Letterman pokes fun at himself

David Letterman apologized to his wife on Monday’s Late Show, saying she had been “horribly hurt by my behaviour.”

David Letterman

NEW YORK — David Letterman apologized to his wife on Monday’s Late Show, saying she had been “horribly hurt by my behaviour.”

The late-night host vowed to repair his relationship with his wife, Regina Lasko.

“Let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me,” he said, according to a transcript of the program released by CBS.

Monday’s show was the first Letterman had taped since Thursday, when he disclosed that he had had sexual relationships with women who worked for him and said that he had been the victim of a $2 million blackmail threat. During the hour, he also apologized to his staff.

“Inadvertently, I just wasn’t thinking ahead,” Letterman said. “My thanks to the staff for, once again, putting up with something stupid I’ve gotten myself involved in.”

He arrived on stage to applause and cheers from his studio audience. After drinking it in, he grinned sheepishly and inquired, with a mock stammer, “Did your, did your weekend just fly by?”

After pausing for the audience’s sympathetic laughter, he went on: “I mean, I’ll be honest with you folks — right now, I would give anything to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail.”

“I got into the car this morning,” he added, “and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me. Ouch.”

In a more sombre display, Letterman voiced his mea culpas. Regarding his wife, he said that, “if you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it.”

As Letterman faced Monday’s show, and the shows that will come after, it was clear that how he deals with his messy situation could prove to be a defining chapter in his long TV career. And, with any luck, it could clinch his recent ratings victory in late-night TV.

The challenge seemed clear: Build on Thursday’s startling confessional, a sort of Hugh Grant moment for Letterman, when he served as his own Hugh Grant.

While Letterman has joked about his affairs with female staffers, it is unclear how many women he had sex with, and he has offered no specifics.

But one of his affairs was with Stephanie Birkitt, who was an assistant to Letterman and frequently appeared on camera with the host in comedy bits. Birkitt went to live with Robert Halderman, a CBS News producer, who found her diary describing her relationship with Letterman and allegedly used it to help blackmail him, a law enforcement official confirmed Monday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Halderman, a producer for the true-crime show “48 Hours Mystery,” pleaded not guilty last week to extortion charges.

The flood of attention on Letterman was inevitable, and the way he initially dealt with this maelstrom recalled an embarrassing dilemma for another star in 1995.

For a celebrity the calibre of Grant, publicity — including speculation of career suicide — was unavoidable when he was arrested with a prostitute on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip 14 years ago. But then he retreated to NBC’s “The Tonight Show” to try to explain.

Host Jay Leno wasted no time before asking an instant classic of a question: “What the hell were you thinking?!”

Grant’s appearance provided him with some needed image rehab. It also vaulted ratings runner-up Tonight past Letterman’s Late Show, a leadership position Leno held through his retirement from late night earlier this year.

Since then, Letterman has reclaimed a ratings edge over new Tonight host Conan O’Brien.

And now he may have truly sealed the deal. With his masterful monologue last Thursday, Letterman single-handedly gave a TV performance to equal the Jay-and-Hugh moment. Implicit in everything he said about his own behaviour was the unspoken question: “What the hell was I thinking?”

It could be that Letterman’s carefully calibrated act of self-disclosure has put him in the best spot possible to weather the situation — and even to milk it. Beloved by viewers and critics for decades, he has abruptly freshened the enduring Letterman brand and demonstrated he still has the ability to surprise even fans who thought they knew him well.

Indeed, a legendary late-night host has nothing but praise for Letterman’s skill at crisis management.

“To me, it seems Dave Letterman’s handling of this is impeccable,” Dick Cavett said in an email. “Brave, direct, and — dare I say it? — manly. He has set a real example here of exactly how to behave when assaulted in such a sleazy operation.”

It isn’t the first time Letterman has shown finesse in managing a firestorm.

In June, he had a run-in with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin over jokes made at the expense of her teenage daughter. He emerged from a tumultuous few days of protests and demands for his dismissal with a ratings jolt. And thanks to the dumb-luck timing of the flap, he also handily upstaged his much-hyped NBC rival just as O’Brien was taking over as “Tonight” host.

Letterman apologized to Palin and her family in what became another one of his memorable performances. But he has never stopped making jokes at Palin’s expense.

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