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Feb. 11: Dave Letterman vs. Joaquin Phoenix

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If this year in the Late Show With David Letterman proves anything, it’s that you don’t have to love every moment of the show or the man to admire the host’s wit, grit, and nerve. Sure, what’s lodged in your mind right now is his October admission that ”I have had sex with women who work for me.” And enough time has passed to place this in a context: Do you think the sainted Johnny Carson would have held up as well had his private life been a target of an alleged blackmailer and the tabloids?

Before and after Late-gate, however, Letterman demonstrated both his towering strengths and his self-imposed limitations. He started off the year with two classic moments. In January, Dave showed rare TV-star humility by apologizing to the mother of the late comedian Bill Hicks for not airing a racy Hicks routine back in 1993. Two weeks later, the old tassel-loafered fart found himself a YouTube fave for his interview with a bearded, mumbling Joaquin Phoenix, a magnificent piece of performance art on both men’s parts.

In March, he announced his marriage (in retrospect: !!!). Three months later, he apologized for making a crude joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter, but never retreated from jabbing at Palin the politician herself. In November, he grumbled artfully about the front-page play The New York Times gave a story about the use of the word ”douche” in prime time.

On Dec. 8, Letterman posted his first tweet, saying he felt ”like Lindbergh landing in France.” As I guffawed, I had two thoughts: How many in the coveted 18-to-24 demo know who Lindbergh is? And how much longer can Dave uphold the standards of a broadcaster with broad knowledge? Laugh with him or at him, protest or celebrate him: He’s unshakably unique.

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