When Did David Letterman Stop Being Funny?

Deal W. Hudson
June 15, 2009

The other night, I put a question to some friends: “Why isn’t David Letterman funny anymore?” No one disagreed with the premise, but we struggled to find an explanation while trying to recall what made him funny in the first place. The question was provoked by Letterman’s sleazy “joke” about Governor Sarah Palin’s 14-year-old daughter Willow being “knocked up” by New York Yankees baseball player Alex Rodriguez.

If Letterman had made a similar joke about one of the Obama daughters, he wouldn’t have a career anymore. The torrent of rage would have driven him from CBS – and perhaps from his home state of Connecticut as well. But Governor Palin is a Republican, a conservative, and ardently pro-life. This means the widespread disgust at Letterman’s jibe will hardly be felt inside leftwing enclaves, where some in the media – emboldened by their success in blackening the reputation of George W. Bush – will be giddy at the prospect of destroying the future of another GOP leader. (It’s no surprise that the Today Show‘s Matt Lauer defended Letterman’s joke in a subsequent interview with Governor Palin.)

It is often said that, when you decide to enter politics, you accept the ridicule that comes with being a public figure. That warning shouldn’t apply to 14-year-old children who do nothing to attract the attention. She wasn’t guilty of wild parties, late-night drinking, or conspicuous consumption… she’s just a kid whose mother has become a rallying figure for Christian conservatives.

Letterman has refused a simple apology, hiding behind a cowardly excuse: It was just a joke “in poor taste,” he explained. As a peace offering, Letterman did invite the governor to appear on his show, but he really should have invited the governor’s husband, Todd so he could look into the eyes of the father whose daughter he maligned on national television.

David Letterman used to be funny, but that was a long time ago. He was the pleasant but bumbling comedy geek whose hip urbanity was usually leavened by jokes at his own expense. Letterman was likable because, as a celebrity, his vulnerability showed – the emblem being the double-breasted jacket he never finished buttoning.

Evidently, Letterman thought the hanging jacket flap made him look confident; but unlike the pimply teenager who one day decides to wear a cravat to school and later realizes his mistake, Letterman never did. He never became the classy figure he should have, and his stunted growth served to remind us of his sheer luck at being a successor to the late-night master, Johnny Carson. Letterman became a world-weary cynic who couldn’t resist taking a cheap shot at a 14-year-old girl because her mother is a leading figure in a political party he doesn’t like.

When Carson walked out on stage, his jacket was always neatly buttoned, as if he could be teaching a Presbyterian Sunday School class. He was unfailingly polite – his jokes respected no privileged class, and he never demeaned anyone. (No one, before or since, has been a more sensitive interviewer of children and non-celebrities.) His connection with middle America, spanning 30 years on the Tonight Show, was unimpeded by political petulance or an elitism born of his considerable fame and wealth. Carson, as an entertainer, was a man without the capacity for arrogance or meanness.

Arrogance, elitism, and meanness undermine humor because they are the matter, not the form, of comedy. We laugh at the pompous man who slips on a banana peel because he is suddenly and forcibly reminded of the humanity he shares with those he scorns. Our laughter deflates the inflated ego; the comedian who forgets this risks being laughed at when gravity claims him as its unwilling victim.

Letterman hasn’t been funny for a while, and now we know why. His comic sense has been infected with the moral superiority of the political Left.

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