And the Winner Is ... Dave

David Letterman, like the great Albert King blues song, seems to have been "born under a bad sign."

Between the aggressive stalkers and the house-painter kidnappers and the phony wives, the TV funny man's off-camera life seems dominated by damage control.

That's why it wasn't really that surprising that Thursday night's bombshell -- that Dave was being held up for $2 million large by some wackadoodle "48 Hours" producer, threatening to reveal the "Late Show" lothario's in-house love life --  was handled so skillfully by Letterman.

Just as the late night host has honed his comedic talents over the years, so, too, has Letterman gotten pretty doggone good at handling personal "and very public" crises.

His damage control response in this case was text book perfect.

The first rule of public relations crisis management is to "get the bad news out quickly, preferably on your own terms before your adversaries can set the agenda."

Accordingly, Letterman launched into his instantly-legendary, 10-minute revelation with finesse and self-assurance -- even if it did take his studio audience several excruciating minutes to realize that ol' Dave wasn't just pulling their leg.

His explanation -- alternately self-deprecating and dead serious -- was awkward and uncomfortable to watch. But it was high theater and also riveting, ratings-rising TV.

In fact, rather than hurting Letterman, as some suggested, his torturous admission may turn out to help him.

Show biz, you see, isn't the real world. And while such tabloid titillation may be personally embarrassing, in the entertainment world such a tawdry tale generates buzz, excitement, and, ultimately, higher ratings. (Don't believe me? Watch the audience Dave draws Monday, when he tapes his next show.)

If he's smart -- and Letterman is as savvy an entertainer as there is on the tube -- he will add one name to his monologue roster of regular Rogue's Gallery targets -- his own.  In addition to his nightly jabs at Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin, look for Dave to poke fun at himself about sex and stupidity and his uncanny propensity to become immersed in these kinds of mind-blowing scrapes. That way, nobody can label him a "hypocrite."

The real public relations "loser," here, may be Dave's network. CBS must review carefully its policies that allow bosses to sleep with subordinates and potential extortionists to join its ranks.

But Dave, himself, has no such worries. Oh sure, the next week on the "Late Show" might be a little tense in spots, but in the long-term, the $2 million extortion plot will take its place in Letterman lore, and the loyal Letterman following will emerge even more fiercely devoted to their hero.

Fraser P. Seitel is managing partner of Emerald Partners communications counseling firm, adjunct professor at New York University and author of "The Practice of Public Relations." He can be reached at