Saturday, October 3, 2009

Worldwide Pants down

By now — unless you’ve been doing oceanographic research in the Marianas Trench the last three or four days — you know the details about David Letterman.

The mysterious package he found in his car a few weeks back. The surprising, embarrassing contents of that package. The ensuing extortion threat for $2 million. The dummy cashier’s check for that amount, deposited by the lunkhead extortionist. The arrest of said lunkhead on Thursday, hours before the king of late-night went on the air to explain … well, everything — all the “creepy stuff” the extortionist planned to use against him.

"The creepy stuff is that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show," Letterman said on the air to the suddenly hushed crowd at the Ed Sullivan Theater. "... Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. I feel like I need to protect these people — I need to certainly protect my family."

Just when you're starting to think you know someone.

This doesn’t smell right. This is not the David Letterman I know, by God. This is not the way a major force in late-night television behaves. Somebody’s put Viagra in his Metamucil. A lot of it.

Letterman, host of “The Late Show,” one of TV’s gateway drugs for insomniacs, is at the center of a strange and sordid episode that highlights the confluence of entertainment, power, money and sex — a scandal that to this point leaves as many questions as answers.



The fact of a sordid extortion plot and its consequences was intriguing enough; Letterman now faces both the possibility of his own legal problems (stemming from the old workplace prohibition of having romantic liaisons with the people who work for you) and responsibility for creating an untidy public-relations mess for the Tiffany network, the gravity of which is still unfolding.

This just gets uglier and uglier.

Robert Joel Halderman, the CBS News producer suspected of having launched the extortion plot, and known to have deposited the check at his Connecticut bank, pleaded not guilty on Friday. Halderman, apparently looking for fresh material for “48 Hours Mystery,” was said to be motivated by financial need, despite a $214,000-a-year salary at CBS. Court dates are in his future.

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Letterman faces dates in the court of public opinion. Stephen Battaglio, appearing on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” on Friday, grasped some of the wider implications: “Late-night hosts, they’re not just comedians, they are really important social critics and, really, guides through the whole national conversation. Does this undercut David Letterman‘s ability to do that?”

That’s the immediate question: what happens to his ratings? It’s guaranteed that the curiosity factor will certainly drive his numbers up in the short term. Everyone wants to see the bearded lady on the day the circus opens. Farther down the road, as the legal dimensions of the case are revealed, this could be more of a challenge.

Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, issued a statement through a spokesman contemporizing his dalliances as having predated his marriage to Regina Lasko, his longtime companion and mother of their son Harry, in March. “Dave is not in violation of our policy and no one has ever raised a complaint against him,” said the spokesman, adding that the company’s policy “does not prohibit relationships within the company — only that they cannot be tied to an employee’s performance.”

But some have already darkly hinted at the possibility of intimidation of subordinates, and how Letterman’s actions, however romantically intended, are (to quote John Q. Kelly, a former prosecutor and civil attorney in New York) “inherently corrosive” to traditions of workplace decorum, and possibly laws against sexual harassment.

And even beyond that, there’s the question of what this does to Letterman’s biography. Once on the inquiring side of the aisle, interrogating Paris Hilton, Michael Richards and John McCain about their missteps in public, Letterman now finds himself in that docket, despite his pre-emptive mea culpa. And watching his program any night of the last 15 or 20 years, it’s been obvious that Dave likes the ladies, frequently given to gallantly kissing the hands of his female guests, or embracing them when they arrive on the Ed Sullivan stage. What once looked like professionally physical affection has to be seen in a new and more sobering light today, and from now on.

◊ ◊ ◊

But to go by two studio audiences on two different nights, the nation may be in a forgiving mood. On Thursday, Letterman’s comments were met with laughter and applause more than once, even after the bombshell “creepy” confessional moment.


It was hard to tell on Thursday if the applause and laughter was genuine, from a real reservoir of fellow feeling for someone admitting a deeply personal foible, and how much was the necessary reflex of a studio audience trapped in one place for at least two hours and constantly and regularly signaled to applaud on cue (during the commercial breaks).

But there wasn’t anything ambiguous about the reaction of Friday’s audience. From the monologue on, it was apparently business as usual. The applause was hearty and consistent, especially when Letterman jousted with Larry David (a quip from David about sex, obliquely referencing Letterman, was eagerly received).

So we’ll see. If the 400 people in the theater on each of two nights are any indicator, the country may be more charitable than we thought (and more than some angry moralists would like).

But over 25 years, David Letterman has always displayed a phenomenal ability to define the times without transcending the medium that’s made him what he is. The Oscars thing didn’t work for a reason: He’s king of the small box, the familiar human-sized blue glow at the foot of the American bed. He’s conquered late-night television. And he’s conquered controversy before. We’ll see if he can conquer those "creepy" little demons inside himself.
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Image credits: Letterman and Late Show title box: CBS/Worldwide Pants.

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