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Point/Counterpoint: Letterman's reach for relevance should lay off the kids

by John Scott Lewinski, posted Jun 16th 2009 3:33PM
David Letterman's latest controversey leaves him miles from his Late Night era.The shame (one of many) about David Letterman's tired, ham-fisted grasp at humor this past week regarding the daughters of Sarah Palin is that it's become such a political hot potato. It's gotten to the point where, despite the fact that Dave apologized and Palin accepted, Palin's supporters still want to see the late-night host fired.

Danny Gallagher says a joke is a joke, but it's taken on more significance than that -- for better or worse.

Liberals point and say, "See! Conservatives can't take a joke. They're too bitter and uptight after losing the presidential election." Meanwhile, conservatives shout back that liberals are "out of touch with decency and only get offended when liberal women are attacked."

What both sides miss is that Letterman's clunky "knocked up" gag is a problem because it attacks a kid (be she 14 or 18, if you want to split hairs). While Sarah Palin is fair game and any comic or pundit can verbally knock around her "slutty flight attendant look" without fear of reprisal, it's an unwritten law that you don't go after the kids when doing political material.

Even in the feverish days of Bill Clinton's impeachment, it was understood that you don't pick on Chelsea regardless of her awkward adolescence. Jenna Bush's partying ways could've been easy fodder for comics, but restraint was shown with the exception of a spring break gag here or there.

In the Letterman/Palin case, you had a nationally televised comic toss in a throw-away barb that targeted one of two teenage daughters of a public figure (depending on whether you buy Letterman's excuse that he got the girls mixed up -- and whether it matters which teen he was mocking). The joke involved themes of statutory sexual assault, premarital sex, date rape and unwanted pregnancy. Sure, all of those comics are usually rich mines of classic comedy gold, but somehow they didn't play on this occasion.

But, beyond the moral and political implications of Letterman's misstep comes the simple sin that he's supposed to be a comedian -- and the joke wasn't funny. It was hacky, heavy-handed and mean-spirited. It was the intellectual equivalent of a poop joke -- and not as humorous. It was one step away from Letterman simply standing up and loudly announcing, "I don't like Sarah Palin, and I think her daughters are whores."

Finally, and most tragically, the incident is a sad statement on Letterman because there was a time when he was so cool, so cutting edge, so free-spirited and gutsy that he would never approach lame political material no matter who was in office. He was above the kind of "...did you hear what the president did today..." blather other comics spouted.

The man was a god to my friends and me back in college because while the ancient Bob Hope would make Reagan/Bush jokes, Letterman would touch the boundaries of post-modernism and surreal comedy by sending Larry "Bud" out on the street in a bear costume and playing straight man to Flunky, The Late Night Viewer Mail Clown.

Now, Letterman is just a tired, angry old man serving up remarks that could play just as well on The View. The mighty haven't merely fallen. They've crumbled to dust.

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The joke involved themes of statutory sexual assault, premarital sex, date rape and unwanted pregnancy. Sure, all of those comics are usually rich mines of classic comedy gold, but somehow they didn't play on this occasion.
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July 26 2009 at 12:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joyce N.

Nate, very well said.

June 18 2009 at 9:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joyce N.

Hope you're right about the Palin jokes just so that she will fade away a little quicker. I doubt that any of this will stop Mahar or any others. As I said, Letterman won't be going away anytime soon. Have fun at your rally. Hope you have good weather on Saturday.

June 18 2009 at 9:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Joyce N.'s comment

I am in Sin City and not Texas but am hoping for a rally here to firedavidletterman. Time will tell if the "jokesteers" will be active against the Governor but I don't think so. I have no doubt that olde Dave has been told "We never want to hear the word Palin come out of your mouth again Dave, actually on pain of firing Dave".

June 18 2009 at 10:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you think that comedians are going to be somehow initimidated into not making jokes about Palin or her family because Sarah has been spewing nonsense and showing her ignorance for about a week now, I think you are in for a surprise. Sarah is herself a joke, and making fun of her is like picking low hanging fruit for a comedian. Its just too easy and tempting to resist.
If you want to believe that Palin has somehow struck a blow for womens rights, you are certainly entitled to do so. However, I think that all she has accomplished is to make herself look irresponsible, desperate for attention and ridiculous. A responsible person who was genuinely offended by Lettermans joke would have handled this by addressing her concerns to Dave himself in a more private and dignified manner. By decideing to have a public hissy fit about it, Palin has demeaned herself, her office of Govenor and the issue that she claims to be so upset about. If Palin was truely a public figure with the weight and stature that she aspires to and/or pretends to be, she would conduct herself accordingly. But she is a hopeless lightweight, so she has to resort to cheap, overblown theatrics in a pathetic, amatuerish attempt to gain publicity and remain relevant.
Many of Palins supporter like to proclaim her as the future of the Republican party or of conservatism. I think that Palin represents the past of both the Republican Party and conservatism that was recently rejected decisively in the last election.

June 17 2009 at 11:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joyce N.

MarkDom7, I thank you.

lynp, I doubt any comedian is "afraid" of Sarah Palin and if you believe that no one will ever make another tasteless or tactless joke about politicians, their families or anyone else they feel like making a joke about, you will be sadly disappointed, my dear.

June 17 2009 at 6:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Joyce N.'s comment

I am saying it won't be Governor Palin that they would be making jokes about or her family or daughters, either. Well, not if they are smart. Lets see olde Bill Maher yak it up about the Governor. Show us how brave you are now. There is going to be a firedavidletterman rally in Texas on Saturday and I predict this will be catching fire and will have fire..... all around the country. Women are standing up for themselves and will put those guys and Wanda and Sandra in their place, like olde Dave if they are dumb enough to take us on.

June 17 2009 at 9:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It was a joke ! If you don't think it's funny don't laugh. END of story.

June 17 2009 at 3:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You can bet the house that 62 year old Letterman has learned his lesson about making "jokes" at the expense of the Governor, her daughters, her family and we won't be hearing any more from him about these topics. Betcha other comedian boys have learned the same lesson too and even the not funny Wanda and Sandra. Betcha SNL has too. This is a good thing. Ladies, we won this one and even NOW has learned that American women want all women protected, even the Conservatives. Thanks Dave and the Governor for standing tall like John Wayne. John, of course, would have had lots to say about defending the honour of not only a women but an elected official of the United States. At long last in this disgusting event, I am laughing now.

June 17 2009 at 11:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Betcha old Dave won't be making any more jokes at the expense of the Governor, her family and girls or at any other women either. Think those boys have learned their lesson. We will see what olde SNL has to say too. Between this dust up, the anonymous blogger case and the women who dared to protest this stuff, those boy comedians will be more careful now and thats a good thing. I doubt olde Wanda's career was helped by her inappropriate stuff either. I think the Governor has put the fear of Gd in these "jokesteers". And that is funny.

June 17 2009 at 11:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joyce N.

No, trikyric, Sarah said it during her campaign. It was all over the news when she did. Karma? I'm not worried about Karma. The truth will set you free. But then, what would you know about that?

June 17 2009 at 11:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Joyce N.'s comment

Am sorry that you are sooooo wrong, it was Tina Fay.It has been well documented. again, a liberal hating on someone becuase you disagree politically. How open and understanding of you.

June 17 2009 at 1:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Trick, Palin did say that she had foreign experience by living in Alaska. This was on ABC primetime.

June 17 2009 at 2:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am sorry, but when an 18 year old girl is on the cover of every magazine talking about her new baby she had after her mommy lost in the election, she becomes a public figure and is fair game to jokes like this. Now if he was really joking about the 14 year old, yes that would be completely wrong, but even when I heard the joke, I knew he was talking about the 18 year old poster child for family values.

June 17 2009 at 10:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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