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Does the Sarah Palin controversy help or hurt David Letterman in his battle with Conan O'Brien?

June 16, 2009 |  8:51 am

David Letterman spent the first part of last night's "Late Show" apologizing once again to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her family for an inappropriate joke he made last Monday. As Letterman explained last night, "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."

David Letterman Conan O'Brien News 1357924 Emmy Awards While a protest remains planned for today's taping of the "Late Show," Palin has accepted Letterman's explanation. And though the "Late Show" lost one website advertiser – Embassy Suites – because of the ongoing debate, viewers have remained loyal to the longtime late-night talk-show host.

The controversy had swelled as Palin and her supporters rejected Letterman's first attempt at an explanation last Wednesday. Last Monday, he had referenced the governor's older daughter, Bristol, in an off-color remark, not realizing that it was her younger daughter, Willow, who had accompanied her to New York City. As he said last night, "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."

This harsh spotlight was shone on Letterman in the second week of his match-up with time-slot newcomer Conan O'Brien. While O'Brien had got off to a rousing start the previous week as host of the "Tonight Show," by Day Seven, he had fallen behind Letterman in the ratings. Though NBC has ballyhooed the desirable demographics of his dwindling numbers, the edgy O'Brien has failed to retain all of the audience who tuned in to the laid-back Jay Leno for 17 years. 

Stoked by this new competition, Letterman has lined up a string of A-list guests, with the appearance of longtime pal Julia Roberts on last Tuesday's show being the one that put him ahead of O'Brien for the first time. Last night, Letterman welcomed "Year One" star Jack Black, while tonight's lead guest is Michelle Pfeiffer, who rarely makes talk-show appearances these days.

Below is the first late-night appearance of Pfeiffer way back in 1980. She guested on the "Tonight Show," and Letterman's longtime hero, Johnny Carson, was in fine form as he flirted with this young starlet who had just finished her third picture – "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen."  Alongside Pfeiffer on the couch were Sammy Davis Jr. and two-time Oscar champ Shelley Winters, who shamelessly plugged her bestselling autobiography.

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Photo: David Letterman. Credit: CBS

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