I used to really, really like David Letterman. Since I can only very, very rarely get any late-night US TV programming, living as I do in Germany, it's no wonder that I haven't really be paying attention.
But then came that fateful top 10 list.
You know the one.
So he apologized. When I read the apology, all I could think of was ... this wasn't the Letterman I used to know.
Hence the following fisking, original here.
"All right, here - I've been thinking about this situation with Governor Palin and her family now for about a week - it was a week ago tonight, and maybe you know about it, maybe you don't know about it.
First of all, the usual Dave attempt at being charming and disarming: maybe you know, maybe you don't. Give his long-running career as a talk show host, of course people know. He's trying to be deliberately disarming here, trying to say "gee, maybe this isn't even of interest to you at all.
But there was a joke that I told, and I thought I was telling it about the older daughter being at Yankee Stadium.
Here's the start of the defense strategy, and boy is it a classic passive-aggressive strategy, one of the better ones, but one that fundamentally, at its core, says "I'm not the one who did something wrong". You see, he doesn't say he made a mistake, but rather that his viewers made the mistake: he thought he was telling it about someone else, i.e. Dave didn't make the mistake, but rather the viewers made the mistake of misinterpreting what he said. Like I said, classic passive-aggressive strategy of shifting blame from the self to anything else.
And it was kind of a coarse joke.
Again, not an apology: it's an admission, but not an apology. He told a coarse joke.
This is where Dave is getting into deep water: he went after someone to use them as the butt of a coarse joke.
What is, then, a coarse joke? Take a look here (you may have to scroll some): it is a joke that crosses a boundary. Wait, that's not right: it's a joke that transgresses a boundary, one that goes clearly over to the dark side. It is common, ugly, mean; it uses the deliberate violation of moral and ethical standards to make a joke at the cost of someone. A coarse joke is vulgar and is most fundamentally aimed at hurting someone, which is why it is coarse: to use someone's pain and embarrassment in order to make someone else laugh is low indeed.
But Dave doesn't really even admit that, but modifies it: "kind of a coarse joke" means "not really a coarse joke if you are on my wavelength and understand what I mean".
There's no getting around it, but I never thought it was anybody other than the older daughter, and before the show, I checked to make sure in fact that she is of legal age, 18.
Again: Dave denies that he really meant it: his people - never believe for a moment that he actually did any checking, he has people for that - apparently didn't tell him ...
What, actually? He's saying, in best passive-aggressive form, that he's not to blame, he thought it was the older daughter. Did that make the joke any less coarse, any less demeaning? Of course it doesn't, but here he is claiming that it would have been apparently okay to do so.
Again, an affirmative statement: yes, he's saying, yes this is the case, that that was his thinking, that was his intent.
But the joke really, in and of itself, can't be defended.
But isn't this exactly what he's been doing so far? This is the first time that he say that the joke, in and of itself - für sich and an sich, as the German philosophers would say - can't be defended. But what does he mean with "can't be defended"? He acknowledging at least that he doesn't want to talk about the joke, but what can be defended - and he is quite clearly doing that here - is Dave himself.
The next day, people are outraged.
Time lag: they weren't outraged immediately, but first after a while. This removes the immediate emotional reaction to the vulgarity of the joke and makes it appear that the reaction was more carefully planned and done deliberately.
They're angry at me because they said, 'How could you make a lousy joke like that about the 14-year-old girl who was at the ball game?'
And I had, honestly, no idea that the 14-year-old girl, I had no idea that anybody was at the ball game except the Governor and I was told at the time she was there with Rudy Giuliani...And I really should have made the joke about Rudy..."
Again, this is Dave saying "it's not my fault! I thought it was her older sister!" He's twisting here, trying to move the intent from what it was, to be hurtful, to cause pain and embarrassment.
"But I didn't, and now people are getting angry and they're saying, 'Well, how can you say something like that about a 14-year-old girl, and does that make you feel good to make those horrible jokes about a kid who's completely innocent, minding her own business,' and, turns out, she was at the ball game.
"But I didn't": sin of omission, which is a lesser evil than a sin of commission. Don't think that Dave doesn't know the difference. Dave makes a joke, a joke designed to be hurtful, to cause pain and embarrassment for our amusement, to deliberately cross a barrier for a chuckle, and just by accident "turns out" that the joke is clearly about a 14-year old girl.
I had no idea she was there.
See: again, passive-aggressive behavior, "I didn't know". Doesn't excuse what he said, doesn't change what he said, it is only an attempt to focus on Dave's intent, rather than what everyone heard.
So she's now at the ball game and people think that I made the joke about her.
All of a sudden the situation has changed: Dave's joke wasn't "supposed to be about here, he is innocent: she makes him guilty by simply suddenly being there, ruining his joke. Again, the attemtp is to make this whole thing not Dave's fault.
Come on: David Letterman doesn't write his material, he has a group of writers who do this. They discuss the monologue, they discuss the opening, they discuss the top ten list, they discuss everything so that Dave knows when to do his jokes, when to bring the zingers to entertain. This is not some folksy guy, he hasn't been since he moved to New York.
The point is not that his crew let him down, but deeper than that: no one in his crew thought the joke would have been too vulgar, too coarse to have been made. But contemplate this: Dave is really claiming that he didn't know, that this was a lapsus, a lapse. If you believe that Dave writes his own jokes and can make a mistake, then you can accept his apology: if you know that there's a team of people behind him, then you know that his failure was a group effort, which means ... it wasn't an error. it was deliberate.
And, but still, I'm wondering, 'Well, what can I do to help people understand that I would never make a joke like this?' I've never made jokes like this as long as we've been on the air, 30 long years, and you can't really be doing jokes like that.
First of all, he wonders: he doesn't understand, he doesn't know what he did wrong. He's never made jokes like this?
Get real: he constantly makes jokes like this, it's just that usualyl they're not about 14 year olds, or, for the most part, even 18 year olds. He's at times - not always - the master of the double meaning, the sly innuendo, the deliberate demeaning: I've seen him when Paris Hilton was on the show once, and that was exactly this kind of joke.
What can I do to help people understand that I would never make a joke like this?
It's all about Dave: all those folks out there just don't understand that I'm not the bad guy here, that I'm not the one in the wrong. Y'all just don't understand me!
And I understand, of course, why people are upset. I would be upset myself.
See the logic? If I had made such a joke, I would be upset: but since I didn't intend it so, you shouldn't be. Sorry Dave, that is classic passive-aggressive declination to remove personal blame.
"And then I was watching the Jim Lehrer 'Newshour' - this commentator, the columnist Mark Shields, was talking about how I had made this indefensible joke about the 14-year-old girl, and I thought, 'Oh, boy, now I'm beginning to understand what the problem is here. It's the perception rather than the intent.'
This is what prompted me to write this post. The problem for Dave isn't that he made such a joke: the problem is that people are perceiving that he made the joke. Sorry, I have to write this one out: Give Me A Fucking Break, Dave.
There's a message for you, Dave: you made the joke, your people failed to protect you from gross embarassment, and it's completely and totally inacceptable for you to think that the problem is that people are simply perceiving the whole thing the wrong way.
It doesn't make any difference what my intent was, it's the perception.
Well, no shit, Sherlock. Welcome to reality. It's always the perception that matters: intent is meaningless, intent is a crock. We'll never know, beyond what you dissemble here, what you real intent was: that you are grossly embarrassed at being caught and are blaming, effectively, the viewer by not understanding what you meant: classic passive-aggressive "I didn't mean it, you made me do it" behavior.
And, as they say about jokes, if you have to explain the joke, it's not a very good joke. And I'm certainly - " (audience applause) "- thank you. Well, my responsibility - I take full blame for that. I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It's not your fault that it was misunderstood, it's my fault. That it was misunderstood." (audience applauds) "Thank you. So I would like to apologize, especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also to the Governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I'm sorry about it and I'll try to do better in the future. Thank you very much." (audience applause)
I've gone and left the "audience applauds" in there: this is the sign of a monstrous ego. He takes responsibility, but in such a way that he points to not be responsible; the joke was bad, but the real problem is that everyone has the wrong perception. It's Dave's fault that it was misunderstood: it's not so much that the joke was bad, deliberately aimed at causing pain and embarrassment, it's that I didn't do the right way so that you'd have understood it the way I wanted it to be understood.
Dave, stop digging. You're in deep enough.
This wasn't an apology: it was a mea culpa, it was an accepting for responsibility. But it was hedged beautifully and elegantly. He's got good writers...sometimes.
If he had really meant it, he could have simply said "I told a joke that was designed to be hurtful and demeaning, and I didn't think it was a bad thing. That was a serious mistake and is indefensible. I apologize to the Governor, her family, and to all my viewers, my sponsors and the network. I've taken this as an abject lesson that my attempts at humor should never come at the cost of demeaning someone deliberately, and my writers have been told that any more such material is a firing offense. Again, my sincere apologizes: this is not why I am here."
Now that'd have been an apology. Dave didn't apologize. He made excuses.