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David Letterman's Stupid Joke Trick

Why Sarah Palin's brand of bitching is great for his ratings.

Vanessa Richmond 17 Jun

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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Letterman comes clean.

Dave Letterman sat on a wall. Dave Letterman had a great fall. But will all the media's horses and the court of public opinion put him back together again today?

The drama, of course, has been playing out for a week, ever since Letterman quipped last Monday that while in New York, Sarah Palin would undoubtedly stock up on makeup for her "slutty flight attendant" look. And that her daughter had been knocked up by A-Rod on a visit to Yankee Stadium.

Letterman apologized last Wednesday to laughter and applause. "Were the jokes in bad taste?" he asked. "Of course they were."

But his classic Letterman smart-alecky semi-apology was greeted with increased media carpet bombing by the Palin party. Palin's attacks included calling Letterman "sexually-perverted," calling the Today Show's Matt Lauer "naïve" for defending Letterman in any way, accusing Letterman of inciting statutory rape, and asking people to "rise up" against him. A site called Fire David Letterman even started up, and there was an anti-Letterman protest outside the TV studio on Tuesday morning.

The saga continued last night when Letterman started the show by saying even his mom called and said she was siding with the governor. Then he moved past his self-deprecating quips to do what all comedians hate to do: "explain the joke."

'We thought it was funny because... '

Letterman said he thought it was Bristol who was attending the baseball game, and he checked to make sure she was 18 before making the joke. He says he was slow to understand why people even thought he would make a crude joke about 14-year-old girl, given that he's never done anything like that in 30 years of comedy, but has come to see it's perception not intent that matters. Here's part of the transcript:

"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.' It doesn't make any difference what my intent was, it's the perception. 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)

No, please, don't make me defend her

Look, it's hard to defend Sarah Palin, the Heidi Montag of politics.

Palin is a class-A hypocrite. She's such a champion of teen girls' rights that she has them pay for their own rape kits back home in Alaska. And just "like a modern-day Susan B. Anthony" makes sure they're forced to carry the perpetrator's baby to term. She also helps them have as many babies as possible in their teen years by denying them of all but abstinence-only education.

She's also clearly shallow and vengeful. Dozens of comedians made jokes about her daughters over the last year. Like Jay Leno who made 15 jokes about Palin by mid-March, to Conan O'Brien's 20. Saturday Night Live and plenty of other shows ripped her daughters, to no response from the Palin crew. Sure this might have been the straw that broke the grizzly bear's back, but it seems much more like a personal vendetta against Letterman.

And speaking of whom, it's hard not to sympathize with Dave because I, and millions of others, really like and respect him. And like other feminists, I find that my adoration is hard to shake even in the face of misogyny.

But I'm part of the small pack that's defending her.

It's about feminism, not Sarah

Like some others, I'd be pretty upset if anyone slagged Michelle Obama or her daughters off for being sluts. Really, really upset. So as much as I'd like to throw mud at Sarah Palin's taxpayer-funded wardrobe, I'm instead going to join the outcry against sexist jokes. I agree with Palin that it's just not cool to insult her daughter. Ugly sexism is still ugly and sexist when it's directed at conservative women. The outcry would have been louder and swifter had anyone taken a swipe at Pelosi or Rachel Maddow or Obama, and that's not OK.

And as Amanda Fortini pointed out in Salon, it seems especially relevant to take a stand on this now given that Playboy last week ran (then ran away from and un-posted) something called a "Hate Fuck" story, listing the conservative women who deserve that kind of treatment.

As obnoxious as Amy Siskind's recent article about fourth-wave feminism is, she's right that we have to watch out for daughters and granddaughters as much or more than grown ups, to make sure sexism never gets a foot hold, even though I don't agree with Siskind that Palin is at the poster-woman of the new wave.

So last week when Dave apologized (the first time), I was pleased.

Knowing the line between 'good bitch' and 'bad bitch'

But what this incident shows isn't so much that women are now more likely to win in public opinion wars generally. But that they're more likely to win when they play the newly defined role of "good bitch," and lose when they step over the line into what people consider to be a bad bitch. There are plenty of examples in politics and on the screen.

Sarah Palin stood up, flexed her power, and (rightly) got her way. The last week shows that there's increasing public approval for women doing just that. Her behavior, which would undoubtedly have been termed "bitchy" in a negative way even recently -- attacking a very popular, powerful, older white man – was in fact supported by many liberals and conservatives, by men and women.

Palin's recent appearance on the media stage shows that the role of bitch has shifted. Twenty years ago, women may have stood their ground against powerful men, but they weren't winning in the court of public opinion (anyone remember when Hillary Clinton was first lady?) They were called feminazis, and that was a kind one.

But then Palin kept attacking. And it started to seem to me and many others that what she wanted wasn't an apology but empty political points. That she wanted not justice but power and attention. That she wanted not rights for women but evisceration. She had the upper hand and was using it to smack Dave down rather than help him up again like a graceful victor should.

It's right that Letterman's apology should be sincere and deep. But last night, as he gave the second apology, he was clearly humiliated, defeated. And public opinion has now started to switch back to him.

As one commenter put it, "I think Letterman initially went over the line, but when Palin insinuated that Letterman was some kind of child molester she became the monster.

Wanting power for its own sake, wanting just humiliation, are still traits of the "bad" bitch.

Cue the ironic ending

Ratings have spiked for Letterman. Some people are saying that though Palin would be "horrified" at the idea, this bru-ha-ha could be the equivalent of Jay Leno's Hugh Grant moment. Grant was so contrite on Leno that public opinion shifted to his side and Leno's viewership went up.

The final numbers won't be in until later this week, but there's a strong chance that Letterman could get more viewers than the Tonight Show, which hasn't happened since 2005. And given all the programming changes in late night TV right now, with fans looking for new viewing habits, Letterman could end up keeping them.

I'm not saying I agree with the lesson. But Palin versus Letterman shows that a bad bitch can win the battle but lose the war.

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