In David Letterman's first monologue after revealing he'd been targeted in an alleged blackmail plot tied to his cheating on the woman he is now married to, he started to make jokes, invoking some familiar names – Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford – but stopped short.
"I'll be honest with you folks right now: I would give anything to be hiking the Appalachian Trail," he quipped.
But there was Letterman in his studio, facing heat from more than the studio lights – and questions of how a comedian who lampooned others' sex scandals could go on making such jokes without the audience screaming in unison, "Hypocrite!"
“If this thing had happened three months ago, I’d have material for a year!” Letterman quipped, later adding: “I wish [Woods] would stop calling me for advice.”
Letterman not only kept his comic credibility, but managed to pull off something that's eluded Woods as the count of alleged mistresses threatens to exceed his golf score: addressing scandal head on.
The “Late Show” host, by joking about his travails, has been able, at least in a small way, to take control of his story and maintain a frank relationship with his audience. His ratings certainly haven’t suffered.
Woods, meanwhile, has remained largely silent and out of the public eye since his own personal woes became public. He’s taking a hit in the popularity polls, and has become comic fodder for everything from Letterman to "Saturday Night Live," which portrayed him as digging himself deeper into the rough.
There are some obvious differences between the Woods case and Letterman – the talk show host, according to authorities, is a victim, at least on some level. Woods isn't a comedian. There's nothing funny about seeing a marriage fall apart and a wholesome image come undone (perhaps along with a great golf career).
But Woods is not going to make any headway in restoring his public standing by putting out lame statements about not being "perfect." The sad reality is that the media feeding frenzy isn't going to end if he stays out of sight as more alleged girlfriends pop up.
Oprah Winfrey’s representatives deny she offered Woods a chance to tell his story on her show. Maybe he should just go on “Late Show” – it seems like he and Letterman might have a lot to talk about.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.