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September 5, 2015

TV Moment of 2009: David Letterman Reveals Extortion Plot and Sex Scandal

by Gary Susman, posted Dec 15th 2009 9:00AM
"Do you feel like a story?" David Letterman asked his viewers during the Oct. 1 episode of 'The Late Show.' What started off sounding like a benign comedy bit slowly developed into a 10-minute confession, a tale of extortion and illicit sex few of Dave's fans could have imagined, a lurid true story that was one of the most riveting moments on television during this or any other year.

At first, it seemed like Letterman was riffing on some wacky incident that had happened to him, another in his long series of unfortunate but comically absurd tales of the stalkers and obsessives who have badgered him over the years. But the details soon became grim, as he claimed that an extortionist had broken into his car and had left a package and a threat to write a screenplay about Dave's "creepy" behavior unless the host ponied up $2 million. Dave continued: He'd contacted his own lawyers and New York prosecutors, he'd handed over a phony check to the alleged extortionist, who was promptly arrested. Finally, Dave revealed that the "creepy" secret the extortionist had threatened to divulge -- that Letterman had "had sex with women who work on the show" -- was true.

David Letterman's Revelation on 'Late Show'

In the days and weeks to come, there would be more bizarre revelations and sordid details. We would learn that the alleged extortionist was fellow CBS employee Robert "Joe" Halderman, an acclaimed producer at '48 Hours Mystery'; that the woman at the center of the allegations, longtime Letterman aide Stephanie Birkitt, was also Halderman's live-in girlfriend; that Letterman's affair with her may have gone on longer than he claimed and may have continued even after he married Regina Lasko in March; and that his marriage to Lasko (who'd been his girlfriend for more than 20 years and is the mother of his 6-year-old son Harry) was now in serious trouble. We would also learn that Dave and other top-ranking men at 'Late Show' had long used the office as a dating pool, that the women who weren't involved often resented the perks showered on those who were, and that all the top late-night talk shows are essentially boys' clubs, with nary a woman writer on staff.

But Letterman's masterful unspooling of the tale that first night insured that the story would be spun in his favor. By the time he acknowledged, late in the monologue, that he'd had sex with women who worked for him, the audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater was already on his side, and so were viewers at home.

Halderman has pleaded not guilty to extortion, and his lawyer has promised that details would be forthcoming in court that would make Letterman look like the bad guy in this situation -- but by then, it'll be Letterman's version of the story that the public has accepted for months already.

Indeed, the court of public opinion seems already to have ruled in Letterman's favor. Even his fellow late-night hosts largely shied away from making jokes at his expense. Interest in the scandal only boosted his ratings in the days after his announcement, and they have remained strong ever since, with Letterman routinely beating time-slot rival Conan O'Brien and even boosting the numbers of his follow-up on 'The Late Late Show,' Craig Ferguson.

Then again, it wasn't just Letterman's storytelling skills that protected him. Letterman had betrayed Lasko's trust, but he hadn't betrayed the trust of his audience or his sponsors, since he'd never asked viewers to look up to him as any kind of role model or ethical standard bearer. (As Adam Lambert put it last month, in the now-definitive celebrity-scandal retort regarding his own risqué performance at the American Music Awards, he's not a babysitter, he's a performer.) Letterman seemed to be what he had always presented himself as: a cranky, doofus Everyman. It seemed that whatever had gone on had occurred between consenting adults, and that no one had been promoted or demoted over backstage sexual relationships at 'The Late Show.'

Dave's career-long willingness to make fun of himself made the scandal less a queasy account of office sex than a running joke about Dave's "towering, Midwestern mass of guilt." He'll have a hard time, in the short term, making fun of the sexual peccadilloes of politicians and other notables; but otherwise, his show remains sharp and funny. In absolute entertainment terms, that seems to be all that matters.

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