively un-funny man. Much of the material is good, but he feels the need to push it and poke it and shout it.


Alexandria, Va.: Sir: Thank you for your candid and frank words in these discussions. They're appreciated not only for their unfortunate rarity, but because they establish your honesty and integrity. Tom Shales today says that David Letterman should not be held to same standards as politicians and ministers when it comes to personal conduct. I believe Mr. Shales is wrong, in the main, and wonder if you also see his opinion as further evidence that many in the cultural elite -- and Mr. Shales is firmly and deservedly among our cultural elite -- are either out of touch as regards morals, or believe that they are subject to a different set of standards? To me, when Mr. Letterman makes fun of people's actions he is implicitly stating what actions are acceptable and what are not. And isn't that what ministers and politicians do? If so, and Mr. Letterman reaches far more people than do more ministers and politicians, shouldn't he be subject to those standards, too?

Tom Shales: A very long & thoughtful question/comment. Dave has no AUTHORITY as a social arbiter or enforcer -- he uses public foul-ups, blunders and indiscretions as fodder for comedy. In recent months, I also think he's editorialized with his comedy, using it to take swipes at Bush and Palin and of course Dick Cheney. I don't think he's particularly partisan; I think he just can't stand those figures and the ideologies they espouse. And those people DO (or did) have the authority to enforce some of their whims on the public and certainly to affect American life. Dave is a jester and, I think, harmless but that doesn't justify his behaving irresponsibly. Oh gosh, I'm kind of sick of this story already but it's going to hang around and hang around, isn't it - depending on how many women are involved. If each one comes forward to do a mea culpa or whatever, the story could drag on for weeks - months! Oh and Alexandria, not sure whether your comments re my "honesty and integrity" are sarcastic and meant to be zingers or are sincerely meant. If the latter, thank you. If the former, well, I do like to think I'm honest and say what I really believe and try to analyze things with some degree of objectivity. Whether that qualifies as "integrity" or not-- don't know. Thanks for writing regardless......


Washington, D.C.: This week can't have helped his personal life, but it sure hasn't hurt the quality of Letterman's show. I thought last night's show was extremely funny. I would hope the madness over this will end pretty soon. Any chance that will happen?

Tom Shales: I agree - and I already did some guess-timating about how long the "crisis" will hang around and be a pest. I was a little uncomfortable with Dave and a guest or two making jokes about his philandering but he's not doing a discussion show, he's doing a comedy show, and he never forgets that. Also he sort of misspoke last night when he said he thought he had done "the right thing." The way he was talking, some viewers might have thought that by doing the "right thing" he meant the affairs! He meant that coming forth and being open about the mess was the right thing to do - the public mea culpa etc.


Dubious, ME: "I think Jon Stewart's delivery is WAY over the top, not just the shouting but the over-stressed punch lines, the facial tics and freaky faces"

And yet, you say you are a fan of Kristin Wiig? Ugh, she plays one character over and over again. I turn the channel when she comes on.

Tom Shales: She plays many different characters, doesn't she? Some are way over-the-top, as I said of Stewart, but some have a certain subtlety. The point is, they are characters -- and caricatures. They are usually written to be broad, silly, extreme. Stewart is "playing the part" of a TV newscaster, night after night. He is supposed to come across like a real anchor on a real newscast. Instead he's strictly the big braying buffoon. BUT - I shouldn't keep trashing him, he gives pleasure to lots of people and like I said, the material is sometimes pretty good, even though I was surprised, when watching the Emmys, that it takes THAT MANY writers to crank out that tiny little program........


Rockville, Md.: It's actually refreshing to have someone keep their accent -- how many Scottish/English/Irish/Aussie actors have either lost or subsumed their accents for the sake of not putting off their American audiences (I'm looking at you, Mr. LaPaglia)?

Couldn't agree more on Stewart, though. Here's a thought: make a funny point, then move on. Don't beat it to death. Since the guy started out as a comedian (before he tried to save the world), you'd think he'd have his act down by now.

Tom Shales: Yes, we are in agreement on Mr Stewart. I guess I sounded prejudiced or something when I said I didn't like accents, which is not really what I meant to say. I find many of them terribly charming, or lilting, or whatever. Remember Genevieve, the French "gamin" on the old Jack Paar show? She clung to that overdone French accent throughout her career, using it to get laughs long after it stopped being funny. Maybe it's the faked ones, or seemingly faked ones, that drive me batty.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom, I know you are getting a million of these so here goes. I have no problem with Letterman having sex with multiple women. My only problem is the fact that it seems at least one of these was just a young intern. That is where it crosses the line for me. Maybe there are more, maybe not. But when a powerful man like Letterman starts relationships with these young impressionable interns, it makes the whole thing skeezy for me.

Tom Shales: I hadn't heard any allegations about any of the women being "too young." A neighbor was an intern for a summer several years ago - and she never reported to me any strange dark doings backstage -- Letterman in effect forcing women to have sex. I just can't believe he's an outright heel, a louse, after watching him all these years and having talked with him a few times. Of course, you never can tell with sexual behavior; all manner of misbehavior can be camouflaged behind a seemingly decent demeanor.


Anonymous: Yes he did come clean and to his credit...I don't understand the big deal. It's not a criminal act, there are no victims and I agree that he's not in a position of public trust...

Tom Shales: Agree. Virtually every other sex scandal from Clinton onward has been much worse, it seems to me -- I mean the degree of shamefulness and deplorability (???? - sorry about that) was much higher....


Alexandria, Va.: Tom --

Can you stand someone saying that you're right?

Mr. Letterman provides a service -- he entertains us. If your mechanic or grocery clerk had an affair, would you insist that they resign their job? Letterman happens to have a more visible job than most, but that doesn't change the standard. He never presented himself as a model of rectitude or morality. He doesn't vote on what other people are allowed or not allowed to do. He holds no position of public trust -- not even on par with Walter Cronkite, much less elected officials.

As for hypocrisy, he defused that last night by showing he could no longer make jokes about Spitzer, Clinton, etc.

Apart from the extortion angle, this all falls into his private life. And public people do have private lives. It's none of our business.

Tom Shales: For obvious reasons, I love your letter. It stirred a memory. After the death of Charles Kuralt, we learned he was quite the bad boy as far as extramarital activities goes. If this had been revealed during his lifetime, would people have deserted "Sunday Morning" in droves? Would there have been torrents of high dudgeon and righteous indignation? Well, it's hypothetical of course - but not so unlike the Letterman story. The offense would seem to have nothing to do with the person's public role.


Delanco, N.J.: "the material is sometimes pretty good, even though I was surprised, when watching the Emmys, that it takes THAT MANY writers to crank out that tiny little program........ "

I'm curious to know what personal TV writing experience you base this on?

Tom Shales: Now wait, you think I have to have written a few TV shows in order to criticize the writing on a TV show? Your standards would mean most critics would lose their jobs (I hear some of you applauding! Now cut that out!). A critic doesn't have to have experience in the art or artifice he or she is criticizing. If so, then most critics would have to be failed singers, failed dancers, failed writers of sitcoms, etc. As it happens, I based the comment on what I do know about television programs. It seems like rather a lot of writers but not an outrageously large number of them when you think about "SNL" and other shows with giant writing staffs. But it wasn't much of a comment to begin with, just a passing remark. Sorry if it inflamed you.....


Fairfax County, Va.: Wow, there's no disputing about matters of taste. I enjoy Jon Stewart more than any other comic now on television. And yes, I liked HIS return after September 11 -- didn't bother to watch Letterman's although I heard it was good also.

That being said, I totally agree with you about Letterman. He faced the same personal moral dilemma as any blackmail victim and he did the right thing instantly and without hesitation -- the modern, legal version of "publish and be d--ned" as the British used to say. It took a lot of fortitude to stand up to extortion and take his lumps by letting an unflattering truth come out. I support him 100 percent.

Tom Shales: You seem fair-minded where human failings are concerned. What Dave did with women on his staff qualifies as a human failing, I think. What that creepy extortionist did was a willful and malicious act of aggression in pursuit of financial gain. Ugh, that sounds pretty stuffy. But there is a HUGE difference between the victim and the victimizer here......


Columbus, Ohio: Mr. Shales --

I believe it is people like you who make these clowns so "big" that they think they are Superman. Letterman is just a TV loud mouth -- that is all-- not even funny with most of his "jokes."

Tom Shales: I don't think I have done that much to make David Letterman successful. He hates critics so he would say I have done nothing. Members of the public as counted by Nielsen ratings have made Dave what he is today. Obviously he pleases and entertains some people, offends and/or bores others...


Alexandria, Va.: Please rank the following on a scale from unacceptable to who cares (and of course invite the viewers to jump in) -

Roman Polanski drugging and raping a 13-year-old David Letterman having sex with an adult employee John Phillips having sex with his daughter Hugh Grant having sex with a prostitute Bill Clinton having sex with an intern and lying about it under oath. Gov. Sanford disappearing to go to South America to meet his girlfriend.

Thank you in advance.

Tom Shales: I'd say Dave's transgressions seem pretty puny in this particular company. Thoughts, people? People - are you there? Person? (You're there, just joshing)


Arlington, Va.: Americans are so uptight on sex, as this event and its aftermath shows. There was a crime involved here, and an alleged blackmailer has been arrested and charged. Yet is it a crime to have consensual sex, no matter what your marriage status? I would suggest that most of your male readers would confess to extramarital affairs if they responded honestly, and certainly a lot of the females. So what has Letterman done? It has been several days now, and I have yet to see anyone interview the women involved, even though one has been obliquely identified since she was the girlfriend of the alleged blackmailer. We don't even know when these affairs took place. So it looks to me as if these were consensual and everyone except the blackmailer and you are happy.

Tom Shales: Hey, I'M not unhappy - I don't think Dave deserves to be tarred, feathered or dragged through the streets by a horse. I think you make a lot of good points. As for "when" these affairs took place, Letterman implied last night that they took place some time ago, before he was married, but he's been mostly vague on the actual time-frame.


Naperville, Ill.: Remember his jokes about Monica Lewinsky or Palin's daughter? They were crude at the minimum. They were not public figures. When he took the high ground then, knowing very well, what he was doing to his interns/fellow employees, doesn't his apology sound too shallow?

Tom Shales: The joke wasn't really at the expense of Palin's (older) daughter. She was sort of a prop in the joke, which was about a male predatory figure - I mean technically, did he really besmirch the character of the girl? Maybe under close analysis, the joke would indeed be offensive, but I seem to recall it being a kind of 'iffy' situation. Monica Lewinsky WAS a public figure and worked hard to become one. OK, maybe "worked" is not the right word........


Los Angeles, Calif. : Tom ... where are the women that were harassed? Not one complaint file or charged. All we have is a boyfriend who wants to ruin someone over sleeping with his girlfriend and his lawyer making the most of it for his own glory. Extortion is against the law, something more than anything alleged against Dave.

So everyone rather hyperventilate over David's morals and actions. He has admitted to everything but being an angel. The boyfriend is claiming innocent, but I guess he does not sell newspapers

Tom Shales: Very interesting. By the way, hardly anybody sells newspapers these days. Not even me, heh heh. AND THAT'S

QUITE A PROBLEM. But we shan't get into it here....


Alexandria, Va.: Can't you people see the huge difference between simply having an extramarital affair and having one with someone -- who works for you? That is inherently an abuse of power. No explicit coercion is necessary -- it's intrinsic in the situation, including for everyone else in the office.

Tom Shales: Yes, good point. Then again, Dave is reputedly not a very formal or imposing or power-wielding boss. More of a good who happens to have a television show. THEN YET AGAIN, you are right, the guy in charge has power and seducing women on the staff is an abuse of that power. THEN STILL YET ONCE MORE AGAIN -- we always assume the male in these cases is the seducer. Do we know that Dave wasn't seduced in at least some of the cases rather than being Mr. Seduction?


Falls Church, Va.: Be honest -- if Sean Hannity or Roger Ailes had been caught having sexual relationships with many younger staffers, you'd be calling for a sexual-harassment investigation, wouldn't you?

Tom Shales: No.

Honestly - Sean Hannity? Who'd give a hoot?

Roger Ailes? I like the guy but that shouldn't enter into it. "Caught having sexual relationships" is kind of too vague.

You're trying to say there's a double standard but I don't think so. Or at least I don't think this case does anything to prove or disprove the existence of one.


Pecking Order of Creeps: Polanski Clinton Phillips Sanford Grant Letterman

And I'm a Democrat and like Clinton more than I dislike him. And I don't generally like Letterman.

Tom Shales: Thank you for that provocative ranking -- a sort of Bottom Ten List.


Olney, Md.: Please! Enough about late-night television in general and Letterman in particular. There are MANY people who don't watch talk shows, especially late night ones, because they are in bed. Some people get up early.

May we please talk about FlashForward or Desperate Housewives or Heroes or Drop Dead Diva (a refreshingly good show) or Castle or C.S.I. or something fun?

Tom Shales: Next week, we will talk about prime time or other programming. You must admit, Dave is very much in the

news. I like talking about late-night television because

it's closer to being "live" and responsive to what's happening in the world than prime-time stuff, some of it

taped weeks or months ago, is.......


Connecticut: Even if you think Letterman shouldn't be held to the same standard as politicians, don't you think this incident at least threatens to defang him somewhat? That was my concern, and he showed a little last night in his monologue when he stopped himself when talking about politicians in similar circumstances.

Also, by the time the Edwards affair blew up, he was an ex- politician -- yes, one who ran for president, but still one out of office, no?

Tom Shales: Yes but last night he was JOKING (at his own expense) about holding back on skewering political figures who got caught in sex scandals. It was pretty funny, I thought.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Just wondered if you've noticed your habit of apologizing for media figures? For example, Polanski rapes and sodomizes a drugged 13-year-old and you write a flattering article that falsely understates his crime; Letterman jokes about the statutory rape of the teenage daughter of a conservative politician and you call the joke inartfully phrased but otherwise fine; Letterman admits to affairs with subordinate employees and you state it's alright because he's just a media personality. Do you ever condemn anything done on TV unless it's done by a conservative?

Tom Shales: Hello, Dunn Loring, I didn't want to sign off without trying to answer your question. I didn't realize I had written a column defending Roman Polanski and minimized his crime - are you sure it was me? I mean, I? There is, apparently, more to this crime than it would seem, and it may sound like a hollow defense, but in Hollywood I am not sure a 13-year-old is really a 13-year-old.Do I ever condemn anything done on TV unless it's done by a conservative? Honestly - I don't think you could build a very strong case against me on that particular charge. I'd have to go back and read dozens and dozens of columns from the past several years - UGH! You can do that if you want. But remember, I am a critic, I don't have to be "fair and balanced" and critize every faction equally. I swear to you I do not do it on ideological or political grounds, not consciously. I would hate to be that predictable. Thanks for dropping by.......


Standish, Maine: 2 people have sex, News at 11!

Tom Shales: Pithy and to the point in Standish.....


Columbia, S.C.: There were times when I was watching Johnny Carson when I suddenly found myself thinking, "That guy deserves every dollar he makes." This thought usually occurred when he would have a very unpromising or unpredictable guests; Carson always managed to not only make it work but to make it hilarious. He was a true master at his craft.

I thought the same thing last night watching Letterman, who made me think not only of Carson but of Bill Clinton, too -- the way he could take this really terrible situation and just kind of absorb it. If Reagan was like Teflon, Letterman is like a Brillo pad; he can soak up his own scandal, confront it, address it and still be funny without, really, looking foolish. He didn't dodge his problems at all -- and yet he somehow manages to get you to laugh with him rather than at him.

Maybe being a talk show host at that level is some kind of a dark art.

Tom Shales: Thanks for a very thoughtful analysis.


New Haven, Conn.: Sorry Tom -- you just don't understand Jon Stewart's shtick, or, perhaps, meta-humor in general. Next time you watch the Daily Show, look at how uncomfortable Stewart looks while he's yelling or doing freaky facial tics. It's all a joke -- he is making fun of the absurdity of the delivery. He is a straight man who plays it over-the-top.

Tom Shales: If I don't "understand" it, I'm not sure it's worth trying to understand. But again, I wouldn't dream in a million years of depriving anyone who likes that show of getting lots and lots of laughs from it. God knows lots and lots of laughs are desperately needed, these days more than usual. Wanna see a REALLY scary movie? Watch "The Mist" on HBO or one of the others ... gory of course but wonderfully horrible. That's my handy-dandy viewing tip for today and something NOT about David Letterman. Hang in there, Dave, and everyone else, too, and thank you very much for showing up. See you next week?! I hope........


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