By Ken Tucker
June 11, 2009 at 04:48 PM EDT

Last night on The Late Show, David Letterman said that Gov. Sarah Palin had called him “pathetic” for making jokes about her and one of her daughters. “I haven’t been called pathetic once since [my] honeymoon,” he joked. “This very well could be my last show,” he said, as though the controversy was making him an endangered species. “Oh, great,” he said. “I pissed off a hunter.” The Late Show host responded to accusations by Gov. Sarah Palin that he had made inappropriate jokes about her and her family in his Monday-night Top Ten List. Here’s what he said last night in his semi-defense:

To Palin’s accusations that he was making a joke about “raping” one of her daughters, let’s go to the text: Letterman’s self-admittedly “ugly” joke was that 18-year-old Bristol was “knocked up” by baseball’s Alex Rodriguez. That phrase doesn’t carry the implication of forced sex. I mean, I didn’t hear that association applied to the title of the Judd Apatow movie Knocked Up, did you? (And: “Where’s Alex Rodriguez’s [complaint]?” he asked parenthetically.)

But of course, breaking down any joke into serious, word-for-word analysis misses the spirit and context in which it was told. Letterman said he knew they were “cheap laughs” he was going for; in his usual self-deprecating way, he noted that’s what he’s been doing “for 35 years.” As for his joke about Palin’s “slutty-flight-attendant look,” he said unrepentantly, “I kinda like that joke.”

“I mean, look at me,” he said, facing the camera directly. “I would never, never make jokes about raping.”

It seems absurd to have to say this, after all the years we’ve all spent seeing what an interesting, complex, funny man Letterman is, but here it is anyway: I believe him.

Then later Kathy Griffin came out and, with typical bluntness, said blithely that Palin is “a moron” and her husband Todd “a tool.” “But that’s just my opinion,” she said. Jokes and opinions: what trouble-makers.

Did you watch The Late Show last night? What did you think of Letterman’s response to Palin’s accusations? Do you think Sarah Palin should accept Dave’s invitation to appear on his show?

For more on the Letterman-Palin controversy:

David Letterman responds to flap over Sarah Palin jokes.