Friday, June 12, 2009


Not A Top 10 Moment, Dave

Two truths: 1) Politicians will always be appropriate targets of comedians.  2) Politicians will always try to end up portraying themselves as victims of the media. This past week, a good, professional comedian made inappropriate jokes about a politician's family. The politician was right to call him on it. 

The comedian should take a second shot at an apology. 

Over the last week, David Letterman and Sarah Palin have exchanged words over Palin's visit to New York last weekend -- and Letterman's Monday and Tuesday night monologues and "Top Ten" list responding to said visit.  Palin had been completing a New York trip that included an upstate visit to the National Women's Museum in Seneca Falls, proceeded to a fundraising parade for autism in Westchester County and concluded with a trip to Yankee Stadium, where she was a guest of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.  Key fact: Palin's middle daughter, Willow, the 14-year old accompanied her on the trip. Palin's more famous older daughter, Bristol (of the Levi and Bristol soap-opera) was nowhere around. 

On Monday, during his "Late Show" monologue, Letterman referred twice to certain New York figures "having their way" with Palin's "daughter." 

The first joke was relatively mild: "She went to Yankee Stadium with Rudy Giuliani..."the toughest part of her visit was keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter."  Clearly, the target of the joke is Spitzer, New York's disgraced former governor.  The next night, Letterman followed that up with a similarly-themed even rougher comment: "One awkward moment the Yankee game for Sarah Palin; during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez." 

Now here, obviously, part of the joke alludes to Rodriguez' love life, including his recent divorce from his wife -- initiated partly by reports of his philandering with women such as Madonna. But the "knocked up" also refers to the Bristol saga from last year.  

Now, added to this is one line in Monday's "Top Ten" segment. No. 2 on the "Highlights of Sarah Palin's trip to New York City":  "Bought make-up at Bloomingdale's to update her slutty flight attendant look."  

Obviously, comedy is about taking elements of reality and stretching them to absurdity. But the real elements matter. To people just watching the show or reading these jokes on the page, the immediate allusion is probably going to be to Bristol Palin who has been so much in the news over the last few months. Bristol has also become a celebrity in her own right -- with appearances on People magazine and becoming a spokeswoman against teen pregnancy.  But the fact remains that Palin brought her 14-year old daughter with her to New York -- Willow, not Bristol.  Responding to statements of outrage from both Sarah and Todd Palin, Letterman had an extensive bit on Wednesday, where he offered a sort-of apology, admitting that a few jokes were in "poor taste."  But, he says:

"These were not jokes made about her 14-year old daughter;. I would never never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year old child. Look at my record; it's never happened...Here's where you draw the line: So, maybe these are questionable because the girl, who actually was, excuse me, knocked up, is now 18 years old. So the difference there is 14 years old and of legal age...I can't really defend the joke, OK. I agree, ugly and unpleasant, but I would never never think it was funny to use a 14 year old girl as a joke like this, for God's sake:" 

Letterman's defense is fair, but it's not that clear that he knows how many daughters the Palins have. It's also not clear that he knows that who -- or if either -- was at the Yankee game. In fact, Willow was there. While politicians often take faux offense at shots from the media, the Palins have a case here. It's understandable that they could think he was making a joke about the daughter who did make the trip to New York -- or that she might think Letterman was talking about her. 

Finally, out of context, Letterman's "slutty flight attendant" look was, at the very least, tacky. But, added to everything else it does make Letterman -- or his writers -- look like they have some issues when it comes to women in general. 

Friday morning, Palin kept the pressure up, appearing on "The Today Show" to call Letterman's response a "convenient excuse." She also underscored the point, again, that it was Willow who was at the game, as opposed to "any other daughter." 

David Letterman can't win this fight. Nor should he. These were a series of jokes that went awry. His Wednesday statements actually made him look factually ignorant -- not knowing that Palin's actual 14 year old daughter was at the game. 

He would be wise to offer a full, legitimate apology -- not as part of comedic shtick -- and just move on. 

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