NEW YORK — David Letterman joked Thursday that things are now fine between him and Sarah Palin because the Alaska governor called and offered to take him hunting.
She’d done nothing of the sort, of course, continuing a feud with the CBS late-night host that may wind up being well-timed for Letterman in the second week of his new competition with Conan O’Brien on NBC’s “Tonight Show.”
“I’m Dave Letterman, making friends wherever I go,” Letterman said at the opening of Thursday’s show, a day after he apologized for wisecracks aimed at Palin and one of her teenage daughter — even as he milked the situation for more laughs. His lengthy discourse on Wednesday blended flashes of contrition with more pokes at Palin and her family.
Letterman invited Palin to come on his show, which her spokeswoman declined with a shot of her own.
Letterman had made several jokes on Monday’s monologue about the Palin family’s visit to New York.
His Top Ten list featured “Highlights of Sarah Palin’s Trip,” and included: “Bought makeup at Bloomingdale’s to update her ’slutty flight attendant’ look.”
But the diciest joke centred on the family attending a Yankees baseball game.
Letterman said “an awkward moment” occurred for Palin when, “during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by (Yankee third baseman) Alex Rodriguez.”
Without naming her, the joke seemed to refer to Palin’s 18-year-old daughter Bristol, an unwed mother.
But it was 14-year-old daughter Willow, not Bristol, who had been at the game.
Todd Palin issued a statement that said “any ’jokes’ about raping my 14-year-old are despicable.”
And Sarah Palin charged Letterman with “sexually perverted comments made by a 62-year-old male celebrity.”
“I am not a celebrity,” said a deadpan Letterman, interrupting himself as he read the statements aloud on Wednesday’s show. “I’m 62 years old, but I’m not a celebrity.”
He denied the joke was meant to be about Willow Palin.
“I would never, never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year-old girl,” he said, dropping his signature sarcasm. “I don’t think it’s funny. I would never think it was funny.”
“I’m not necessarily proud of these jokes,” he said in a more ironically self-deprecating moment. “We do stuff all the time and our objective here is to get a laugh, and thank God we don’t have to go to the Hague and the World Court to defend them. It’s a joke and that’s all it’s supposed to be.”
Before he was done, he tried to boil down the situation into two key points, which he stated with playful precision:
“Am I guilty of poor taste? Yes.”
“Did I suggest that it was OK for her 14-year-old daughter to be having promiscuous sex? No.”
He also invited Palin to be a guest on his show, saying, “I think we could put these differences behind us.” But the offer, extended to both Palin and her husband (“or leave Todd at home,” Letterman suggested), was turned down on Thursday.
“The Palins have no intention of providing a ratings boost for David Letterman by appearing on his show,” said Palin spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton. “Plus, it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman.”
While the incident keeps Palin in the public eye in a manner likely to draw sympathy from supporters, it puts Letterman in the news in an extremely fortuitous time. It’s the second week of his battle for eyeballs with O’Brien and it couldn’t be closer.
In an overnight measurement of the nation’s biggest media markets, O’Brien beat Letterman by one-tenth of a ratings point on Wednesday, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was the same slim margin on Monday, and with Julia Roberts as a guest on Tuesday, Letterman beat O’Brien — the first night CBS has beaten NBC since last October.
In Nielsen’s metered markets, Letterman hasn’t beaten the “Tonight” show for a week since November 2005.