Dave's story, Dave's spin

TELEVISION CRITIC

Good thing it was Woody Harrelson, right?

Thursday night, David Letterman shocked America with the revelation that he had recently been the victim of alleged blackmail. The suspect, later identified as Robert Joel Halderman, a producer on "48 Hours," had been arrested and oh, by the way, his information was correct. Letterman had indeed slept with women who worked for his show. Thanks for your patience and next up, my first guest . . .

Just imagine if it had been Tea Leoni or, perish the thought, Jennifer Aniston. The audience, both at home and in the studio, was still reeling, lost in the echoing chasm between what Letterman said -- over the years, he has slept with his employees -- and how he said it -- a humorous recounting of threat by tell-all screenplay.

At least they didn't have to worry about the poor star who had to walk into that ringing vacuum -- Harrelson, no choir boy, can take care of himself.

Not that the guest choice happened by accident. The first 10 minutes of Thursday's show was one of the most masterfully produced bits of televised theater we'll see in a long time. Rarely has a public figure controlled the revelation of possibly illegal and at the very least surprising sexual escapades with such a velvet glove and iron hand.

There also may be some sort of special Pulitzer involved for the Most Creative Burial of a Lead in History.

--

'A little story'

After telling the unsuspecting studio audience that he had "a little story" to relate, Letterman slowly, precisely, and with more than a few pauses for humor led us through a series of events that began in early September with his discovery, at 6 a.m., of an envelope on the back seat of his car. Inside was a letter alleging that the star had done terrible things and included some proof. "Maybe this looks better to you at noon," Letterman said, deadpan, "but at 6 in the morning, all you can think of is every terrible thing you've ever done in your life."

Reminding us that he is a man motivated by "Lutheran, Midwestern guilt" and repeatedly referring to the charges as "terrible stuff" and "creepy stuff," Letterman explained how he called his lawyer and then authorities who informed him it was blackmail. Letterman and his lawyer then met with the writer of the letter to make sure he was serious, "because we can all have a bad day, things fall through the cracks, you inadvertently blackmail someone." But the blackmailer was serious and so a phony check for $2 million was cut and accepted and Halderman subsequently arrested.

By the time Letterman finally gripped his coffee cup and revealed what the terrible stuff was -- that he had slept with women who worked for him on this show -- it seemed, as it was supposed to seem, almost a relief. No one dead, no minors involved, no sex tape about to hit the Internet! Especially when the host did not follow up with the standard painful apology to his wife, his family, the women involved or his fans. Indeed, with the air of self-deprecating dignity he has perfected over the years, Letterman proclaimed that he wanted to protect these women, his family, himself and his job. If the women felt motivated to come forward, so be it, but he wasn't about to let some blackmailer make his personal life public and he wasn't going say anything more on the matter.

--

A question of tone

It was an admission miraculous not only in its tone but in its utter lack of detail. No names, no numbers (he used the plural, but two is plural), no timeline. It certainly was effective TV -- his ratings went up 22% Thursday night. Some were put off by what they saw as Letterman making light of a serious situation, but that's not exactly what happened. He certainly did not make light of the blackmail, and, as for his sex life, he simply seemed to think, shockingly enough, that it was his own business.

To a certain extent that remains to be seen. No public charge of sexual harassment has been made against the late-night star, but sleeping with your employees is dangerous at best, predatory at worst and no doubt violates all sorts of corporate ethics rules. But the legal fallout from Letterman's actions remains to be seen.

If no crime was committed, then Letterman's determinedly unapologetic tone is just right. Letterman's wife, Regina Lasko, is a former "Late Show" staffer herself, and though they "dated" for more than 20 years, and have a 5-year old son, they did not marry until this year -- and their relationship is their business.

Though it might make it a bit more difficult for Letterman to skewer sexual transgressors, he's not a public servant. He may be a role model to stand-up comedians (a group not normally known for having conventional moral standards), but he is certainly not the first person most Americans turn to for inspiration or spiritual guidance.

Although he likes to talk about his Midwest aw-shucks roots, no one would ever describe him as warm and fuzzy. Historically, Letterman's comedy has been acerbic, bordering on a little bit mean. Although he has mellowed somewhat since his heart attack and the birth of his son, he certainly never had the Mr. Nice Guy reputation of Jay Leno (who really must be on his knees thanking the generosity of the comedy gods right now).

For those of us bone-weary of phony apologies by erring public officials, Letterman's "little story" was a marvel of creative television.

Yes, it was a dirty trick to pull on the studio audience -- Letterman was much more serious about his apology to Sarah Palin -- but if you're David Letterman, what are you going to do if a TV producer of a true crime show tried to blackmail you? With the threat of a screenplay? You nail the sucker for blackmail, you admit the information is true and you play it for laughs.

And hope that Steve Martin is interested in the project.

--

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°