Why Did David Letterman & Sarah Palin Feud? The Comedian's Comment About Palin's Daughter Ignited A Firestorm

David Letterman, host of The Late Show With David Letterman, was a talk-show host that changed talk shows forever, and all of his quips and idiosyncrasies will be remembered fondly after his last show Wednesday night. Generally, Letterman's personality allowed him to get away with saying things a lot of other talk show hosts couldn't say. Then again, a lot of his quips did spur controversies. For example, one such controversial joke spurred a feud between Letterman and Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and former vice-presidential candidate.

The feud was included on TIME's Top 10 TV Feuds, and it's famous not only because Letterman's joke was outrageous and certainly a bit too much, but also because of the way Palin responded. The joke spurred weeks of TV conversation, a New York Times article evaluating the "ethics" of the joke, a few TV appearances by Palin, and even a public protest outside of Letterman's studio in New York.

It all started when Letterman joked about the Palin's family trip to New York in May 2009. Letterman said "there was one awkward moment during the seventh-inning stretch" when Palin's daughter "was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez," one of the team's players whose private sexual encounters had recently been revealed for public scrutiny.

Palin released a statement and said Willow Palin, her 14-year-old daughter, was the only one of her three daughters to attend the game, according to the New York Daily News:

Laughter incited by sexually perverted comments made by a 62-year-old male celebrity aimed at a 14-year-old girl is ... disgusting.

But during his show that followed, Letterman was unapologetic. He said he was obviously referring to her 18-year-old daughter Bristol Palin, who had recently given birth to a son out of wedlock. The revelation that Bristol was pregnant occurred just after the 2008 presidential campaign. Letterman said he may have been guilty of poor taste, but that he wasn't suggesting sex with a 14-year-old, according to the Daily News:

We were, as we often do, making jokes about people in the news. ... These are not jokes made about her 14-year-old daughter. I would never, never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year-old girl.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

But Palin wouldn't let up. The feud intensified, and two days later she appeared on NBC's Today Show and called for Letterman to apologize to women everywhere, according to The Guardian:

I would like to see him apologize to young women across the country for contributing to that kind of thread that is throughout our culture, that makes it sound like it is OK to talk about young girls in that way, where it's kind of OK, accepted, and funny to talk about statutory rape.

Palin's supporters planned a rally outside of Letterman's studio. On his next show, Letterman threw in the towel and said he needed to formally apologize. He said he told a bad joke and that his intention didn't matter if the perception of the joke was inappropriate. He spoke directly to the Palin family, according to The Guardian:

I told a bad joke. ... It's not your fault that it was misunderstood - it's my fault. 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.

Palin accepted his apology, but some critics of the incident have said the apology still wasn't necessary. Randy Cohen, a New York Times' columnist, evaluated the ethics of the joke for the Times and argued that Letterman's job security definitely shouldn't have been up for evaluation, but, further, that no apology was warranted because the joke was no worse than others he has told in the last 30 years of his career. He said the reality — that Willow attended the game and Bristol did not — was an aesthetic flaw, "not a moral transgression," according to the column:

Letterman’s version had three targets — Alex Rodriguez for his sexual shenanigans, Sarah Palin for her abstinence-only politics, and Bristol Palin for personifying the futility of that advocacy. All three are fair game, including Bristol, who, unlike, say, the Obama kids, is now over 18 and chose to be a public figure as a 17-year-old by participating in the presidential campaign and promoting teenage abstinence. Audiences enjoy irony. Comics mock hypocrites.

Regardless of whether the joke was ethical, the controversy will go down as one of Letterman's most memorable when his show ends Wednesday.

Images: Getty Images (3)