Letterman’s New Lease on Late Night Life

With his accused blackmailer’s plea deal, there won’t be any stupid courtroom tricks on tap for Dave

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010  |  Updated 6:51 AM CDT
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David Letterman's Highs and Lows

CBS

David Letterman will avoid court – and keep holding court in the Ed Sullivan Theater.

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David Letterman has a Top 10 – or longer – list of reasons to thank prosecutors.

The plea deal struck Tuesday with his accused blackmailer means the host won’t have to take the stand at a trial.

That’s no doubt a great relief to the often cranky Letterman, who seems as close to comfortable as he can get when he’s seated behind his desk in the safe, if freezing, confines of the Ed Sullivan Theater.

Robert Halderman’s deal with prosecutors, which will put the former CBS News producer behind bars for six months, also means that Letterman is now basically a free man – at least career wise. There’s no chance now that any courthouse rehashing of his sex scandal or potentially embarrassing cross-examination will distract him from pressing funny business: his late-night rematch against Jay Leno.

We learned a lot more about Letterman than we probably ever wanted to know in early October when Halderman was charged with blackmailing the married host over office affairs. Letterman slept with Halderman’s girlfriend – one, as it turned out, in a long line of staffers the “Late Show” host had bedded over the years.

“I know what you’re saying, ‘I’ll be darned, Dave had sex,’” Letterman told his TV audience in a bizarre semi-comic confession, spurring uneasy laughter in the Ed Sullivan Theater and, no doubt, in many living rooms across the country last year.

Letterman, during a couple of extraordinary nights of TV, tackled the allegations head on – even treading into the dangerous territory of making himself the butt of the joke. The scandal, which cast the self-deprecating Letterman in the unlikely role of a Lothario, didn’t seem to hurt his ratings. He consistently beat Conan O’Brien, who moved into “The Tonight Show” slot last June.

As the Letterman gossip gradually faded from the headlines, NBC plunged into a late night drama of its own with the O’Brien-Leno reshuffle.

Leno made a strong return to late night last week, besting Letterman in the ratings, benefiting at least in part to the publicity surrounding his comeback. Letterman, who had all but closed the gap with Monday's show, could get a brief ratings bump from news coverage of Halderman’s plea to attempted grand larceny charges.

On Tuesday night's show, Letterman briefly noted the resolution of the case, and didn't go for so much as a chuckle as he praised New York prosecutors and cops for handling his case "professionally, skillfully and appropriately."

Perhaps a clearer look into where Letterman's head is at came in his monologue, when mentioned another New York official – Gov. David Paterson – in a joke set up, noting the state's embattled chief executive was refusing calls to step down.

"Who does this guy think he is – Leno?" Letterman cracked.

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.

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