Letterman Writer Outed Joaquin Phoenix Last Year, Contradicting New York Times Report


The now-infamous 2009 Joaquin Phoenix appearance on the David Letterman show was a hoax. The whole druggie rapper with a beard thing was, too, the New York Times “broke” this week when I’m Still Here director Casey Affleck called the entire stunt “the performance of [Phoenix’s] career.” But now that we know it’s a “performance” firsthand, there remains questions about who, exactly, was in on the stunt. Was Letterman? Affleck and the Times say no, though last year Letterman’s own writer said differently. (UPDATED below.)

At the time, we wrote of the Late Night appearance: “The budding hip-hop star may be drugged, or severely, clinically depressed, but either way it’s fun, isn’t it?” Musto wrote, “You have to see it to disbelieve it.” Later, of the project at large, we wrote dubiously, “we might have Borat to thank for [it] more than art.” But praised everywhere was Letterman’s hilarious handling of the situation, made better by the idea that it was all improvised based on Phoenix’s “surprising” behavior.

This week, via the Times:

Still, he acknowledged that Mr. Letterman was not in on the joke when Mr. Phoenix, on Feb. 11, 2009, seemed to implode his own career by showing up in character as a mumbling, aimless star gone wrong.

The claim goes un-challeneged by the paper, despite the fact that in August 2009, Letterman writer Bill Scheft outed the whole hoax in the tiny Indianapolis alt publication Nuvo, claiming that not only did Letterman know, but Scheft even wrote one of the jokes:

Nuvo: Tell me what it was like backstage after the Joaquin Phoenix appearance.

Scheft: First of all, that was all an act.

Nuvo: Even Dave’s part of it?

Scheft: Yeah. Think Andy Kaufman without shaving. That’s what he was doing. And Dave knew about it and Dave loved it because he could play along. He could do whatever he wanted with it. And he did, and it was great television. But I will take credit for the line, “I think I owe Farrah Fawcett an apology.” That line was mine. I gave that to him during the break.

Dave loves that. He had a ball. He likes anything that’s good television, and he knew that’s good television.

I’ve told people that (everyone was in on the joke), and not only don’t people believe me, they tell me that I’m wrong and that (Phoenix) is a schizophrenic and he needs help and he’s going to end up like his brother. I said no. I saw the segment notes. It’s an act. I saw Ben Affleck’s brother taping the whole thing from offstage.

What’s bizarre here is that not only does the Times get credit for breaking story of it being a hoax — which, fine, they got Affleck himself to admit it — but they ignore, or are at least ignorant to, the claims of someone who is essentially a co-writer of the Letterman scene — the film’s climax.

(h/t Roger Ebert)

UPDATE: Times arts writer Dave Itzkoff points us to a blog post in which Michael Cieply, the writer behind Affleck’s Times interview, addresses the Scheft comments:

In talking Thursday about his documentary, Mr. Affleck was clear that David Letterman was not in on the game — that Mr. Phoenix was in character for a fictional film — when he appeared on the show as a mumbling, stumbling mess back in 2009. But one reader maintains that the reality was slightly different. Marc Allan sent a link to an interview he did with the Letterman writer Bill Scheft last year. In it, Mr. Scheft said, “Dave knew about it and Dave loved it because he could play along.”

Mr. Scheft said he occasionally tried to tell people that Mr. Phoenix’s weird appearance was an act. But they would tell him he was wrong, that Mr. Phoenix “is a schizophrenic and he needs help.”

This seems to highlight an interesting philosophical difference that remains between blogs and newspapers (and newspapers with stellar blogs, like ArtsBeat) in which follow-up reporting is only indicated in one direction: from blog back to article, but not from article back to blog in a specific way, when a confounding update occurs. That is to say, we’re not yet at a point where will we see a Times article changed after the fact to reflect anything other than a more clear-cut correction. (The post is linked in the “Related” section of the original article, though the contradicting information is not noted.)

For anyone following this Phoenix madness, Cieply’s entire follow-up is a must-read.