A major celebrity sleeps with women who works for him, is caught, is hit up for extortion money, goes to the cops and ends up having to make a public confession on national TV—sounds like great material for Letterman! Unfortunately for David Letterman, it was, as the talk-show host turned the story of a bizarre legal episode into an alternate serious and jokey monologue, a move that was direct but nonetheless creepy—though riveting TV throughout.
The odd thing about Letterman’s ten-minute confession—you can read Belinda Luscombe’s rundown of the details here—is how much it played for laughs. Some of it was simple tension-relief laughter (“blackmail” gets a big, inexplicable laugh and applause, and most of the audience first seems to think he’s joking when he says he’s had sex with employees). Some of it was straight-up comic monologue (Dave’s discussion of how, when you get a threatening package at 6 a.m., you start thinking of every awful thing you’ve done in your life).
Dave’s long unburdening played well enough in the room; how it will play in the larger world will be interesting. Because however you slice it, this is still seriously icky. A bigshot sleeping with women who work for him, whatever the circumstances, is inevitably bound up with power issues. (You’ll recall this from the Lewinsky scandal, which provided a joke or two for Letterman over the years.)
Now, Dave has never made a living at being the Star Who Is Just Like You—he’s never relied much on making a connection to viewers through his personal life, though he’s opened up a touch more about that in recent years. His persona has, however, depended in part on standing separate from typical showbiz “weasels,” to use his own favorite word.
It probably helped Dave that he told his story directly and—while playing it up for laughs—owned up to the “creepy” aspects of it. I suspect that many of his longtime fans will have a nice hot shower to wash off the ick, eventually forget this and move on. (“I know what you’re saying, ‘I’ll be darned, Dave’s had sex.'” Thanks for the image.) I wonder about his more soft audience though—say, the former Leno fans who went to him because Conan was too edgy and off-putting. This edgy enough for you?
A lot of that may depend on the details of the relationships, and if they ever come out, and how slowly and painfully they do. Regardless, you have to imagine Sarah Palin’s enjoying this right about now. Having dished it out often enough in late night, at minimum Dave will have to get used to taking it for a while.