Friday, October 2, 2009

David Letterman's Very Hot Seat

On the one hand, David Letterman's admission that he's had sex with female employees of his show, a confession forced by the alleged blackmail attempt of a CBS news employee who'd obtained proof of the affairs, is hardly surprising - as we're all well aware by now, lots of powerful people have zipper problems, and while it's certainly not the case that all celebrities cheat on their spouses, you don't have to be a hardened cynic to believe that there are lots of rich and famous people who observe their marital vows somewhat less than scrupulously. That said, it is surprising when certain classes of celebrity whose power and standing depends on their reputation get themselves embroiled in such affairs, and late night talk show hosts, like politicians, are one of these classes. David Letterman has made a living ridiculing powerful people, often for their sexual improprieties (see his tiff with the Palin family from earlier this year), so when he gets caught with his pants down it has a particular whiff of - well, hypocrisy's not quite the right word, but - irony. As is often acknowledged and I've said before, America is certainly a forgiving culture, particularly when it comes to the foibles of celebrities, but I have a hard time seeing how Letterman's career rebounds from this. The next time a John Edwards or a Mark Sanford gets caught sticking his penis where it doesn't belong, Letterman is put into a huge bind. There's no way he can joke about it without reminding everyone watching of his own misdeeds, and that sort of elephant in the room kills comedy. But if he doesn't touch it in favor of sticking to safe subjects, his humor loses its bite and topical relevance. He's really placed himself in a pickle.

In addition, he's now wide open to counterattacks from his targets, as well as sniping from his rivals (no doubt Sarah Palin is smiling a frightening smile of satisfaction on her plasticine face at this very moment, and I'd be surprised if Jay Leno isn't already writing jokes at Letterman's expense right now). I feel bad for Letterman's wife and five-year-old son - nothing makes a tawdry family affair more fun like having millions of people find out about it just after you yourself do. For Letterman himself? Not so much. I've intermittently enjoyed his humor over the years (though I'm far from as big a fan as some people), but it often had a mean-spirited edge that made it uncomfortable, and if that rebounds upon him now, he has nobody to blame but himself.

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