After David Letterman tangled with Sarah Palin last week over a tasteless crack he made about her teenage daughter, some began calling the controversy his "Hugh Grant moment" -- a reference to the 1995 celebrity-in-trouble interview that gave Jay Leno a ratings lead he never relinquished.
But judging from the strong apology Letterman offered on his show Monday night (an apology Palin accepted on Tuesday), declaring his attempt at humor "beyond flawed," he may have feared the flap was turning into his "Don Imus moment."
The CBS host's self-described "bad joke," suggesting the Alaska governor's daughter was "knocked up" by baseball star Alex Rodriguez while attending a Yankee game, sparked Palin's wrath and earned Letterman valuable attention as he launched a new offensive in the late-night talk show wars. Letterman, though, apparently decided Monday that the publicity wasn't worth his reputation.
"I'm wondering, 'Well, what can I do to help people understand that I would never make a joke like this?' I've never made jokes like this, as long as we've been on the air, 30 long years," he said.
The National Organization for Women, ordinarily no friend of Palin, slammed Letterman’s comments last week. Despite his apology, a protest was planned in front of The Ed Sullivan Theater Tuesday by a group that started a website called firedavidletterman.com. The demonstrators are calling on CBS -- the network that axed radio host Imus in 2007 after he denigrated the Rutgers women’s basketball team -- to can Letterman.
Meanwhile, Palin, who demonized Letterman as a teller of "perverted" jokes, saw her biggest week in the spotlight since the presidential campaign. And, as Politico noted, the Letterman imbroglio has become a rallying point for her right-wing base.
It's also been pointed out that Palin didn't raise a fuss last year when Leno made a similar joke about her 18-year-old daughter being impregnated by John Edwards. Maybe Palin didn't react to Leno because a Democrat was the punchline. Or maybe this time she saw an opportunity to exercise her protective "pitbull with lipstick" instincts, sans the distraction of a presidential campaign.
Letterman, of course, was the instigator and at least an initial beneficiary of the kerfuffle. For the first time in 14 years he's in a winnable fight for ratings supremacy with Leno gone and Conan O'Brien barely into his "Tonight Show" tenure.
Last week, he initially offered a mild apology and tried to clarify his remarks: he wasn't targeting Palin's 14-year-old daughter, who was at the game, but rather her 18-year-old daughter, an unwed mom, who didn't attend. That distinction didn't appease his critics, and he acknowledged Monday night the explanation didn't cut it.
"I told a bad joke," he said. "I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception."
Palin and Letterman may not seem to have much in common, but both are looking to 2012. For Palin, that's the next presidential election. For Letterman, who is eyeing a contract extension, that's the year he’s apparently planning to step down – as the king of late night, he hopes.
With his apology, Letterman proved himself a stand-up guy. Stay tuned to see who gets the last laugh.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.