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The Formerly Hilarious David Letterman: Now Beyond the Palin

–Richard E. Vatz

The adjudication of the public clash between the once-brilliant and now ugly CBS comic David Letterman and Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin is not a close call. David Letterman’s comments are indefensible — and this writer is one who thought Palin should not have been the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential candidate in 2008.

Let’s sum up the points at issue. On one of Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists days ago, he said that during an “awkward moment” during “the 7th inning stretch” at a Yankees’ game Palin attended that her “daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.”

In an apology that his discerning audience found hilarious, Letterman explained that he was referring to Palin’s 18 year-old daughter, Bristol, not her 14 year-old daughter Willow, who was the daughter attending the game with the Governor.

Forget the error – give Letterman a pass on that one. Forget his “slutty flight attendant look” reference to Palin herself, although the tender mercies that today’s Democratic comedians discriminatorily apply to different parties’ candidates’ families make their humor partly political attacks. Sarah Palin made this point nicely in her interview with Matt Lauer today on NBC’s “Today” show.

The point is this: successful, acceptable comedy in polarized America circa the 21st century may involve tasteless (as Letterman simultaneously confesses and brags about) exploitation of those in the public eye – adults. One feels little sympathy for the public ridicule of the hypocrisies and mendacities of former Senator Larry Craig and his “disorderly conduct“ in a restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, former Governor Eliot Spitzer and his prostitution escapades or even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her representations of CIA briefings on waterboarding and enhanced interrogation.

What is simply unforgivable in the David Letterman case, even as the viciously insatiable Letterman audience cheers him on, is his comedic exploitation of a politician’s young children, both a 14 year-old and an 18 year-old.

Moreover, Letterman’s “apology” is further evidence of his bad motivation. In explaining his erring on the identity of which daughter he was referring to, he said (of course, to laughter by that audience) that the girl “who was knocked up is now 18 years-old.”

Beware of apologies that attempt to defuse the most consensually outrageous aspects of a provocation, but whose subtext attempts to reassure the audience that the provocateur is hardly regretful at all.

In the end, what is indefensible is David Letterman’s comedic exploitation of politician’s young children, both a 14 year-old and an 18 year-old (who became pregnant at 17, incidentally) and his insincere “apology,” proving, even to this moment, his lack of genuine contrition.

–Professor Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University






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