Letterman's Brilliant Crisis Management

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 2 2009 8:45 AM

Letterman's Brilliant Crisis Management

But what was it like to be in the studio audience yesterday at the Ed Sullivan Theater? One moment you were inhaling brisk fall air out on Broadway, and then, privy to a blackmail plot, you were witnessing a fat, juicy footnote to TV culture. At home, it seemed like the audience was negotiating some kind of acute stress response. The key moment sounded like this:

Dave: The creepy stuff was that I have [breath] had sex with women [beat] who work for me [beat] on this show.

Audience: [Awkward silence, as if thinking, "Is this joke? If so, is it at our expense?" and also imagining, "What does Dave look like having sex?"]

Dave: Now, my response to that is, Yes, I have

Audience: [Cathartic laughter and extended nervous applause, the latter all the more fascinating because the producers couldn't have been so indecent as to light an applause sign.]

Dave (speaking under the extended idiotic applause): I have had sex with women, and and would it be embarrassing if it were made public?

Audience: [Hearty titters.]

Dave: Perhaps it would. Perhaps it would especially for the women.

That last line was beautifully turned, a great release of tension, never mind that its dry heat curdled some of the laughter for it. Letterman is often best when, dying badly on stage, he turns his parched sarcasm back on himself. This was deadpan candor and ace crisis management. He had something to say, but this was not a confession. I notice that the first comment on Bill Carter's NYTimes.com report on this story was blurted out by an entity calling itself "tomb": "He did not even say he was sorry. Jerk." Say sorry to whom? To his public? Why do we deserve an apology? What does he owe us beyond a bit of entertainment at bedtime and something to talk about in the morning?

Click here to read more on David Letterman's confession.

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Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.