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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Stars Use Late-Night TV for Damage Control

June 9, 2005

NEW YORK – Russell Crowe on the East Coast, Tom Cruise on the West Coast. It was dueling damage control on late-night TV. Crowe appeared on David Letterman’s “Late Show” Wednesday to apologize for throwing a tantrum and telephone at a hotel concierge, and show Americans he’s not always such a hothead.

At the same time, Cruise talked to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” to show fans that he may be crazy-in-love, but not crazy.

“If there’s levity surrounding it, it makes the moment a lot more palatable,” said veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman of fifteenminutes.com. “If you go on CNN, you’re not going to get the laughter.”

Going before Leno or Letterman to make fun of an embarrassing moment makes a celebrity seem like a regular guy or gal, with a healthy ability to laugh at themselves. Even if they’re not, of course. Politicians have known this for years.

The template for such appearances came in 1995, when actor Hugh Grant came to “Tonight” after his arrest with a prostitute.

Leno got a laugh – and got to the point – with his first question: “What the hell were you thinking?”

He also got huge ratings, and that moment actually proved the turning point where Leno eclipsed Letterman as the late-night king. It means, of course, that the late-night shows are as happy to get chagrined celebrities as the stars are for the venue.

Crowe had already been booked on Letterman to talk about his upcoming movie. But the show provided a perfect opportunity to talk about what was already on everyone’s mind.

“This is possibly the most shameful situation I’ve ever gotten myself in in my life, and I’ve done some pretty dumb things in my life,” the Australian actor said. “So to actually make a new number one is spectacularly stupid.”

Letterman’s sight gag – taking the phone off his desk and pre-emptively moving it offstage – was repeated on news shows the morning after.

That’s another big advantage: You’re trying to avoid news networks, but you get on them anyway – in a way that makes you look good.

“The media feed off each other,” Bragman said. “You really only need to go to one show and do it well.”

Cruise was trying to defuse an appearance on another talk show. People wondered if he’d become unhinged after he went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” last month and repeatedly jumped on her couch in excitement over his love affair with actress Katie Holmes.

So Cruise made fun of himself by jumping on Leno’s couch and pumping his arms to a cheering crowd.

“When I start to think of her, things happen,” he said.

The appearances are such a natural that it’s a wonder B-list celebrities don’t purposely get themselves in trouble to snag a Leno or Letterman date, said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

“You need TiVo to catch all the celebrity mea culpas,” Thompson said.

He’s not sure Cruise’s appearance did the trick.

“I think he probably didn’t hurt or didn’t help,” he said. “Russell Crowe did what he set out to do.”

If a public scolding is inevitable, at least the celebrities know it will come with a laugh attached on late-night TV. When sportscaster Marv Albert appeared on Letterman in 1997 after a sex scandal, he said he went through a curious period in his life.

Letterman’s response: “When I get curious, I turn on the Discovery Channel. Maybe you should do the same thing.”

Navigating the late-night world isn’t always easy. Paula Abdul only seemed to show the strain of her sex scandal when she appeared on “Saturday Night Live” last month. Paris Hilton drew more attention for petulantly backing out of a Letterman appearance when her sex tape was all the rage than when she eventually went on the show.

Still, it’s usually the best place for a celebrity to reach for a lifeline.

“Where else would you do this?” Thompson said. “If you do this in a serious venue, it would sound smarmy, produced and self-conscious. The best way to get out of (trouble) and get a few laughs is to have a late-night comic helping you through.”