But Will Letterman Still Be Funny?

by Jennie Yabroff

Despite the inevitability of at least one tell-all by a Letterman staffer who slept with the boss (Top 10 Things About Being Dave’s Girlfriend, perhaps), we’ll never know exactly what happened off-camera between Letterman and all the female staffers he’s just admitted to sleeping with over the years. How many there were, how young they were, how much his advances were reciprocated or merely endured are all questions we can never know the answers to. What we can know—what we’ve known for years—is how he treats his female guests on the show. The question for audiences now is how news that Letterman is, well, a letch, will influence the way we feel about his comedy. More specifically, is the way he interacts with—and derives humor from—many female guests still going to be funny?

There’s long been something creepy (to borrow the word Letterman used to describe the extortion attempt) in the way the 62-year-old host treats the young starlets on his show. When Emma Watson appeared earlier this year to promote the latest Harry Potter, Letterman asked her avuncular questions about her grades in high school, her plans for the future, and whether she had her driver’s license. Then he showed a picture of Watson at the Potter premiere, with her skirt askew and her underwear visible. Watson laughed off the "wardrobe malfunction" with exceptional grace ("At least I was wearing underwear") but the tone of the exchange, which emphasized Watson’s youth while displaying a revealing photo, felt uncomfortably lascivious.

Leering hosts tossing out double entendres about their scantily clad female guests have been the chocolate and peanut butter of talk shows since the format’s inception (Jack Parr introduced one busty star with, "Here they are, Jayne Mansfield.") And, to be sure, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson can be quite flirtatious with young actresses. Of course, guests who go on these shows know what they’re in for; most have the poise to play along, and some, like Megan Fox, who told Letterman she’s had a longtime crush on him, encourage the randy uncle act. There’s a quid pro quo going on here: the starlets promote their movies or TV shows; the hosts get to talk to pretty girls.

It’s been possible, up to this point, to read Letterman’s participation in this exchange as ironic posturing—to believe he’s playing the role of pervy older man with a wink to the audience, reassuring us he finds this behavior as off-putting as we do. And his self-loathing persona allows him to get away with it, to a large extent—his demeanor is more, "Gosh, you’re so young and pretty, and I’m so old and hideous" than "Want some candy, little girl?"  But last night’s confession makes it harder to believe his attitude is an act, despite his attempt to use the same, "Who would want to sleep with icky me?!" pose in admitting he felt embarrassed for the women who’d had sex with him.

Some of the comments on online stories about the extortion attempt suggest that this sort of thing is just part of the culture of the entertainment industry, suggesting a quid pro quo backstage as well as on-camera. If what goes on in front of the cameras on Letterman’s show is any indication, the host’s advances toward younger women is part of the culture of Late Night, too. But isn’t it time the culture changed?