Classic Letterman: At the McDonalds’ drive-thru: “The food’s always ready. Are YOU ready?”

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From I think the first episode of the CBS/Late Show iteration of David Letterman’s show. . .back when he still had that anarchic spark in his eye. Only one of a thousand reasons why the guy’s one of the great innovators of modern American television.

Watch this now: Jason Isbell on Letterman

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Still can’t get enough of Isbell’s breathtaking new album Southeastern, so what a treat to see him play one of the new tunes on David Letterman’s “Late Show” last night. This is “Stockholm,” a great yearning rocker: restless, aching, aglow with the morning light. “Once a wise man to the ways of the world/Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl/Cross the ocean, a thousand years from my home/In this frozen old city of silver and stone…”

David Letterman: Enters the Spanking Machine

Make no mistake, this will go down in history as a crucial media moment. Not just in 2009, but also in the career of D. Letterman, America’s best, quirkiest and longest-tenured late night talk how host.

Thursday night, sitting at his desk, he launched into a ten-minute monologue describing a recent series of events in his real life, in which he received a threatening note in a package (describing a series of self-described “creepy” and “awful” things he had allegedly done), of which his mystery antagonist swore to turn into a book, movie, Broadway musical, etc, unless Letterman ponied up $2 million to stop him.

Instead, Letterman got his lawyer involved, then the police, then helped launch a sting operation that got his mystery antagonist (ex-boyfrirend to a woman Letterman had once dated) arrested and charged with attempted blackmail. So good for Dave. Except for the part where virtually everything the guy seemed to be accusing him of — having sex with staffers, etc. — seemed to be true.

Which was why Dave was taking ten minutes of time to tell the world about it himself. Because it was true. Because he knew it sounded “creepy.” Because the now-married father of a young boy knew it was, in fact, a bit creepy for the uber-boss of a big-money concern (e.g., a successful network TV show) to be hitting on, and then bedding, his younger, female employees.

Anyway, it’s well into the grey area of morality. And as of today we have no sense of how the women felt about it. (pressured? intimidated? discarded) to say nothing of Letterman’s longtime girlfriend (if not quite his wife, in those days).

All of which worries me. But not nearly as much as the all-too-typical, mean-spirited judgmental nature of the media’s response.

follow the jump for more…….

First came the gothic series of headlines in the Drudge Report. The right-wing online tabloid of record loves nothing more than to juice up its angry/nationalistic/moralistic collection of stories (THE EGO HAS LANDED – WORLD REJECTS OBAMA.) with gothic celebrity/crime stories (MAN EATS BABY’S HEAD; BRITNEY IN GAY BAR OUTRAGE). And tho the left-leaning Huffington Post presented much of the same from their perspective, it was impossible to ignore the right wingers’ joy: Letterman has been increasingly upfront about his own politcal perspectives, which clearly arch leftward. His nonstop bashing of Sarah Palin, for instance, and any other pol caught in humiliating/policy-contradicting sex scandals has made him increasingly divisive, and now something like catnip to the sharp-fanged media.

Including the Newspaper of Record, NY Times, and their perpetually daffy, to say nothing of fact-challenged TV critic Alessandra Stanley. Who analyzed Letterman’s ordeal and on-screen confession as a lesson in “weird karma,” given his recent rise back to the top of the 11:30 pm ratings, due partly to his increasingly headline-making stabs at sexed-up/lie-packing pols. And though Stanley’s personal copy editor has no brief on her analysis/prognosticating, no matter how absurd, it strikes this reader as entirely bizarre to read that Letterman’s practice is keeping his private life almost entirely private makes him “practically a hermit.” Or that the stories he does tell about his home life (as per virtually every other American talk show host who ever lived) is kind of pathalogical. ” (His life is) lived most fully on television.”

Then things get even more absurd, as Stanley compares Letterman’s controversy to that of Don Imus, who (you’ll recall) laughed along with/pitched in on a demeaning discussion of the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team that edged cheerfully into racism. (“Nappy headed ho’s, I believe, was the punchline.) So does Letterman’s private affairs — which may or may not have been done with the full knowledge and/or approval of his then-girlfriend….who knows? — and his questionable decision to engage sexually with employees (none of whom have complained. . . .yet) equal to racism? And what is “disconcerting” about weaving humor into “deadly serious” issues? Isn’t that what happens on the much-celebrated (and rightly so) “Daily Show” night after night? Isn’t that what Mark Twain did? Isn’t that kind of the point of a huge percentage of humor?

Letterman, no matter his flaws, did one correct thing: He came clean. He didn’t lie about it. He looked into the camera and told the unvarnished, unappealing truth. So naturally Alessandra Stanley, still on the rebound for the half-dozen factual errors she managed to inject into what should have been a write-it-in-your-sleep-months-ago obit of Walter Cronkite, declares that it “looked a lot like calculation: Mr. Letterman made himself answerable to an audience that doesn’t answer back.” Well, actually, they do: They turn the channel to Conan and you cease to exist. That’s a pretty withering answer, yes? And more:” But it also had the feel of a Lettermanly compulsion: a talk-show host who can only speak openly on an open mike.”

Yes, let’s pathologize the guy. When you can’t marshal the facts, the sweeping psychological take-down is your only option. Or the easiest one, anyway.