Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reductio Ad Letterman

I haven't watched more than a rare minute or two David Letterman's show in about 16 years. While I'd been a devoted viewer in high school and college, Letterman's move from NBC to CBS roughly coincided with my graduating and getting a real job, and having to show up early in the morning on a daily basis put an end to my late-night TV watching days.

From little what I did see, the CBS move neutered Letterman of his trademark anarcho-goofball style. Letterman thrived when he was NBC's redheaded stepchild, standing outside of the television establishment throwing spitballs. Once he was embraced by it with a better time slot and a plush theater, he became what he'd beheld. The ambling guy from Indiana who once went out of his way to puncture the bloated TV egos of Bryant Gumbel and Dan Rather became just another Manhattanite snarking at the rubes in between celebrity suck-up interviews. Even the music wasn't as good; the tight four-piece of the World's Most Dangerous Band was expanded into a mockingly-named "CBS Orchestra" and lost its punch.

What was left is an unentertaining entertainer on television, another in the endless line of Carson wannabees who've failed to live up to Johnny's immortal standard. Not exactly man bites dog--television is and always has been rife with crap; if it weren't for "Lost," there wouldn't be a single program on any of the old three networks that I'd watch (and "Lost" ends next year, so so long ABC). I never cared much what Letterman's politics were, even though he's apparently lurched way to the Left over the last decade and a half. If a joke dies on Broadway, and I didn't hear it, as far as I'm concerned, it didn't make a sound.

Of course, Letterman's jokes took a turn for the exceptionally foul this week, and the resulting crash was heard well beyond Broadway. What's interesting to me is not what they say about Letterman per se, but rather what they say about the entire left-leaning media establishment. The simple fact that Letterman and his writers obviously thought it would be just fine to utter that kind of stuff on national television speaks volumes about just how insular and blinkered and self-unaware the entire Liberal chattering class has become.

There's no doubt--none--that Letterman would have been fired within hours of telling the same exact jokes if you changed nothing more than the words "Sarah Palin" to "Michelle Obama," or even "Hillary Clinton." The resulting uproar would have made the Don Imis "nappy-headed ho's" kerfuffle look like a preschool checkers game. But that thought clearly never crossed the minds of Letterman or his staff or the network standards people at CBS. In their eyes, nobody worth worrying about would have reason to object to ugly smears of the Palins; after all, everybody they know thinks the Palins are beneath contempt.

You can get away with having a blind spot the size of the Death Star if you work at, say, The Nation or the New Yorker, or until recently, the editorial page of the New York Times. You made up your mind from the jump that they only audience you were interested in was people who already agree with all your own prejudices and petty bigotries. But when your voice carries well beyond the Upper East Side... then you have a problem.

Letterman has a problem. He'll probably get through it, and even if CBS were to show him the door, all that would accomplish is setting up a bidding war between HBO and Showtime for his services. But he'll never been seen in the same light again by all those folks in Indiana and elsewhere in Flyover Country, and the wedge between the elite media and the general public is now just that much larger.

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