In Late Night, the Political Is Personal

Rash Report: Letterman-Palin Feud Fuels National Debate

By Published on .

MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- "The personal is political" went the '60s slogan. But nowadays, the political is personal, and David Letterman's jokes about Alaska Governor and former veep candidate Sarah Palin -- as well as her family -- have begun a dynamic debate that is coinciding with the biggest shake up in late night in years.

Sarah Palin and David Letterman
Sarah Palin and David Letterman Credit: Xinhua/Jeffrey R. Staab
Letterman, who was denied the "Tonight Show" gig a generation ago when Jay Leno won Johnny Carson's spot, instead found success during the "Tonight Show's" timeslot. Only it was not on NBC and in Burbank, but on CBS and on Broadway. And while NBC's late-night succession plans long ago reserved the role for Conan O'Brian, Letterman stood a new chance to be late-night king, as the anti-establishment comic was the established host in the time period.

But just when everything seemed to be coming together (concurrent with Conan's numbers coming down every night after his "Tonight Show" debut) Letterman took on not only a major political figure -- first by deriding Palin's "slutty flight-attendant look" -- but then her daughter as well. Which daughter is the subject of the dispute, as Letterman credibly claims the subject of his provocative joke about getting "knocked up by Alex Rodriguez" was Palin's 18-year-old daughter Bristol, while Palin asserts the crack was about 14-year-old Willow, who accompanied her parents and another pol, Rudy Giuliani, to a Yankees game.

It's not the first time Letterman has landed in a Republican row, as his ongoing, on-air dis of Palin's running mate, Sen. John McCain, jumped beyond late night and became part of the news narrative on evening news and Sunday-morning discussion shows.

How viewers react remains to be seen. It's too early to tell with the ad-centric adults 18-to-49, as the first week of demographic data showed Conan dominating, yet falling every night since his highly hyped premiere. For the week he averaged a 2.3/10 rating and share, compared to a 0.9/4 for CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman." But Conan's ratings declined daily, from a 3.8/16 on Monday to a 1.5/6 on Friday.

Of course, most of the time creating controversy is just part of the job description, which has been mastered by more media savvy hosts such as Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." His anger at "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer not only embodied the Great Recession's great rage, but also led to great ratings. But Letterman's laugh lines aren't so funny to many. Indeed, just as Bristol Palin's pregnancy set off a national debate amidst a national election, Letterman's ribald reference to it is a Rorschach test for many across the political spectrum.

Letterman's approach to political humor stands in stark contrast to his rivals. Leno, who begins his prime-time show Sept. 14, leveraged his Main Street, mainstream personality to provide a platform for prominent politicians (while still reserving the right to mock them, however gently, with his popular monologue).

Most notably, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to plop down on a "Tonight Show" couch. Leno also presided over presidential candidates last year, as the bright lights (and bright sunshine) of L.A. looked a lot more attractive to candidates than the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire. And if they weren't invited, their supporters put on public pressure for them to get their turn, as happened with Republican Rep. Ron Paul. Most famously, former Sen. Fred Thompson announced his candidacy not on the hustings, but in Hollywood, as he skipped a New Hampshire debate to sit with Jay.

Of course, most were attracted to the hard numbers of Leno's lead as well as the softball questions typical of the genre. But Leno was also a one-man -- or in this case, one-regular-guy -- vetting process in an era when candidates are often judged more on personality than policy.

Conversely, Conan O'Brien's sardonic sensibility seems too uncontrolled for most politicos. Not that he's uninterested in presidential politics -- he even traveled to meet the president. Except it was in Helsinki, not D.C., as the trip was a comic culmination of his ongoing gag about his striking resemblance to Finland's first female president, Tarja Halonen. His endorsement of her, complete with jabs at her rivals, became a sensation in Scandinavia, and cemented his American reputation as a post-modern host compared to Jay's channeling of Johnny's more conventional format, which NBC is betting will be better suited to Gen X and Millennial sensibilities.

So, sure, the personal is political. And vice versa. But it's also professional, at least in how it will affect audiences and, eventually, ad support, as late night gets its moment in the sun.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Not a sports fan? You can still be a fan of Game 7s, including tonight's ultimate face-off between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings in the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals. NBC, 8 p.m.
Saturday: One of the best-ever network miniseries, "Lonesome Dove," runs on cable's AMC at 8 p.m.
Sunday: It may not have the same drama as a Game 7, but Game 5 of the NBA Finals could crown another champion this weekend, at least if the Los Angeles Lakers, who are up 3 games to 1, win. ABC, 8 p.m.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Lower ratings over the weekend, as millions meet tomorrow's sunrise with black screens after failing to ready their TVs for tonight's digital transition.

~ ~ ~
NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.

In this article:
Most Popular