I don't think underage sex jokes are funny. I think they're sad. There, I said it. Having said it, I will now move on to say why I am a fan of David Letterman, whose inadvertent underage sex joke last week wasn't terribly funny and made a lot of people mad.
And so, here now are the top three reasons I'm a fan of David Letterman:
3. He's a great broadcaster. Better across the board than Jay Leno, more at ease than Conan O'Brien, more consistently conscious of his place in broadcasting history and his role in the cultural conversation than just about everyone in talk and variety, Letterman brings the funny consistently in fresh, original ways--even when he's repeating jokes over the course of days and even weeks. Late Show staffers put their energy in creating funny bits and crafting pranks; for every elaborate set manufactured on the Tonight Show during the Leno era there were two blue-collar Late Show staffers smoking together. I've argued here before that the rise of Barack Obama has a lot to do with not the politics of David Letterman but his ability to get the whole country to laugh at the same thing. It's worth noting that Conan O'Brien, among countless other broadcasters, has acknowledged a debt to Letterman's craftsmanship.
2. He's an underdog. It's significantly harder to line up guests with massive star power when you're based in New York rather than L.A. Musicians and actors head west to build their brand; they head east to hone their craft--or to visit Letterman. He stays in New York because he thinks it's "the greatest city in the world," and he does his own thing consistently, without regard to the pressure of competition from the more strategically situated Tonight Show. He even makes jokes about it from time to time, which takes moxie, and I respect moxie.
1. He's a Midwesterner in the big city. You can take the boy out of Indiana, but as Letterman has shown consistently, you can't take the Indiana out of the boy. His interview style, his sardonic commentary on current events, his interactions with his mom, his no-nonsense interviews on serious matters--even his ability to make a fully developed, serious statement about a joke gone wrong or an attack on his city without letting that comment hijack the humor of the show, or vice versa--I think reflect Letterman's upbringing in the Midwest, which is a helpful corrective to the snobbery of both coasts and the wide-eyed assimilation of other Midwesterners who've made it big. Beyond his own show, the sit-coms and dramedies he's produced over time reflect well the sensibilities he was nurtured in back home in flyover country.
So I'm a fan of David Letterman, and I remain so despite a joke that some say went beyond the pale. I'd like to suggest that people who think so give the matter some further thought.
1. It was an A-Rod joke. The joke that's raised the hackles of so many is a classic type for Letterman, which begins with a focus on one newsworthy item (in this case Palin's visit to New York) but ends with an abrupt, surprising focus on another (here, Alex Rodriguez's notorious promiscuity). Really, try the joke without A-Rod in it and it doesn't make any sense whatsoever.
2. The outrage didn't match the joke. Letterman makes jokes about A-Rod's sex life all the time, and likewise celebrity mashup humor (where two unrelated stars are absurdly brought together) is also a hallmark. People concerned for the hypersexualizing of contemporary culture or for the privacy of public figures have ammunition lobbed at them every night by Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and, weeknights this fall at 10pm Eastern, Jay Leno. Analyzing the phenomenon that followed this ill-conceived joke on the Late Show quickly reveals it to be not actual concern for women's rights but a contrivance: conservatives grabbing the spotlight from the liberal majority and flexing their cultural muscles. I don't begrudge public figures their efforts to stay in the public eye, but I will--in true Midwestern style--call them out when they're manufacturing offense and manipulating public outrage. There are far more urgent and upsetting things for people to be outraged by. Besides, it was a joke, for Pete's sake.
The whole scandal is probably over by now; Governor Palin has accepted Letterman's apology, deftly turning her comments from the joke to a jingoistic salute to the U.S. military. Maybe she took lessons from the Late Show in crafting that little switcheroo. As for me and my house? As long as I hold the remote, Letterman will be on my TV.