We've seen David Letterman play the sarcastic, cranky and self-deprecating host most weeknights for the last three decades. We've even occassionally seen him turn sincere and emotional, when talking about the horror of 9/11, his life-saving heart operation and the joy of fatherhood.
But all his jokey flirtations with Julia Roberts and Demi Moore aside, a new, unexpected side of the 62-year-old host emerged Thursday night: Letterman as Lothario.
“I know what you’re saying, ‘I’ll be darned, Dave had sex,’” Letterman told his audence, as he admitted having affairs with women staffers – spurring an alleged blackmail attempt.
Letterman's stunning account came in a 10-minute monologue that proved an awkward mix of comedy and confession. He got laughs with the one-liners about the details of the extortion plot. But the punchline – his public admissions of the affairs – met with stunned silence, then uneasy laughter and ultimately applause.
The generally private Letterman, like his hero, Johnny Carson, never has been an easy guy to know. When Letterman has let his guard down, it has been on his terms, from behind his host's desk – the one place where he seems to be comfortable and in control.
The speech that opened Letterman's first show after 9/11 revealed a depth of emotion and perspective that marked his finest moments on TV. He’s spoken lovingly about his 5-year-old son Harry, and even used his platform to thank officials who foiled a plot to abduct the boy. He offered gentle, self-deprecating jokes about his surprise marriage in March to Regina Lasko, whom he’s been with since 1986 when she was a staffer on his NBC show.
While he's never played the publicity game, Letterman has gained notice in recent years by occasionally crossing the line from irreverence to controversy – most notably for his pointed criticism of the Bush Administration, and his June dust-up with Sarah Palin over tasteless jokes about her daughters. He ultimately apologized for the quips.
The latest headline-friendly Letterman flap raises a slew of questions: When did these affairs take place – before or after his marriage to Lasko? Will the women go public or take any legal action? How did the suspect learn about the relationships?
The other unknowns are if – or how – the revelations will this affect his career, and the newly invigorated late-night race. Letterman just came off his best week in the ratings in 15 years, and the controversy may actually boost his audience. It seems unlikely that, given Letterman’s account of the case, CBS would abandon him, though he said he hoped “to protect my job.”
Will Letterman stick around after his contract ends in 2012 or decide he’s had enough of public life, after dealing with everything from a stalker to a would-be kidnapper to an alleged extortionist? Will supporters of Palin, who called Letterman’s jokes about her daughters “sexually perverted,” renew protests calling for his firing?
Letterman told his audience Thursday that his one-of-a-kind TV monologue marked all he would have to say about the case. But he may not have a choice about publicly revisiting the mess.
If the case goes to trial, Letterman likely will be repeating his story. And when he tells it from the witness stand of a lower Manhattan courtroom instead of from behind his beloved desk in the Ed Sullivan Theater, he might want to skip the jokes.
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.