No joke: Last night’s Late Show with David Letterman was such a superb hour of television, from his opening monologue to his goofing around with guests Steve Martin and Martin Short, that it reminded us all over again how invaluable he is.

Letterman made what was more than just another apology: He re-framed what has become an out-of-control media sensation and put it in a humane perspective. While initially peppered with rueful jokes — “I got into my car this morning and even the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me”; “Chilly outside my house this morning; chilly inside my house” — his monologue concluded and he went to his desk.

From there, he made the public apology to his wife, Regina Lasko, that EW reported earlier, saying that “She has been horribly hurt by my behavior, and when something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point, there’s only two things that can happen: either you’re going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you’re going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me.”

He also apologized to his staff “for, once again, putting up with something stupid I’ve gotten myself involved in.” “No, I’m not having sex [with staff members now]. Those episodes are in the past.”

But then he defended himself, reminding viewers he was “the victim… of a felony extortion, a separate part of the equation.” Which was to say: Yes, I made a big personal mistake, but there’s another person who actually broke the law. I was blackmailed. “You can’t be victimized by criminals,” he concluded forcefully.

Then Steve Martin came out and said that this controversy, “proves that you’re a human being.” He paused. Then: “We weren’t really that sure before.”

Martin then went on to be very funny both by himself and with pal Martin Short. The moments when Short sat in Martin’s lap for “our old ventriloquist routine” were exceedingly funny. Letterman even made a cutting ad lib: “You spend one more minute on his lap, you’re gonna get blackmailed.”

There is no one in late night television with the range of knowledge, the approach to interviewing, and such an intangible mixture of comedic skill and self-revelation. We should take a moment to step back and realize that Letterman is just as great a performer as his hero Johnny Carson and his influence Steve Allen. It’s time for those calling for his head to calm down and let the man do his job, the job he does as no one else does, and no one will ever do as well again.

What did you think of last night’s show?

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