I just came across the most in-depth and comprehensive analysis of the Letterman-Palin brouhaha, by Randy Cohen at The New York Times. His analysis is long and cogent, but here’s the gist:
Letterman’s version had three targets — Alex Rodriguez for his sexual shenanigans, Sarah Palin for her abstinence-only politics and Bristol Palin for personifying the futility of that advocacy. All three are fair game, including Bristol, who, unlike, say, the Obama kids, is now over 18 and chose to be a public figure as a 17-year-old by participating in the presidential campaign and promoting teenage abstinence. Audiences enjoy irony. Comics mock hypocrites.
Whether you agree with Cohen’s breakdown of the joke, this is another issue:
In that wry, self-mocking and often astute clarification, Letterman dismissed the entire kerfuffle by saying of his material, “They’re just jokes.” This is not so astute. Every joke is an assertion about the world — sometimes indirect, sometimes ironic, always open to interpretation. Neither Sarah Palin nor I must endorse Letterman’s every (or any) assertion, but he must. Otherwise, he would be an unprincipled hack, saying what he does not believe.
Was Letterman right to apologize? If he had any objection to the joke — or if he truly believed that what the joke was saying was not what he wanted to assert — shouldn’t he have stricken the joke before the show was taped? Did he take the dishontest way out by apologizing?
Should comedians ever apologize for their jokes, even the bad ones?
(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)