Even a fatwa is grist for comedy when you're David Letterman.
Back from two weeks' vacation and making his first TV appearance since a threat against his life was posted on a jihadist website, the "Late Show" host played it for laughs during Monday's monologue.
Letterman began by thanking his studio audience for being there.
"Tonight," he said, "you people are more to me, honestly, than an audience -- you're more like a human shield."
Until Letterman delivered his jokes, his situation seemed no laughing matter. Last week, a frequent contributor to a jihadist website posted the threat against Letterman. He urged Muslim followers to "cut the tongue" of the late-night host because of a joke and gesture the comic had made about al-Qaida leaders on his CBS show earlier this summer.
"A guy, a radical extremist threatened to cut my tongue out," Letterman marveled during Monday's monologue. Then, referring to his disastrous turn hosting the 1995 Oscars, he added, "I wish I had a nickel for every time a guy has threatened [that]. I think the first time was during the Academy Awards."
"And so now," he continued, "State Department authorities are looking into this." But they could save themselves some time: "Everybody knows it's [Jay] Leno," he said.
One joke that may have helped spark the fatwa was among several lampooning al-Qaida in Letterman's June 8 monologue, just days after al-Qaida leader Ilyas Kashmiri was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
Though Kashmiri was rumored to be a long-shot choice to succeed Osama bin Laden, he wouldn't have worked out even had he lived, Letterman cracked, citing Kashmiri's "rocky start" as a front-runner: "He botched up the story of Paul Revere."
The real butt of that joke was Sarah Palin, a potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate, who in early June on her "One Nation" bus tour had claimed that Revere's famous ride was intended to warn British soldiers as well as his fellow colonists.
The website contributor, who identified himself as Umar al-Basrawi, railed in his post that Letterman had referred to both bin Laden and Kashmiri and said that Letterman, in discussing Kashmiri's death, had "put his hand on his neck and demonstrated the way of slaughter."
"Is there not among you a Sayyid Nosair al-Mairi to cut the tongue of this lowly Jew and shut it forever?" Al-Basrawi wrote, referring to El Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted in the 1990 killing of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane. Letterman is not Jewish.
The FBI said last week that it was looking into the threat.
While Letterman and his writers were polishing their jokes Monday afternoon, a bomb-sniffing dog was led around the periphery of the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan where the show originates.