Joaquin Phoenix’s Quieter, Gentler Letterman Flip-out

Imagine: It’s early evening on a typical Wednesday, and you, a producer on a late-night talk show, are watching the show’s host interview a talented young actor about his upcoming film. Except that today, the talented young actor in question is either drunk, high, experimenting with a crazy new character, screwing with the host and his audience, or all of the above. The show airs in five hours. What do you do?

If you’re smart, you turn to the nearest dude with a phone and say, “Get me the Internet.”

Yesterday evening, a CBS-edited clip of Joaquin Phoenix’s appearance on Late Night With David Letterman began circulating around the web hours before the show actually hit the airways — Variety’s HAL Blog posted about it at 10 PM EST, Huffington Post at 10:09 PM EST, and Gawker at 10:15 PM EST.

In the clip packaged by CBS for distribution, Phoenix is almost entirely incoherent, hiding behind dark shades and chewing gum while Letterman tries to draw answers to the most simple questions out of him. It doesn’t take long, however, before Letterman begins lashing out with his trademark snark. It’s the polar opposite of last week’s Christian Bale flip-out: low-energy, incomprehensible, and very very deliberate in nature. It’s one thing to be accidentally recorded saying something inappropriate. But there’s no way Phoenix can claim to not know the cameras were rolling.

The edit of the video breaks up the rhythm of the interview, so the full awkwardness can’t be appreciated unless you watch the complete segment (a bootleg of which is currently available on YouTube). That’s in theory what CBS was hoping to do last night: lure gawkers (and Gawker readers) to tune in. But the editors might have done too good a job encapsulating the weirdest moments — either that, or the video didn’t get online in time to circulate widely enough. Either way, Letterman‘s ratings showed no visible improvement last night, going from a 3.8/10 on Tuesday to a 3.0/8 on Wednesday, and still coming in second to Leno.

However, on YouTube the video is currently one of the day’s most played, closing in on 500,000 views before noon PST. The mash-up potential is limited, due to the lack of catchphrases like “You and I are done professionally,” but it’s not hard to imagine this clip hitting 5 million views in a week’s time — and thus ultimately being seen by more people than watched it live. That’s the beauty of a cross-platform approach: If something doesn’t get momentum in one medium, it very well might in another one. Eventually, everyone sees it, which is great for CBS, though not so great for Phoenix. Unless this was part of an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt, in which case everyone wins.

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