- - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Letterman mines threat for monologue laughs

Even a fatwa is grist for comedy when you’re David Letterman.

Back from two weeks’ vacation and making his first TV appearance since a threat against his life was posted on a jihadist website, the “Late Show” host played it all for laughs during Monday’s monologue.

According to the Associated Press, Mr. Letterman began by thanking his studio audience for being there.

“Tonight,” he said, “you people are more, to me, honestly, than an audience — you’re more like a human shield.”

He then apologized for having been tardy coming onstage.

“Backstage, I was talking to the guy from CBS,” he explained. “We were going through the CBS life insurance policy to see if I was covered for jihad.”

Until Mr. Letterman delivered his jokes, his situation seemed to be no laughing matter.

Last week, a frequent contributor to a jihadist website posted the threat against Mr. Letterman. He urged Muslim followers to “cut the tongue” of the late-night host because of a joke and gesture that the comic had made about al Qaeda leaders on a show that aired in June.

“A guy, a radical extremist, threatened to cut my tongue out,” Mr. Letterman marveled during Monday’s monologue. Then, referring to his disastrous turn hosting the Oscars in 1995, he added: “I wish I had a nickel for every time a guy has threatened [that]. I think the first time was during the Academy Awards.”

“And so now,” he continued, “State Department authorities are looking into this.” But they could save themselves some trouble, he suggested: “Everybody knows it’s [Jay] Leno.”

Along with his monologue, Mr. Letterman mined the situation for his Top Ten list: “Top Ten Thoughts That Went Through My Mind After Hearing About the Threat.”

Among them:

• “Why is the staff in such a good mood?”

• “How can someone be so angry at a time when Kim Kardashian is so happy?”

• “Some people get Emmy nominations; some people get death threats.”

One joke that may have helped spark the fatwa was one of several lampooning al Qaeda in Mr. Letterman’s June 8 monologue. This was just days after the death of al Qaeda leader Ilyas Kashmiri, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. Though Kashmiri was rumored to be a long-shot choice to succeed Osama bin Laden, he wouldn’t have worked out even had he lived, Mr. Letterman cracked, pointing to Kashmiri’s “rocky start” as a front-runner: “He botched up the story of Paul Revere.”

The real butt of that joke: Sarah Palin, potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate, who in early June on her “One Nation” bus tour had claimed that Paul Revere’s famous ride was intended to warn British soldiers as well as his fellow Colonists.

The website contributor, who identified himself as Umar al-Basrawi, railed in his post that Mr. Letterman had referred to bin Laden and Kashmiri and said that Mr. Letterman, in discussing Kashmiri’s death, had “put his hand on his neck and demonstrated the way of slaughter.”

“Is there not among you a Sayyid Nosair al-Mairi … to cut the tongue of this lowly Jew and shut it forever?” Mr. al-Basrawi wrote, referring to El Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted of the 1990 killing of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane. Mr. Letterman is not Jewish.

The FBI said last week that it was looking into the threat.

While Mr. Letterman and his writers were polishing their jokes Monday afternoon, outside on Broadway, a bomb-sniffing dog was led around the periphery of the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown Manhattan. Meanwhile, ticket-holders queuing up along the sidewalk seemed relaxed about attending Mr. Letterman’s first taping since the assassination threat. Some were even unaware that his life had been threatened.

“I’m not worried. They’ve got metal detectors,” said Kendall Phillips, a 25-year-old from Houston, noting a standard provision in the TV world for screening audience members. “Plus, it’s like really hard to get tickets.”

‘Modern Family’s‘ Stonestreet to star in Arbuckle TV film

“Modern Family” star Eric Stonestreet is channeling his inner Fizbo the Clown for HBO.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the actor is attached to star in “The Day the Laughter Stopped,” a telefilm in development at HBO Films revolving around silent-film star Fatty Arbuckle.

“John Adams” writer Kirk Ellis is on board to pen the project, with Barry Levinson set to direct the telepic based on the book by David A. Yallop.

Arbuckle (1887-1933) was a silent-film star, comedian, director and screenwriter who mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope.

The popular comedian also had his troubles: In 1921, Arbuckle was accused of raping and accidentally killing actress Virginia Rappe and was tried for her death three times. Though he was acquitted, the scandal plagued his career and he worked sparingly in the 1920s.

The HBO telepic would span his rise to fame and subsequent fall.

“In addition to the fact that I’m from Kansas and he’s from Kansas, I just always found it to be such a fascinating and tragic story,” Mr. Stonestreet told Vulture. “He went from this jolly person who fell down and entertained people into a sexual deviant. It’s a true story people don’t know about, with a twist.”

Mr. Ellis, Mr. Levinson, Mr. Stonestreet, Ron West, Chris Henze, Christine Vachon and Steve Kavovit are on board as executive producers.

Bill Moyers planning new weekly show

Journalist Bill Moyers retired from weekly TV a year ago but now says he plans to return, the Associated Press reports.

He said Monday that he will be back in January with an hourlong interview show called “Moyers & Company.”

He says the weekly show will not be carried by PBS, the home for much of his past programming. It will be distributed to public TV stations by American Public Television.

He recently hosted PBS’ “Bill Moyers Journal.” That concluded in April 2010.

Mr. Moyers, 77, said his upcoming show will feature interviews with diverse voices and the goal of contributing “to the conversation of democracy.”

Mr. Moyers worked in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He also was a commentator for CBS News and NBC News.

Compiled from Web and wire reports.