Can Letterman survive being the butt of his own joke?
Despite ratings spike for the Indiana-born funnyman, harassment concerns could dog Letterman's contract negotiations with CBS.
But even when the trysts were his, Late Show host David Letterman, that paragon of geeky Midwestern cool, managed to elicit nervous laughter from the studio crowd Thursday as he explained an extortion attempt against him while admitting that, yes, he had had affairs with female staffers.
Letterman received plaudits for his honest admission as he helped unravel an alleged $2 million extortion attempt by a cash-strapped CBS news producer. But even though Letterman masterfully took hold of the narrative by coming clean about his role, as the Monitor’s Gloria Goodale wrote, the smoke has yet to clear from the sound stage.
Letterman’s admission comes as contract negotiations between Worldwide Pants, his production company, and CBS are set to begin for a 2012 extension. Revealing his workplace affairs could spark complaints of favoritism, especially since Letterman reportedly put one of his paramours through law school.
“… [U]nder sexual harassment law, there is a claim for harassment if somebody can come forward and say, ‘The boss was sleeping with other employees [and] they got favors and advantages that I didn’t get,’ “ CBS legal analyst Lisa Bloom said on the CBS Early Show Saturday
“Nobody has raised a claim, but there’s always that issue lingering out there,” she added. “So, this is why every company in the United States has a policy that an employer should not be having sexual relations with a subordinate, because it has the potential to create a hostile work environment.”
It’s far from clear how the legal battle and public reaction will play out. CBS news producer Robert “Joe” Halderman pleaded not guilty to the blackmail attempt on Friday in New York, and his lawyer hinted that there’s more to the story. At the very least, the discovery process in a criminal case could be eye brow-raising and potentially embarrassing for Letterman.
At the same time, the Monitor’s Tracey Samuelson writes that Letterman “disarmed” the alleged blackmailer through candor -- a powerful weapon in and of itself.
In the middle of a revival of his three-decade-career, Letterman has become more political, less constrained, and, arguably, funnier than he has been in years, increasingly drawing in the same college-aged crowd demographic that gave him his first ratings boosts for an edgy, quirky show as he became Johnny Carson’s favorite sidekick in the early 1980s.
His ratings prove it. He beat Conan O’Brien for the first time last week among the younger -- and much-desired -- TV demographic. (It doesn’t hurt that Letterman has also become the preferred late-time seat for President Obama, no ratings-killer he.)
Moreover, Letterman’s forthrightness (calculated though it may have been) and his position as the victim of alleged extortion could increase his cool factor among desirable viewers. Ratings are sure to be astronomical on Monday, even though Letterman has said he probably won’t say much more about the affairs with younger women at CBS.
But for a comedian who has made a career out of poking fun at the marital infidelities and quirks of politicians and celebrities -- David Vitter, Larry Craig, and Mark Sanford have been among his favorite targets of late -- one concern is whether a veneer of hypocrisy will take the sting -- and the humor -- out of his often self-deprecating but harsh routines.
More importantly, his employer is likely to be forced to investigate the admitted affairs to make sure there was no violation of workplace harassment rules. CBS says it’s never received a complaint about Letterman.
“Unless details start coming out that make this more complex ... the age of the women, or the number, or the circumstances ... this won't have any lasting impact,” Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, a pop-culture expert, told the New York Daily News.
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