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If there’s one thing David Letterman has learned this week, it’s that a little contrition and self-deprecating humor can go a long way.

After a shocking admission about office affairs and an alleged blackmail plot, The Late Show host is winning back his fans’ respect with jokes (”I got into the car this morning and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me”) and apologies, including one directly to his wife, Regina Lasko, and his staff, whom he thanked for ”putting up with something stupid I’ve gotten myself involved in.” According to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, that ”something stupid” came to light after Robert ”Joe” Halderman, a producer at CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery, threatened to expose Letterman’s sexual trysts with employees if the comedian didn’t fork over $2 million. Halderman pled not guilty on October 2, and is next due in court on November 11.

While the October 5th episode was up 14 percent in ratings from his season-to-date average, questions linger over whether CBS and Late Show’s production company, Worldwide Pants, should launch internal investigations into the comedian’s conduct. ”Clearly CBS has a moral and political obligation to investigate this,” says NOW president Terry O’Neill, who’s also a lawyer. But a Worldwide Pants spokesman says that the company circulates an employee manual each year that addresses harassment, while also saying, ”Dave is not in violation of our policy, and no one has ever raised a complaint against him.” In the meantime, Letterman has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to preempt the scandal by getting ahead of it, both by issuing his sincere mea culpas and by poking fun at his predicament. And so far, his survival strategy seems to be working. Says PR crisis expert Howard Bragman, ”He’s handling a bad situation as well as he can.”

For more on how Letterman is weathering the scandal — plus a special report on blackmail in Hollywood, which has affected A-list stars from Tom Cruise to Oprah Winfrey — pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, October 9.

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