Seated at his desk at a moment in his show when he would usually do his corny “Fun Facts” (something trite borrowed from Leno) or his signature “Top 10 List (a long-running dig at our obsession with useless facts and list-making), he invited the audience to listen to a story. Letterman revealed that he had received a letter inside a package from someone who said he knew he “had done some terrible things” in the past. This person was going to write a screenplay based on all the sordid things Letterman was being accused of, and then expose it, unless Letterman gave him some money.
The audience was still laughing at this “terrifying” and “insidious” moment, with Letterman eliciting cackles from the audience when saying he was a “man wrapped up in guilt”. Eventually, the Manhattan DA’s office got involved in this plot, working with Letterman’s attorney to meet with the perpetrator to eventually set up a phony check hand off for the $2 million. By this time, Letterman is describing all the “creepy” things he did when he testified at the grand jury. Here is where the audience went hush: when he revealed what he, the host of one of the most beloved late night TV shows in history, had done. He admitted that he had had “sex with women” who worked with him on his show, which on the face of it is shocking, but to his incredulous audience, still managed to laugh and applaud his words. Letterman admitted that this was an “embarrassing” episode, but that he needed to be upfront and handle this situation as quickly and cleanly as possible. It is at this point that he became more reflective, thanking those who had cooperated with him thus far and his wanting to protect those who were close to him —including his new wife Regina Lasko and son, Harry, 6.
Ratings for Thursday night’s show were up 20% and in fact, “The Late Show” has been on a roll lately, routinely beating Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” for the last several weeks. Attention, welcome or not, is bound to increase in the short term for Letterman as his production company, Worldwide Pants and CBS both come to terms with the extent of this burgeoning scandal. According to Bill Carter of the New York Times, both CBS and Letterman were trying to get out in front of this issue all day on Friday. First, the suspect was revealed to be someone on the inside, Robert Halderman, a producer for “48 Hours”, whose former roommate and girlfriend, Stephanie Birkitt, was among those staffers who was involved with Letterman as late as 6 years ago. Letterman asserted that this liaison was over by the time he married his current wife and before she gave birth to their son.
As you’d expect, the initial fallout for this story, involving one of television’s most enduring and beloved stars, has already engulfed all of the media outlets, from Larry King, MSNBC, the blogosphere, and, not surprisingly, Letterman’s fellow late-night comics. Jay Leno wasted no time last night in his monologue, telling his audience “if you came here tonight looking for sex with a talk-show host, you’ve got the wrong studio”. Over at “Real Time with Bill Maher”, host Maher cracked: “I’ve never had sex with members of my staff –the guests, yes, of course, but not the staff.” And then: “Hey, next to Roman Polanski and Mackenzie Phillips’ dad, I think Dave looks pretty good!”
Jimmy Fallon, one of the newest hosts who took over for Conan, tossed in a gag in his monologue as well.
The talk shows were a little scattered. They trotted out various figures, such as prosecutors, psychiatrists like Dr. Drew (he of the celebrity ambulance chasers), gossip columnists from E! and US Weekly and even defense attorneys like Mark Geragos. All of them speculating, but making the generally agreed-upon point that there is probably more here that will be unfurled in the coming weeks and months. For his part, Halderman plead not guilty to a charge of extortion in Manhattan and posted a $200,000 bail. (He was arrested on Thursday.) His attorney promised that there would be “another side to this story” in the coming days.
As this story unfolds and as we come to terms with its ramifications for Letterman, the “Late Show”, CBS, etc., and possibly what viewers’ reactions will be, it’s worth asking a few questions that may or may not be answered in the weeks to come:
*The press has unearthed photos of Ms. Birkitt, a former Letterman assistant and one of those woman that has been identified. She is said to be “mortified” by ex-roommate and boyfriend’s Halderman’s alleged attempt. But are there other female staffers who will either come forward or will be found out by the media? Whoa! Update: People magazine is already on this! Another female staffer has just come forward! Well, that didn’t take long!
*According to Carter’s piece in this morning’s Times, CBS has quietly asked whether the allegations of sexual relations involved anything more damaging than what’s been revealed –i.e., involvement with minors, or whether the activity suggested any manipulation or coercion. They were satisfied for now. CBS does not employ Letterman. Letterman’s company, Worldwide Pants, leases time from CBS. But the uncomfortable fact is that this is sexual harassment, and it’s never a good idea to have sex with someone you work with. Will CBS continue to do some digging? They would be stupid not to.
*What will “Late Show” viewers do in the next few weeks? Will they continue to support their much-adored host, who has been doing his show for over 27 years, the last 13 at CBS? When will the “anti-talk-show-host” become so much a part of his own story that it no longer becomes funny and instead it become a bit more pathetic?
*It’s not as if Letterman is a member of some conservative organization who got caught with his pants down. But there is something to be said about the hypocrisy of someone who makes a living of joking about others’ foibles and peccadilloes when he is now embroiled in an increasingly ugly and public story. We don’t subscribe to the shameful and typically moralistic reproach of batty Michelle Malkin, the conservative gadfly, who said on Fox News yesterday that “it’s hard to have a smidge of schadenfreude” at these disclosures about Letterman. Malkin, you see, didn’t like Letterman’s comments earlier this summer about former Gov. Sarah Palin’s daughter in a monologue. Yet the question remains: will Letterman be able to poke fun at people who have sexual affairs when he has been involved himself?
*Letterman’s contract with CBS ends at the end of 2011. Will Letterman decide that the gathering negative publicity is something he can walk away from (and a reported $31 million annual salary), or will he wait out for his contract to be renewed once again? I actually don’t think it would be out of character –dedicated and usually self-critical—for Dave to decide that he has done enough in his long career and that it may be time to hang it up. But will CBS let him –since he is getting great Nielsen numbers and this is sure to grow in the next weeks and months.