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Letterman's on-air confession serves as a cultural Rorschach test

In a few days,
David Letterman
will emerge unscathed from the hullabaloo surrounding the bombshell about that extortion plot against him.


His fans don't care about his indiscretions, and the notoriety will probably make his show more popular than ever. And what do you bet the blackmailer will join the ""Fire Dave"" protesters as regulars in Dave's monologue?

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No, that's not how it's going to be at all. This is the beginning of the end for Letterman. He was funny once, but in recent years his on-air persona has gone from goofy to eccentric to, as he put it Thursday night, ""creepy.""


More revelations will leak out about young women in his office being cherry-picked for a role on Dave's casting couch, and as they do, disgusted viewers will start switching to
Conan O'Brien
.


No, that's too pessimistic a view. Dave will be chastened by this episode, as he was by his heart bypass, as he was by 9-11, as he was when he learned that the woman breaking into his home was suffering from schizophrenia (which is when he stopped making jokes about her).


He knows he needs to make amends with some of his viewers. He'll apologize for his lack of workplace ethics. He'll ease off the jokes about public figures' sex lives. And he won't make light of blackmail on his show.


It's too early to tell how this episode will end, though any of the above scenarios strikes me as plausible. One thing is certain: Letterman's confession on Thursday's ""Late Show"" provided us with an instant cultural Rorschach test.


In the 12 hours following the broadcast, hundreds of readers posted comments to my Facebook, Twitter and TV Barn pages. Across the Internet, thousands of people vented about the story involving Dave, the blackmailer — allegedly a longtime CBS News producer named
Joe Halderman
— and a woman they both reportedly shared a bed with.


Let's start with the weird way Letterman broke the news to his audience.


During the monologue, Letterman told several jokes about
Roman Polanski
and disgraced South Carolina Gov.
Mark Sanford
, and the audience ate them up — having no idea, of course, that the person on stage was about to enshrine himself in their rarefied company.


It's possible that Dave knew all along that he was going to play his confession for laughs — not unlike his retelling of the story of driving to the county courthouse in Montana earlier this year and finally getting married to his longtime girlfriend,
Regina Lasko
.


When the show aired, many of those watching at home hadn't heard the news, so they laughed right along with the audience as Dave started sharing the tawdry details of what he called the ""creepy stuff"" he had done. Many in the audience were still laughing even after he revealed he was the target of a $2 million extortion plot by a man who threatened to expose his sexual relationships with ""Late Show"" employees. And when Dave admitted to said dalliances — ""Yes, I have,"" the host said — the audience laughed and then clapped.


""With Letterman, one is never sure if the story is true,"" tweeted ourpaldave. ""I wasn't sure until the end, so I tittered with the audience.""


But on TVBarn.com, E. O'Neal said Dave's fans are way too easy to please. ""They're supposed to laugh every time he pauses. It's a conditioned reflex that shows they're in on the joke. Last night was especially creepy.""


""He certainly flipped the script in TV confessions,""
Scott Tobias
tweeted. ""My first reaction was, 'Huh. He did not do what you're supposed to do in situations like this.' And that's kinda remarkable.""


As for the incident itself, the responses can be roughly distributed among four large, overflowing buckets:


There are the fans of Dave, those who find a bit of consensual office sex to be not that big a deal — especially in a week that has featured Polanski's arrest,
Mackenzie Phillips'
lurid Daddy-dearest tale and the heartbreaking testimony of
Elizabeth Smart
. The only crime here is extortion.


""It was fine,""
Teresa Kopec
said. ""He didn't molest a child, nor has anyone accused him of sexual harassment. People sleep around at the office. Human.""


Others, including some ""Late Show"" viewers, found the news troubling.


""Unless he had no power over their jobs — financially or otherwise — he's on the hook,""
Susan Dennis
wrote. In fact, as the owner of the now unfortunately named Worldwide Pants, which produces ""Late Show"" for CBS, Letterman has a special power over people inside the building. That is why people get sued for sexual harassment, no? It's not about the sex, it's about the power.


And then there were the many readers of the Drudge Report, which linked to my story. They posted comments similar to this one from Rob: ""Isn't this the man that made fun of
Sarah Palin's
daughter for sexual escapades? THE CHICKENS ARE COMING HOME TO ROOST!"" But I sense these folks don't really watch Letterman.


Of more concern to the ""Late Show"" joke writers might be the sentiment put forth by this commenter: ""Letterman should get out and apologize to
John Edwards
,
Bill Clinton
,
Eliot Spitzer
and others in similar situations he lived off of over the years making jokes about them. I don't care for them, but fair is fair.""


———



Aaron Barnhart
: aaron@tvbarn.com


———


(c) 2009, The Kansas City Star.


Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.kansascity.com.


Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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