David Letterman Puts the Joke on Himself

"Late Show" host uses his trademark wit to talk about his own sex scandal.

October 06, 2009, 10:22 PM

Oct. 7, 2009— -- You're a comedian caught in a sex scandal. What do you do? Apologize sincerely? Tell a joke? Or both?

David Letterman has straddled the line between remorse and humor ever since he revealed that he was the victim of an alleged extortion plot by a CBS News producer who threatened to expose his sexual affairs with staff members.

Fellow comedians say he has struck the right balance.

"It's such a dicey situation for him. I think his self-deprecating attitude helps him to win the day," Sara Benincasa, a political satirist and host of a sex talk show on Sirius radio, told ABCNews.com. "I think he has to lampoon himself, understanding that he has spent a large part of his career lampooning others' affairs. ... He has to mock himself in order to avoid accusations of hypocrisy."

On Monday night's show, Letterman opened with a reference to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose own extramarital affair had made him a previous Letterman target.

"I mean, I'll be honest with you folks — right now, I would give anything to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail," he joked about Sanford's infamous phony alibi.

"I got into the car this morning," he continued, "and the navigation lady wasn't speaking to me. Ouch."

Comedian Steve Martin, one of Letterman's guests Monday night, later gave consolation telling Letterman, "It proves that you're a human being. And we weren't really that sure before."

Tuesday on ABC's "The View," Martin said, "I think he [Letterman] is handling it superbly. … When he sat down at the desk and really addressed the people in a very sincere way, I found him very moving."

Martin told "The View" that he and comedian Martin Short had tossed around the idea of playing a joke on Letterman. Martin would confess to having had his own workplace romance and then ask Short to come out on stage. Short would hug Martin and Martin would say, "See, that's why it's not going to work, you're too needy."

Martin said he thought it was funny, but Letterman's staff was nervous and not sure how the host would handle it.

Instead, Short made an unannounced appearance jumping on Letterman's desk before he playfully plopped himself on Martin's lap.

Letterman quipped to Short, "You spend one more minute on his lap, you're gonna get blackmailed."

Robert .Halderman, the Emmy-award-winning CBS News producer who has been charged with trying to blackmail Letterman for $2 million, pleaded not guilty Friday, before he was released on bail. Letterman said Halderman claimed he had evidence of the talk show host's sexual affairs with staff members.

On Monday's show, Letterman adopted a more shameful tone than last week when he first revealed his past indiscretions. He made it clear to the audience that his wife, Regina Lasko, "has been horribly hurt by my behavior" and described his conduct as "stupid."

"When something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it," the comedian said. "And at that point, there's only two things that can happen: Either you're going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you're going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me."

"The View" co-host Joy Behar said the entire situation has been "a very interesting exercise in how comedians handle these situations."

"He did it with a great deal of humor," she said on Tuesday's show. "He apologized to her [Lasko] with humor, which is good because she'll be laughing all the way to the bank."

Behar, an accomplished comedian herself, also compared the way Letterman is handling his sex scandal with how actor Hugh Grant came clean after he was caught in a car with a prostitute many years ago.

"Remember that, when he was getting the old wham-a-roo in the backseat?" Behar said. "He made a joke about it [on "The Tonight Show"] and his career was fine. And Jay Leno's numbers went up. I think it's going to happen to Letterman."

Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers said on Stern's show Wednesday morning that she feels like the audience is seeing Letterman stripped of his "veneer."

"I think in the long run I'm more interested (in him) than I ever have been before," she said. "It makes him more sympathetic."

That seems to be happening so far. Letterman's Monday night apology netted CBS a 4.2 rating -- higher than any rating rival NBC had in prime time. That was slightly less than the 5.8 million people who watched last Thursday's show, when Letterman first revealed the blackmail threat.

"This response is working for him," said Matt Komen, a veteran comedy show producer who manages content for Comedy.com. "I think he's handled it perfectly. He took it to the surface. It was a very smart move to bring it out in the open, which is why comics are cutting him slack.

Komen said his Web site, which scours the Internet for funny content, hasn't found many jokes about Letterman. Of course, it could be because comedians don't want to ruin their chances of being booked for the "Late Show."

But some readers of ABCNews.com were not so forgiving.

Stephen Blum of New Orleans wrote: "We stopped watching Letterman years ago when my wife thought the he was creepy and ogling and touching young women on his program."

Duane Williams of Duarte, Calf., wasn't buying the apology: "He gets his so-called apologies out and then begins to joke about it like it is all part of his act. I feel he has no real remorse for what he did."

Other readers appreciated Letterman's humor and said it was right for the situation.

"Striking the right tone and masterfully," wrote Sian Evans of Miami. "I am enormously impressed and will never watch Conan again."

"Dave Letterman is the Garrison Keillor of late-night TV -- a direct line to the heart of Middle America," Lucy Collier of Berkeley, Calif., wrote. "That large domain will think him a sinner like each of themselves and need to laugh anyway."

Folks who never cared for Letterman had little sympathy.

His delivery always seems insincere," wrote Bob Wire of Arlington, Texas. "Why would this circumstance be any different? He's the joke!"

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