Programmed to laugh

when comedy shows had stage hands who held up ‘Applause’ cards to cue
the audience, or the ones that used ‘canned laughter’ to generate the
feel (or illusion) of true fun and humor?

Audiences for late night comedy these days laugh at anything, even
the lower reaches of tasteless sarcasm, prompted by nothing more than
the comedian delivering a line. Which is why the Letterman affair was unfolded in such a bizarre way.

“David Letterman has milked plenty of sex scandals for laughs. But
it remains to be seen whether the CBS comic’s admission Thursday that
he had sexual liaisons with female employees while he was involved with
his now-wife, the mother of his 5-year-old son, will fade away with a
few late-night punch lines.

Although Letterman focused on his role as the victim of a would-be
extortionist who demanded $2 million to keep the details of his affairs
secret, the episode sparked impassioned discussion Friday about sex in
the workplace and hypocrisy.

After years of mocking other public figures for their sexual
indiscretions, Letterman, 62, is facing scrutiny for behavior that is
verboten in many workplaces. Conservative critics, in particular,
expressed disgust with the comedian, whose frequent potshots at former
GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — including a crude joke he
made in June about her daughter — have infuriated many on the right.

“There is irony here,” commentator Michelle Malkin said on the Fox
News morning show “Fox & Friends.” “It’s hard not to have a smidge
of schadenfreude for somebody who’s shown contempt for women in public,
in his monologues continuously and repeatedly, especially over the
campaign, and how he’s treated Sarah Palin and her family.”

And it’s not just coming from “the right”. Especially given Letterman’s lack of visible remorse.

“Coming on the heels of apologetic confessions of infidelity by
politicians such as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. John Ensign
of Nevada and former presidential candidate John Edwards, Letterman’s
decision not to offer a mea culpa was striking, said Elayne Rapping, a
professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo who
specializes in media and popular culture.

“There are so many of these scandals and they all so show at least
some apology or embarrassment, and this guy decided to control the
damage by making it into a joke,” Rapping said. “I was actually quite
astonished. I would hope that he would be in some way brought to his

Yes, and the audience, too. Know what it feels like to ‘laugh ’till it hurts’? We’re hurting, but laughing all the same.


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