Near the end of his nine-minute discussion on his CBS late-night show Thursday about the $2 million extortion attempt he claims to have recently received, host David Letterman called the whole thing "a very bizarre experience."
You could say the same thing about his "bizarre" performance before an adoring studio audience that didn't seem to realize the seriousness of the situation.
The audience laughed and cheered as Letterman used his usual assortment of funny facial and hand gestures while describing what he called a "blackmail" attempt by a man who threatened to reveal in a book and a movie that the host had sex with women who worked for him.
At times, the laughter and cheers seemed as inappropriate as Letterman's occasional creepy attempts to joke about a very serious situation. In one case, the audience laughter even led to a joke. You almost wondered if members of the audience hated themselves later for laughing but couldn't help it.
Letterman noted that he had to go before a New York City grand jury.
"I had to tell them all of the creepy things I've done," said Letterman.
When the audience laughed, Letterman added: "Why is that funny?"
Of course, it was funny because of the way Letterman told the story.
Letterman's performance made it great TV. He had some great defensive and self-deprecating lines.
"If you know anything about me, I'm motivated by nothing but guilt," he said. "I'm just a towering mass of Lutheran Midwestern guilt."
A little while later, Letterman confirmed that he sex with women who worked for him and acknowledged that had the potential to be "embarrassing"
"Especially for the women," he joked as the audience clapped.
He turned momentarily serious at the end, saying he had to protect "these people, my family, myself and hope to protect my job."
Letterman gets credit for acknowledging he had sex with staff members but that was bound to come out shortly anyway. The appropriateness of the humorous way Letterman dealt with the situation will be left open for debate. Letterman was just being Letterman. But he was talking about something that could be in the news for days and may have the serious potential for sexual harassment suits. That's why it isn't really a laughing matter.
But I doubt Letterman's job is in any jeopardy unless some more damning things become known. In the bizarre world of TV, his embarrassment probably will help the show get improved ratings in the short term.
On Thursday night, Letterman's "Late Show" out-drew NBC's "Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" here by a 3-1 ratings margin, 6.3-2.1.
If you saw Letterman give his story Thursday, what did you think of it?
-- Alan Pergament