No Laughing Matter

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 31, 2009

"Humor is just another defense against the universe."
Mel Brooks

I am still trying to wrap my mind around the life and conduct of David Letterman. He has always been a bit of an enigma to me. Although I don't watch his show very often, I somehow had the impression that his worldview was shaped by conservative, mid-western values. 

But I rather doubt that his mother would be pleased with his embarrassing public confession and apologies. Part of what makes Letterman an enigma to me is the mental whiplash he gave me as he framed his awful behavior with rather tactless and tasteless humor. 

What he did is no laughing matter, yet he has obviously marshaled his well-honed craft as a humorist to deflect attention away from his sordid conduct. He began his confession with these words, "I'm glad you folks are here tonight, and I'm glad you're in such a pleasant mood because I have a little story I would like to tell you and the home viewers as well. Do you feel like a story?" (applause/cheers

And though he laced his words with light-hearted bantering with focus on his alleged extortionist, Robert Joel Halderman, Letterman said, "I was worried for myself; I was worried for my family; I felt menaced by this." 

He has worked hard at focusing his public role as a victim though he also admits the personal challenge before him to deal with his relationship with his wife and son. To make matters even worse, this whole situation has sparked a renewed discussion of sex in the workplace as well as the hypocrisy of a media icon, as one reporter said, "who spins philandering politicians and pop stars into comedic gold." 

David Letterman wasn't the first public figure, nor will he be the last, to find themselves in the middle of such a self-inflicted mess. But for someone who traffics in humor, it is hard to take anything he says seriously. 

Will Durst wrote an essay titled "The School of Scandal" in which he suggested numerous ways for a politician to make "lemonade after being pelted by a bushel of media-chucked lemons." Here are a few: 

  • Witch Hunt. Keep repeating the phrase: Witch hunt. Which hunt? This hunt. That's right. Witch hunt.
  • Compare the effect on your family to a national disaster. Pearl Harbor. JFK's Assassination. The day CBS cancelled "Dallas."
  • Keep telling the press that you can't wait to tell your side of the story. Then never get tricked into telling your side of the story.
  • The number one reason you can't quit is you don't want to send the wrong message to your children. Clearly say, "This is not about me. This is about standing up for the kids. And the elderly."
  • You can never go wrong blaming lawyers, either.
At least David Letterman didn't try any of those tactics. He admitted his behavior, and he told the truth. As Bruce Kluger in USA Today (10/8/09) said, "Letterman successfully navigated his way through three explosive crises - personal, professional, and legal - by simply telling the truth." 

Though I understand what Mary Hirsch meant when she said, "Humor is a rubber sword" - it allows you to make a point without drawing blood, I would also agree with Winston Churchill who said, "A joke is a very serious thing." Years ago I remember a friend who was quite skilled at making a very sharp point through light-hearted humor. 

One of the definitions of humor is "tragedy plus time." Often we later laugh at things which at the time were not funny at all. But what Letterman did will never be funny. 

Will things get worse for Letterman before they get better? I don't know. Does he regret what he did? I think so. Do I respect him less? I know so. Will I want to watch his show? I don't think so. Am I laughing? No. 

What should you do? 

Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to