If there was a winner in the whole Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck let’s-pretend-I’m-crazy debacle, it had to be David Letterman. When Phoenix appeared, generously bearded and entirely incoherent, on The Late Show back in February 2009, it was Letterman who made comedic hay, dropping the perfect line: “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” He facetiously apologized to Farrah Fawcett, the previous title holder as Spaciest Late Show Guest of All Time, and when Phoenix said, “I’d love to come on the show and perform,” Letterman quipped, “You know, that seems unlikely.” Cue audience roar.
So when it came out this past week that Letterman may have been in on the hoax — his writer, Bill Scheft, had claimed the host knew all about it, and loved it because “it was great television,” and none other than Jay Leno voiced skepticism on-air, claiming Letterman “didn’t seem cranky enough” — this may have been the most disappointing reveal in the whole, sordid, disappointing affair. After all, if Phoenix, a well-known, though not stratospherically famous, actor, wanted to self-immolate in a misguided attempt at Andy Kaufman–esque chicanery, so be it. But if Letterman, lampooner of such lunacy, was also just play-acting — well, that seems too much to bear.
But last night, in Phoenix’s clean-shaven and apologetic return to The Late Show, Letterman continued to claim ignorance. “It was like you’d slipped and hit your head in the tub,” he said. “People don’t let guys like you out if you’re really like that.” Letterman pushed Phoenix to assure viewers that the host was not in the joke. And as Phoenix fumbled to explain his antics, Letterman both needled and prodded him. “What have you got to say for yourself?” he asked, though no particularly satisfying answer was forthcoming.
Letterman has now benefited twice from Phoenix’s lame prank: Once back in 2009 and once again last night. It’s ironic, though, that even as the Phoenix hoax ends with a collective shrug, another question of chicanery still lingers. Given Casey Affleck’s admission to Jay Leno last week that he’d told Paul Shaffer about the whole thing beforehand, it’s natural to ask the famous Watergate question: What did Letterman know and when did he know it?
The likely truth is that we’ve simply witnessed a very savvy showman in action, and it wasn’t Joaquin Phoenix. Whatever else happened back in 2009, Letterman, no fool, must have suspected that something was up — he has, after all, been dealing with quasi-celebrity hoaxes, from Tony Clifton to Crispin Glover to Charles Grodin, since back when Joaquin Phoenix was still calling himself Leaf. So when he figured it out, Letterman saw, above all else, an opportunity for “great television.” And, as usual, he was right. Turns out he was the winner in all this after all.