WaPo: David Letterman, Great Comic of All Time, Should Not Be Mocked or Charged with Hypocrisy

Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales assembled all of his excuses for David Letterman’s sexual relations with staff subordinates in Tuesday’s paper. The website headline: "A Clown, Not a Congressman: David Letterman is going to be lumped in with other misbehaving celebrities. Is that fair?" Shales feels that comedians who makes jokes about sexually reckless politicians like Bill Clinton should not be mocked when they act exactly like Clinton. He began:

One of many sad things about recent stanzas in the ballad of David Letterman is that now, in all media, Dave will be lumped in with other sexually misbehaving celebrities, even though he stands head and heart above most of them.

The echoes of Roman Polanski swirl in the Shales piece – the keenest comic minds should be allowed to think with their traveling pants. Shales can’t grasp the elementary-school rules of mockery: a fat kid can’t exactly laugh at another kid for being fat. An old man having sex with much younger women in the office can’t make fun of Bill Clinton very effectively, either. But Shales think clowns and jesters should be free of the charge of hypocrisy:

Some of those who've seen the current Letterman mess as a golden opportunity to trash and attack him claim that it's fit retribution for the jokes Dave has made about naughty-boy politicians and their sexual high jinks. Letterman can continue to lampoon sleazy political figures with no real fear of hypocrisy, however, because a TV comic is not an elected official responsible for the well-being of the nation or its citizenry. Letterman's monologue is not a nightly sermon full of moral lessons preached to politicians or the public. His stance is that of the proverbial court jester, a clownish figure with a mandate to prick the powerful -- not set himself up as a model of virtue.

Did Shales – and his editors – really miss the idea that "prick the powerful" is probably not a good choice of words at this juncture? Shales made it clear that Letterman was more victimized than victimizer in the current scandal. Shales started swinging at Sen. Larry Craig (not by name) as a much greater subject for scrutiny, since his anti-gay attitudes inflict "pain, harm, and injustice" on the populace:

Could Letterman's misbehavior be compared to the disreputable legislator who ranted and railed against homosexuals, and worked to deny them the right to marry and other civil privileges -- and then was caught soliciting anonymous sex in an airport men's room? That's socially destructive misconduct with the potential for inflicting harm, pain and injustice on a portion of society and on society at large. Letterman's misadventures contain potential harm, pain and injustice only for the individuals specifically involved -- and since there have been no allegations about the sex having been nonconsensual or any partners having been underage, it's all unpleasant but hardly some sort of threat to the public welfare. And although Letterman has many fans among American women in presumably widely divergent age groups, he is hardly known as a sexual bandido. When I interviewed him for Playboy more than a decade ago, I asked him to talk about his "first time." He balked, claiming modesty, and feigned shock at the question. "All right then, how about talking about your second time?" Said Letterman: "There hasn't been a second time."

Is Shales really going to take an obvious joke and use it to suggest that Letterman hasn’t had sex twice in his first 50 years of life? It’s quite clear that while Letterman was "hardly known as a sexual bandido," everything that’s coming out in the papers now suggests that image was merely an image. Shales ended speaking for "we, the long-suffering admirers of Dave" who want their "Public Dave" to be unsullied by whatever sexual recklessness Private Dave is exhibiting around the office. Artists should not be morally judged:

Over a century of movie and TV comedy, male comics, however fabled their off-screen sexual exploits, have traditionally been asexual figures on the screen. Comic heroes may have longed for and even lusted after desirable leading ladies, but sexually they were all bark and no bite. What Letterman has done, or allowed to happen, is foul up our perception of him by allowing his private self to share air time with Public Dave, the one we know and love -- the wisecracking, self-deprecating, overgrown adolescent who has one of the keenest, cleverest and funniest comic minds of all time.
Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis