Watching David Letterman talk about the extortion plot against him and affairs with women who work for him was a bizarre experience.

On the one hand, you have Letterman in his best storyteller mode. On the other, you have an audience that wasn’t prepared for the story he was telling. They’ve seen Dave in serious mode before (upon his return to the air after 9/11, discussing his cardiac emergency, etc.), but this tale started light and silly (“Do you want to hear a story?”), so they laughed, and then continued laughing nervously as the story got darker and more serious. It wasn’t until 8 minutes into the 9-minute explanation that the confused crowd fell quiet.

It reminded me of the night Jerry Seinfeld was a guest and arranged with Letterman for Michael Richards to appear with them via a satellite feed just a couple of days after Richards’ racist-and-profanity-laden rant at the Comedy Store. The incident hadn’t become widely known yet, or at least those in the Ed Sullivan Theater that afternoon didn’t know about it, so they responded as if it were all a wacky bit. Which it wasn’t, as Seinfeld was forced to explain. On TV, it came off as uncomfortable.

A NY tabloid is reporting this morning that the accused extortionist is the ex-boyfriend of one of the employees Letterman had an affair with — Stephanie Birkitt, who you may remember seeing as a regular contributor to the show a few years ago. Her segments were never as amusing and entertaining as Letterman seemed to think they were, but we now have an explanation for why they recurred so frequently. It’s not the first time sex has been exchanged for camera time.

As to the question of what impact this will have on Letterman’s job and/or popularity, I’d guess none. And I don’t expect him to back off on joking about adulterous politicians like Mark Sanford and John Ensign and Bill Clinton, who still deserve the scorn and punchlines because of their cover-ups and lies to the public (all that garbage about “family values”), while Letterman has done the converse. If no laws were broken and no harassment claims filed, it’s unlikely his image will need any rehabilitation.