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Good Sitcom, Bad Sitcom
Formative TV Experience No. 8: Fuzzy-Haired Creative Basketcases
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Oy, Letterman

  • 10/2/09 at 1:30 PM

Good Christ, this Letterman thing is bizarre.

Although my first reaction was an odd one, linked to my profile of Neil Patrick Harris. A few weeks ago, I interviewed NPH the morning after his interview with Letterman. The segment was "weird," Harris told me, and he seemed quizzical and unsettled — understandably so, since, when I watched it, it was apparent that Letterman was in an even crankier mood than usual, ripping into Harris and calling him "Mr. Limo-Driver Suit." (I could only find a highly edited CBS video of the segment, which cuts out the really hostile bits, including one part where Letterman barked, "You're doing your own segues! Don't count on me for anything.")

Harris's theory was that when the top-ten list isn't funny, Dave gets mad, but now I wonder if that incident was in fact concurrent with him receiving this blackmail packet. [CORRECTION! The timing is off, since the extortion packet arrived on September 9. So apparently the man was in a terrible mood even before he was being blackmailed.]

Either way, it's a grim little moment for late night. I'm glad he came forward about the blackmail. The segment in which he did so was skin-crawling to watch, mostly because of the confused audience response. But honestly, I'm not surprised to hear that Dave had sex with staffers on his show, or cheated on the mother of his kids: Did people really think of this famously irascible, bearlike, awkward, angry-chuckle comic as a lovely guy who would do no wrong? I didn't, so this isn't for me a matter of a hero-toppling — although I do think there's something perverse about the fact that Letterman has had a longtime stalker, a kidnap attempt on his toddler, and now this. I feel really bad for the women he messed around with, because they're about to get the usual nasty treatment, with the usual anonymous idiots rating their screwability online.

But however creepy Letterman's behavior, this swathe of interoffice yuck is truly none of my business, whether it was harassment, adultery, or something else. (It might be the business of Human Resources at CBS, but it's not my business.)

And while I suppose you could call him on all those cheating jokes over the years about politicians, I just don't see that as hypocrisy. Comedians and writers and artists are often horny narcissists — it's not a requirement, but it happens often enough. But I'm not going to boycott Rosemary's Baby because Polanski is a child rapist who was rightly arrested in Switzerland. I'm not going to burn my Philip Roth novels because the dude is a swaggery misogynist who pressured his ex-wife to abandon her teenage daughter. I'm not going to throw out any Miles Davis albums because he was a woman-beater (although that's the intriguing argument Pearl Cleage makes in her fascinating 1990 manifesto "Mad at Miles"); and I still love Woody Allen's movies though as a person I find him radically disappointing in almost every way.

Now, granted, comedians are in a weirder position than other artists: They project a distorted version of their own charisma with every joke, so laughing at someone (or finding them unfunny) is awfully intimate, with its own freaky sexual element. (Make someone laugh hysterically and you've put them, literally, physically, out of control.) And we do trust late-night hosts to act as guides to politics and pop culture, which means their values aren't totally off the table. I guess if Letterman drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, I'd be too squicked to watch him, but mere slime-dog behavior? Doesn't qualify.

Still, the truth is, I'm not really watching him, anyway. Letterman fascinated me tremendously when I was 18: He modeled a cold, dry, repressed-angry irony that felt incredibly prescient (and was hilariously funny to me at the time). But as I've said a million times, the late-night industry has long turned that shtick into an assembly line — just one more segment with one more dry-funny white dude, older or younger, hipper or squarer, more fodder for analyses of their picayune differences. With the exception of spiky satirists like Stewart and Colbert, to me, it's a dead form. At least last night was genuinely shocking — even if it was in a none-of-my-business kind of way.

Anyway, I was looking to link to the hilarious blackmail sequence from Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, but it doesn't appear to be online. Instead, for no logical reason at all, here's Allen's great "I Shot a Moose" routine from 1965.

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