Last night, David Letterman opened his late night television with a startling account a blackmail plot. Apparently, the alleged blackmailer had information that Letterman had had sexual relations with some members of his staff and was demanding a payment of $2 million to keep silent.
I in no way want to minimize the extent to which sexual relations in the workplace have the potential, given the power of the employer to hire ands fire, to be exploitative and oppressive. It has happened in many cases and on occasion led to litigation.
However, this serious issue is not what I wanted to mention.
It is Letterman’s performance.
The video below, in which Letterman tells the whole story to his audience, is one of the most surreal things I have ever seen. Watch how long the audience takes to figure out that Letterman is not doing a comedy monologue. It seems as if, through humor, he is 1) easing his own way through a disclosure that must have been excruciating to make and 2) providing the audience with just enough levity to help them sit through a story that, if told without any irony or self-mockery, could really have been a horrifying experience.
I also find it interesting to watch because, in addition to everything else Letterman is trying to accomplish, it is clear he is also trying to walk the line between humor and horror in a way that protects what is, more than anything else, a valuable comedy franchise/brand.
Again, I point this out as a case study in high-stakes communication and rhetoric with full awareness that I am not addressing the serious questions about sexual harassment that may or may not have been at play in this case.
How does a comedian make a a painful confession in a way that minimizes the erosion of his reputation as a comedian?
This is how.