There are two things you won’t see on Monday night’s PBS broadcast of the star-studded Mark Twain Prize ceremony at Washington’s Kennedy Center honoring David Letterman.
The first is the tribute to the retired late-night talk show host by his longtime friend Al Franken, the erstwhile Saturday Night Live comedy writer and performer—now a second-term Democratic senator from Minnesota—who has suddenly found himself accused of sexually charged misconduct by two different women.
PBS cut Franken’s onstage tribute at the Oct. 22 event, with a PBS spokesperson explaining to The Daily Beast: “PBS and WETA [the Washington public television station that produced the show] thought that the inclusion of Sen. Franken in the broadcast would distract from the purpose of this show—which is American humor.”
The second thing you won’t see, apparently also not appropriately humorous, is Letterman’s famous on-air confession, in the midst of a $2 million blackmail attempt against him in late September and early October of 2009, that he did “creepy things… with women who work with me on this show… that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.”
“My response to that is yes I have,” Letterman acknowledged as his studio audience howled with laughter. “I have had sex with women who work on this show. Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would—especially for the women.”
The wildly divergent public responses to Franken’s and Letterman’s admitted misbehaviors—bipartisan condemnation and calls for the senator’s resignation in disgrace, versus widespread sympathy and admiration for the late-night television star, the subject of celebration seven years later—demonstrates how rapidly times have changed.
If Letterman’s scandal had erupted today—with the unsavory aura of a rich and powerful entertainment industry figure exploiting underlings for sexual favors, whether consensual or otherwise—he might well have been lumped in with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, fired NPR executive Michael Oreskes, and a mushrooming army of miscreants.
As of Monday, this roster now includes star New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush, who has been suspended from the paper pending an inquiry into sexual harassment allegations, and CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose, who was suspended late Monday by CBS News—while his eponymous show was taken off the air by PBS—after The Washington Post reported multiple allegations of workplace sexual misconduct.
“In comedy timing is everything, and Letterman was a near-miss,” said Hollywood Reporter editor at large Kim Masters, who broke the sexual harassment story that resulted in the forced resignation of Amazon Studio chief Roy Price. “I don’t know whether Letterman harassed people in a predatory way, but he had multiple affairs with women who worked for his show. If that came out today it would probably be terminal.”
A longtime denizen of the comedy world, who spoke on condition of not being named, said that PBS “is taking a huge risk in airing that show because at this stage [Letterman’s scandal] will come roaring back in the news. This [the growing list of sexual harassers and worse] is a bottomless pit.”
Joking, his person added: “They’re honoring David Letterman, but is this the same David Letterman who was known to prey on interns, but they decided to edit Al Franken off, and not Dave? In fairness, Mark Twain fucked around with interns, too.” Not really.
Masters, who for five years worked for NPR and today hosts The Business, an entertainment industry show produced at Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, tweeted that considering the 70-year-old Letterman’s checkered past, it’s worth “not[ing] the irony” that PBS was so quick to erase Franken’s Mark Twain Prize appearance.
“I think @ PBS should be ashamed,” Masters tweeted. “This is PC cowardice because PBS doesn’t want to appear liberal.”
Masters added: “They are petrified of that perception, of giving their enemies on Capitol Hill a weapon to beat them with [along with attempts to slash public broadcasting funding], and it ends up in total absurdity.”
Yet The Simpsons star and longtime public television critic Harry Shearer, whose weekly radio program Le Show was also based at KCRW until the station stopped airing it in 2013, said the decision to obliterate Franken is hardly a surprise.
“It’s the kind of decision they’re famous for,” he said witheringly.
PBS airbrushed Franken out of the 8 p.m. program in the aftermath of former Playboy model and current local radio newscaster Leann Tweeden’s account of a December 2006 USO Tour of Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan during which the married funnyman allegedly stuck his tongue in her mouth while rehearsing a comedy sketch and then staged a photograph in which he was grinning and seemingly cupping her breasts while she slept, wearing a Kevlar vest on a military transport plane.
Franken has abjectly apologized to Tweeden both publicly and privately, and promised to cooperate with a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of the incidents.
On Monday, CNN reported that a second woman, Lindsay Menz, is claiming that in August 2010, nearly two years after Franken was elected to the Senate, he grabbed her by the buttocks while posing for a photo with her at the Minnesota State Fair.
In this case, however, Franken didn’t offer an apology. “I take thousands of photos at the state fair surrounded by hundreds of people, and I certainly don’t remember taking this picture,” Franken said. “I feel badly that Ms. Menz came away from our interaction feeling disrespected.”
PBS announced its Franken-free programing after President Donald Trump—who once bragged that his celebrity status allowed him to kiss women without their consent and “grab ’em by the pussy,” and is himself the target of multiple sexual harassment allegations—registered his condemnation of the Minnesota senator.
“The Al Frankenstien [sic] picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words,” the president tweeted, displaying his usual sense of self-awareness. “Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps? .....”
But while Franken has longstanding professional relationships, and even friendships, with members of the media—including with this writer—he has not been treated gently.
Daily Beast contributor Jonathan Alter and HuffPost global editorial director Howard Fineman are among the few who have offered public defenses of their old friend.
“I’ve watched @ alfranken unfairly bracketed w/ accused serial sexual predators,” Fineman tweetd. “He & I’ve been family friends for decades. As a comic, he could be crude. He went too far (& apologized). BUT: he’s NOT predatory, adores his wife & family & is a lifelong champion of women’s rights.”
“I completely agree,” Alter posted, “and would add that all of us make dumb mistakes. But they shouldn’t be conflated with those of child molesters, perverts and rapists.”
But even Franken’s old stomping ground, SNL, skewered him mercilessly on last Saturday’s show, displaying his photo with those of Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., and accused pedophile and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
“I know this photo looks bad, but remember, it also is bad,” “Weekend Update” anchor Colin Jost said as the Franken-Tweeden photo flashed onscreen. “And sure, this was taken before Franken ran for public of office, but it was taken after he was a sophomore in high school. It’s pretty hard to be like, ‘C’mon, he didn’t know any better. He was only 55.’”