Modern culture is Oprah culture is confessional culture. David Letterman is smart enough to know this truth. The other thing that will save him is that he’s pretty damn funny.
“It’s so sunny and bright outside that, earlier today, Eliot Spitzer came out of a brothel squinting.” That’s what David Letterman said on his CBS Late Show in March last year, after the then-governor of the state of New York was implicated in an upmarket prostitution scandal.
“Chief-sexecutive” and “commander-in-briefs”. That’s what a deadpan Letterman consistently called then-president Bill Clinton after the latter was implicated in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Also relatively funny.
“If you came here tonight for sex with a talk show host, you’ve come to the wrong studio.” That’s what Letterman’s rival Jay Leno said a few days ago on his own late night talk-show on NBC.
In my books, the funniest by far.
Because Letterman, as most of the Milky Way knows by now, confessed on his show last Thursday to – firstly – having sex with co-workers, and – secondly – to being the victim of a US$2-million bribery attempt relating to point one. A big reason we’re laughing so hard at Leno, apart from the deadpan delivery and perfect timing that both he and Letterman are famous for, is that we’re “in” on the joke: Letterman’s a hypocrite.
Or is he? The host of a late night talk show, even one as wealthy and powerful as Letterman, is no state governor and is certainly no national president. Unlike Spitzer and Clinton, he was unmarried at the time of his trysts. Unlike politicians who campaign on the “family values” ticket (eg., Spitzer, Clinton) he has a limited moral responsibility to his public. Unlike the figures he mocks, his primary role is to be funny.
And the basis of Letterman’s wealth and influence, of course, is that hardly anybody does it better. “I might be the first talk-show host to be impeached,” he quipped on Monday night, in the second of his candid and apparently heartfelt confessionals on the subject. Later in the show, referring to all the hurt this was causing his wife – who, it must be re-emphasised, was not his wife at the time the deeds were done – he looked directly at the camera and said, “Let me tell you, folks. I got my work cut out for me.”
It was a statement that won the support of husbands across America, and perhaps a few thousand wives. Here was a man who was genuinely contrite; a rare non-denier; a brave truth-teller bent on salvaging his marriage in the face of something bad but not entirely unforgivable. The fact that Letterman had a six-year-old son with Regina Lasko, who he wed in March 2009, and that the couple had been together since 1986, seemed largely forgotten. Even Maureen Dowd, writing in her New York Times column, defended Letterman against charges that he had been abusing his position, and called the various comparisons to Roman Polanski (currently in a Swiss prison awaiting extradition to the US for a 1977 sex-crime involving a 13-year-old girl) “outrageous”
Sure, Letterman may have been forced into the role of penitent by the extortion attempt, and sure, his skill and experience before the camera may have enabled him to fully milk the sympathy angle – but on the whole the American public appeared to be buying it.
A week later, and it’s almost certain that Letterman has triumphed in his battle for the hearts and minds of the civilians. His ratings will go up and he will make even more money. His wife may or may not forgive him, but his professional career will go forth and prosper.
Which says something obvious about contemporary popular culture. Oprah is supreme ruler: to confess and atone is all. If you’re a late-night talk-show host, though, there is one further requirement. You need to be funny while you repent.
Ask yourself, would you ever forgive Gareth Cliff?
By Kevin Bloom
WATCH: Below is a report from the Good Morning America show on ABC on the original mea culpa by Letterman. CBS is enforcing its copyright on the original Letterman show, so it is no longer (legally) available online.