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Letterman Gives Fans a Gut-Punch

David Letterman has admitted -- on Thursday night's "Late Show" -- that he had sex with female employees and was the victim of an extortion attempt. Seems pretty straightforward.

Except: dang.

Let's get this out of the way up front. I think Letterman is one of the few people in the history of television who can legitimately be called a genius.

He reinvented the talk show by turning it on its ear, until the funhouse-mirror version that he created became the standard. There's a great line in the old "Larry Sanders Show" in which Larry's producer describes the host as some sort of mythological creature, "half man and half desk." That describes Letterman pretty well, too.

He's also, famously, intensely private, supposedly almost obsessively so. So you know this must have killed him, to acknowledge such a thing in front of millions of people.

Which in no way diminishes the "ick" factor.

After the monologue, Letterman told the audience that someone threatened to write a screenplay and book that would reveal "terrible" things that the late-night host had done. Letterman treated it almost like a bit, with the audience at times laughing and even applauding as he spoke, even as he acknowledged having sex with women who worked for him.

"This whole thing has been quite scary," he said -- and at that point, pretty weird, too.

Letterman, like other late-night hosts, makes a living making fun of people who get caught doing this kind of thing. The Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story was his meal ticket for years. Now, granted, Letterman is a talk-show host, not the president of the United States. And he's only been married a few months, though he's had a long-time relationship with the woman who is now his wife (and with whom he has a 5-year-old son).

But how is he going to go after the next politician or minister or other public figure who is disgraced in this fashion? The analogy isn't exact, but it'll do: Pot, meet kettle. What if, after weeks of rants and screeds against Wall Street outrageousness, Jon Stewart had to acknowledge he was being investigated for insider trading?

Whatever the larger societal implications -- this will doubtless spawn many stories about workplace affairs and such -- this fact remains: If nothing else, this is surprising. He's a grown man, he doesn't have to explain his actions to his audience or his fans; he's responsible only to his family.

Still, there is a sordidness that's impossible to shake. Letterman always seemed to exist outside of the Hollywood cliche factory -- literally so, taping his show in New York. Now this?

For those of us in college in the 1980s (yes, we're old), Letterman was a kind of beacon of cool. He was proof that you could rethink established institutions and reinvent them in your own way. To young, idealistic people, that's incredibly exciting.

Letterman is much more of an establishment figure these days. Happens to everyone who lives long enough. Will this diminish his legacy? In the long run, no. But is it a punch to the gut in the moment? Absolutely.

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