David Letterman

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

What was the accusation?

In June 2009, Late Show host David Letterman made an on-air joke about Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s daughter being impregnated by New York Yankees player Alex Rodriguez. While Letterman’s joke did not target the daughter by name, at the time, Palin’s 18-year-old daughter Bristol had recently given birth to a son conceived out of wedlock, so the joke apparently fed off that scenario in light of the Governor’s attendance at a game at Yankee Stadium. Palin quickly castigated Letterman for his sexually perverted comments about her 14-year-old daughter Willow, the only Palin child actually at the game with her. This criticism of sexually targeting a minor for entertainment purposes (as perceived by Palin and others) led Letterman to publicly apologize for the misunderstanding and for the joke itself.    

Key Apologia Strategies:

Defeasibility, Good Intentions, Mortification



I’ve been thinking about this situation with Governor Palin and her family now for about a week. It was a week ago tonight, and maybe you know about it, maybe you don’t know about it, but there was a joke that I told, and I thought I was telling it about the older daughter being at Yankee Stadium. And it was kind of a coarse joke. There’s no getting around it. But I never thought it was anybody other than the older daughter. And before the show, I checked to make sure in fact that she is of legal age, 18. But the joke really in and of itself can’t be defended. The next day, people are outraged, they’re angry at me because, they said, ˜How could you make a lousy joke like that about the 14-year-old girl who was at the ballgame?’ And I had honestly no idea that the 14-year-old girl I had no idea that anybody was at the ballgame except the Governor, and I was told at the time that she was there with Rudy Giuliani and I really should have made the joke about Rudy but I didn’t, and now people are getting angry, and they’re saying, ˜Well, how can you say something like that about a 14-year-old girl? And does that make you feel good to make these horrible jokes about a kid who’s completely innocent, minding her own business?’ And turns out she was at the ballgame. I had no idea she was there. So she’s now at the ballgame, and people think that I made the joke about her. But still I’m wondering 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, thirty long years, and you can’t really be doing jokes like that. And I understand, of course, why people are upset. I would be upset myself. And then I was watching the Jim Lehrer NewsHour, and this commentator, the columnist Mark Shields, is talking about how I had made this indefensible joke about the 14-year-old girl, and I thought, Oh boy, now I’m beginning to understand what the problem is here. It’s the perception rather than the intent. It doesn’t make any difference what the intent was. It’s the perception. And as they say about jokes, that if you have to explain the joke, it’s not a very good joke. And I’m certainly well, my responsibility. I take full blame for that. I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It’s not your fault that it was misunderstood; it’s my fault that it was misunderstood. So I would like to apologize especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also to the Governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I’m sorry about it, and I’ll try to do better in the future. Thank you very much.  


Compton, J., & Miller, B. (2011). Image repair in late night comedy: Letterman and the Palin joke controversy. Public Relations Review, 37, 415-421.

O’Connor, M. (2009, June 11). Letterman regrets telling jokes about Palin’s daughter. TV Guide. Retrieved from http://www.tvguide.com/news/letterman-palin-jokes-1006846/

Saul, M. (2009, June 11). Sarah Palin attacks David Letterman over ‘sexually-perverted’ joke. Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/sarah-palin-attacks-david-letterman-sexually-perverted-joke-article-1.373316