NEW YORK – Will David Letterman's very public revelation of a new, very human flaw bring him closer to viewers, or will it cloud him in cliche showbiz debauchery?
That was the question many were debating Friday, the day after the CBS "Late Show" host revealed to his audience that he had sexual relationships with female employees and had been the victim of an extortion attempt to keep that information private.
Letterman unraveled the sordid story with humor, honesty and self-effacement. He may have endeared himself to some fans, but his likability has been thrown into jeopardy. Reaction poured in Friday, including from other late-night hosts.
Jay Leno, Letterman's longtime late-night rival, didn't waste a moment in addressing the situation. He kicked off his monologue on NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" with several jokes about Letterman.
He opened: "If you came here tonight for sex with a talk show host, you've got the wrong studio."
Leno continued: "What is going on? First Conan hit his head, and then somebody tries to extort money from Letterman. I'm so glad I'm out of late night," he said, also referencing an incident last week when Conan O'Brien, the new host of the "Tonight Show," suffered a mild concussion during a skit on the program.
When Leno claimed to never have had a sexual relationship with one of his employees, the drummer of his house band, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, threw a mock fit.
Friday night's "Late Show" was taped Thursday, as was Craig Ferguson's "Late Show." (Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are dark on Fridays.)
Friday night's "Late Show," though, did include a moment — coincidental in retrospect — when guest Larry David unwittingly suggested that he beat Letterman's record of having the fewest number of dates for someone with a TV show.
"Oh, I don't know," replied Letterman, grinning knowingly.
O'Brien dodged the issue when guest Drew Carey brought it up.
"I would hate to be on opposite Letterman tonight with all that sex stuff going on," Carey said. "That's got to be tough."
"No comment," O'Brien said quickly.
On NBC's "Late Night," Jimmy Fallon also worked it into his monologue: "There's a new book out called "Why Women Have Sex" that says there are 237 reasons why women have sex. And folks, Letterman knows the top 10."
On the Web, videos of Letterman's confession were hard to find. CBS, which has an agreement with YouTube, hadn't posted any clips of the segment as of late Friday. It also didn't have the episode available on cbs.com
The demand was clearly there. Throughout Friday, videos of his revelation were posted on YouTube without CBS' permission. Whenever they gained thousands of views, CBS had them removed.
In the comments sections of YouTube videos, the dialogue was two-sided as some came to Letterman's defense, while others were critical. Similar lines were drawn on Twitter, where Letterman was one of the most tweeted-about subjects. He evoked both sympathy and disgust, as he did in comments posted in blogs and on social networks.
Referring to Thursday's studio audience, which laughed through parts of Letterman's somewhat comical telling of the story, New York Times columnist David Carr tweeted: "Aw, now Letterman is his own punchline. Yuck."
A running Internet joke seen on sites such as YouTube and Facebook involved a pun on the name of Letterman's production company, World Wide Pants Inc.
On YouTube, videos of different woman who have worked on-air at the "Late Show" were circulating. Most were of Stephanie Birkitt, the sometimes on-air assistant who lived in Norwalk, Conn., with the alleged extortionist, Robert J. "Joe" Halderman, a producer for the true-crime show "48 Hours Mystery."
For several years, Birkitt regularly appeared on the "Late Show," often aiding Letterman in his audience interactions. Videos of her cameos circulated widely as the Web sought glimpses of her.
Ben McConnell, a marketing expert and author, blogged that Letterman had gotten in front of the story "in this Twitter-driven world." He wrote: "Letterman has certainly neutralized far worse rumor-mongering that could have quickly spiraled, jeopardizing his reputation, maybe even his job."
Like many blogs, Gawker.com was trolling through "Late Show" archives to find evidence of hypocrisy in Letterman's various jokes about infidelity through the years. Gawker wrote that the 62-year-old host was "haunted by the ghosts of Monica Lewinsky jokes past" and linked to old videos and top 10 lists of the "Late Show."
Other sleuthing was going on, too, as those following the sordid story looked for information on the less famous players involved. Halderman's Facebook page (which features a photo of him lounging in an Adirondack chair) had its personal information deleted.