The David Letterman Apology Show!

The comedian takes full responsibility for a bad joke. But is it enough to quiet his critics?

Published June 16, 2009 12:17PM (EDT)

"I'm David Letterman, goodwill ambassador," the comedian began his show Monday night, exactly a week after jokes about Sarah Palin and her daughter left him dining on his loafers. "I got a call from Mom earlier today," he continued. "She said she's siding with the governor."

But Letterman didn't stop with a few self-deprecating toss-offs. Following his monologue, he devoted a short, sit-down segment to the one thing all comedians dread -- explaining the joke, in particular the joke about the kid, the one for which he has gotten such mighty blowback. Unlike his last apology -- delivered with a classic Letterman sneer and winking smart-aleck asides -- this apology was something approaching sincere:

"There was a joke that I told, and I thought I was telling it about the older daughter being at Yankee Stadium. And it was kind of a coarse joke. There's no getting around it, but I never thought it was anybody other than the older daughter, and before the show, I checked to make sure in fact that she is of legal age, 18. Yeah. But the joke really, in and of itself, can't be defended. The next day, people are outraged. They're angry at me because they said, 'How could you make a lousy joke like that about the 14-year-old girl who was at the ball game?' And I had, honestly, no idea that the 14-year-old girl, I had no idea that anybody was at the ball game except the Governor … I'm wondering, 'Well, what can I do to help people understand that I would never make a joke like this?' I've never made jokes like this as long as we've been on the air, 30 long years, and you can't really be doing jokes like that. And I understand, of course, why people are upset. I would be upset myself."

He went on to discuss the difference between perception and intent, take full responsibility for a joke "beyond flawed" and apologize to the Palin family (you can read the whole transcript here); for the guy who brought the world Stupid Human Tricks, it was an unusually chastened moment. He's a father, after all, a 62-year-old man who's managed to offend scads of people in his time without being branded a pedophile. This was important for him to get right. According to the N.Y. Times Media Decoder, he taped the segment twice. And for those who found the joke in bad taste (it was) or kind of dumb (also true), for those swayed by Sarah Palin's media carpet bombing last week -- which blew right past over-the-top and rocketed into the stratosphere of patently ridiculous -- his apology might have even worked.

Unfortunately, it won't quiet the media circus that has seized onto this moment. They will not be run out of town that easily. The Fire David Letterman Web site -- which encourages offended viewers to e-mail sponsors, sign petitions and join Facebook groups, and which has no doubt made the poor sap slogging through staff e-mail a very sad individual -- posted a quote from Palin cheerleader (and gleeful Obama basher) John Ziegler: "I'm glad he's acknowledged we're right. I think it's a good first step in the right direction, but I don't think it's enough."

OK, John Ziegler. What would be enough? Well, fire David Letterman, of course. The group, organized by tea bagger Michael Patrick Leahy, is holding a protest rally scheduled for this afternoon outside the Ed Sullivan Theater. You didn't think this would die so easily, now, did you?

Here's the video of last night's apology:

UPDATE: Sarah Palin has accepted David Letterman's apology, in very Sarah Palin fashion: "Letterman certainly has the right to 'joke' about whatever he wants to, and thankfully we have the right to express our reaction. And this is all thanks to our U.S. military women and men putting their lives on the line for us to secure America's right to free speech -- in this case, may that right be used to promote equality and respect."

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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