Jeff Ross Explains His Infamous Bea Arthur Joke

August 15, 2018

Jeff Ross

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NEW YORK, April 27, 2009 — Comedian Jeff Ross told me the best Bea Arthur story you’re likely to read this week following the news that Arthur, the larger-than-life star of Broadway and TV, died over the weekend.

Ross’ story is about a notorious joke he told at a Friars Club Roast at Arthur’s expense, her reaction to it and what the joke did for his career.

Here he is in his own words, on the phone from Nashville, where he was performing:

“The joke was . . .  Sandra Bernhard had just sung this ridiculous song.  I can’t remember the name of the song she sang, she sang ‘Magic Man’ or something like that to Jerry Stiller.  He was the honoree, it was a Friars Club Roast in New York in 1999 and I can’t remember the song she sang, but it was very sexy obviously [and it]  made Jerry squirm, as he would whenever anything vulgar or dirty [was said].  He was very shy that way.  It was very funny to watch, and I went up next and I said, ‘Sandra Bernhard!  Holy shit!  I wouldn’t fuck you with Bea Arthur’s dick!’

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur

“I don’t know if there’s such a sound, but [it was] the only time I ever heard the sound of 2,000 jaws dropped all at once . . .  It was just sort of this weird black hole of a laugh, I guess.  [Then] it was probably a four-minute laugh, and really gave Bea time to sort of do her take.  [From her seat] she leered at me.  She gave me this hilarious stare, this stink-eye that made — let’s face it — an OK joke into a great moment, a great Roast moment.”

Why was Bea Arthur there in the first place?

“Friars Club Roasts are a show business tradition going back over 100 years.  It meant the world to Jerry Stiller that the Friars — I produced that show so I know — it meant the world to Jerry Stiller to be honored by his friends and family, his wife and comedy partner Anne Meara and his son and daughter, Amy and Ben, and then all these great comedians take time to write well-crafted jokes about  you.  Jerry understood that this was basically the Academy Awards of comedy.  This was a big night for him.

“So he invites his friends and Bea Arthur is a good friend of his for many years and he invited her and she was a willing participant.  And by the way, she had a great sense of humor and was a great sport about it.

“[After the show] I didn’t actually see her because she left and I went to an after-party and, you know, the cameras are rolling [and] you get pushed in 1,000 different directions.  But the next day I did send her flowers on behalf of myself and the Friars Club just for coming.  I was a producer on the show and just for being a good sport, I wanted to let her know that her presence was much appreciated, and the fact that she was so funny.

“She didn’t speak [as a performer at the Roast] that night, but her take, her look — you know, Milton Berle used to say, ‘They only remember the home runs,’ and that was a triple that she turned into a home run just by her hilarious stare.

“And then over time, I felt like she put me on the map because everywhere I went people were quoting this joke to me.  I’m hearing it all the time, it’s quoted in newspapers at the end of the year, it was part of all these roundups of the greatest lines of the year, and I’m realizing that I’m sort of getting a boost from this ridiculous joke that’s not even that funny.

“So time goes on and I just keep hearing about it and I figured that she must be hearing about it one way or another.  We’re sort of oddly linked.  A couple of years went by, I think, and finally I was just so curious about her take on it.  So I tracked her down.

“I googled her and looked up that her one-woman show was going to be in Los Angeles, so I went.  I got myself a ticket and she was awesome.  She sang beautiful songs that she had sung on Broadway, barefoot with a piano player.  It was very elegant, very tasteful and very moving.  She was an incredible performer and I got to see a different side of her which was really fun.  And afterwards I waited on line, a long line of fans, hundreds perhaps waiting to get a moment with her.  They were getting pictures and autographs.  They wanted to meet her.

“I purposely went to the very, very end of the line and I wanted to be last, and I just said as politely as I could I said, ‘You know, Miss Arthur, I  don’t know if you remember me, but we met at Jerry’s roast.’  Before I even got the last word out — ‘roast’ — she just stuck a finger right in my face and said, ‘You nailed me, you prick!’

“And we both laughed and she gave me a hug.   It was really cool knowing what a fun broad she was.”


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December 14, 2016

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Curated: My TV Howl late-night columns: 2010-14

April 10, 2014

Multi-talented Colbert is right man for the job

Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman as host of CBS's "Late Show" next year.

Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman as host of CBS’s “Late Show” next year.


NEW YORK, April 10, 2014 — It takes more than just stand-up comedy talent to qualify as a late-night host these days.

That’s the lesson of the announcement today that Stephen Colbert has been anointed David Letterman’s successor as host of “Late Show” on CBS.  With Letterman announcing just last week his intention to retire next year, CBS moved quickly to sign Colbert to a five-year contract — representing an extraordinary amount of faith in Colbert’s potential for not only maintaining CBS’s position in the late-night competition at 11:35, but also improving it.

For that role, Colbert, 49, emerges as the best man for the job.  Why?  Because he is multi-talented, which is suddenly a requirement for hosting a late-night show — a trend driven mainly by Jimmy Fallon.

Colbert might not possess Fallon’s talent for mimicry and celebrity impressions, but Colbert is an accomplished professional in all the other aspects of show business — particularly singing, dancing and acting.  He’s a shrewd showman who writes best-selling books, created a highly profitable show (“The Colbert Report”) built around a fictional character he developed and plays personally, and seems to create excitement and draw crowds wherever he goes.

With his abundance of theatrical talent (he’s formally trained in all the basics, from Northwestern), Colbert is more than a match for the multifaceted Fallon where it now counts the most — in the production of comedy-performance bits so arresting that they stand up to multiple viewings on video and social-media Web sites in the hours and days after they air for the first time on TV.

This is where Colbert’s “Late Show” and Fallon’s “Tonight Show” will battle it out most.  As for the time period’s other competitor, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” CBS’s hiring of Colbert gives Kimmel an opportunity to stand out from the others.  As Kimmel has long emphasized, he is more a “broadcaster” than a “comedian” — a recognition that he possesses none of  the basic performing skills of his competitors.  Still, his bits are wildly creative and they play well (and often better than Fallon’s) in the all-important video after-markets.

Two more things on this hiring of Colbert:

1) Some are concerned that Colbert won’t be able to make the transition from the “Stephen Colbert” character he plays on Comedy Central to the real Colbert.  That happens to be a non-issue.  He’ll do fine as the “real” guy behind the “Late Show” desk.

2) What about Conan? Thank you to all of the hundreds of you who visited TVHowl over the past week to read my post from a year ago suggesting that Conan O’Brien would be a great choice to replace Letterman when the time comes for Letterman to call it a day.  Alas — it is not to be.  The Conan story is an interesting one: There was a time when he really was the late-night heir-apparent — if not “The Tonight Show” (we all know what happened there) then the “Letterman” show.  Unfortunately, if this was still an ambition of Conan’s, to break into the network fray at 11:35 p.m., then this once-every-20-years generational shift in late-night TV seems to have passed him by.


An aging generation mourns loss of Jay, Dave 

END OF AN ERA: For millions of us, late-night television will always be represented by these two -- David Letterman and Jay Leno (inset) who battled it out for 20 years. Photos: NBC, CBS

END OF AN ERA: For millions of us, late-night television will always be represented by these two — David Letterman and Jay Leno (inset) — who battled it out for 20 years. Photos: NBC, CBS


NEW YORK, April 4, 2014 — What about us?

We are the ones who have lost our late-night TV.

We are the group for whom the Golden Age of late-night television is not necessarily represented by Johnny Carson (though we may have watched him in his final years).  And we are the ones who don’t feel much warmth for the new hyper-active generation of late-night hosts — the Jimmys and the rest of them.

We are the habitual watchers of late-night TV for whom the 20-year reign of David Letterman and Jay Leno will always represent the heart and soul of this most-intimate of TV time periods.  And now, that era — when, for the most part, there were only two stars in late-night who anybody cared about — is over.

The phrase “end of an era” is a cliche I usually try and avoid using, but when Letterman announced Thursday night that he’s packing it in, it felt sincerely like an era was coming to a close.

It’s an aspect of Letterman’s retirement announcement that’s being largely neglected in much of the commentary you might be reading today that analyzes the late-night landscape as Letterman prepares to leave: It’s the end of the Leno-Letterman era — an era as distinct and important to the history of television as the Carson era was in its time, and the current multi-splintered era of late-night television is now.

It was the era of “The Two.”  It began on  August 30, 1993 — the day David Letterman’s new “Late Show” debuted at 11:30 on CBS.  Jay Leno had already been hosting “The Tonight Show” on NBC since May 1992, when he took over for Carson.

From that August day in 1993 until Jan. 8, 2013 — the day ABC shifted “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to the 11:35 p.m. time period — Jay and Dave, for all intents and purposes, had the time period to themselves.  And for millions of us, toggling between the two of them between 11:35 p.m. and 12:35 a.m. while preparing to go to sleep became a nightly habit for the better part of 20 years.

And now, with Leno gone since February and Letterman set to say farewell next year, late-night television will officially pass into its new and present era — the one most of the commentators are writing about today: The era of the two Jimmys, Conan, Arsenio, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and the rest.

The problem for me and for millions like me: The present era of late-night TV holds much less allure for us.  We can’t seem to warm to the relentless comedy capers of Fallon, Kimmel and the rest — as they strive more for views on YouTube than for ratings on their shows.  With this new generation of late-night hosts, the shows are more cacophonous, if not obnoxious.

Hey, I admit it: I’m 54, and the hijinks of younger people are less and less interesting or entertaining to me as I grow older.  To anyone who is not necessarily turned off by the current generation of late-night stars, I say: Enjoy them.

But for me and, I suspect, millions like me, our habitual watching of late-night television is slowly coming to an end, right along with the closing of the Letterman-Leno era.


The rights and wrongs of Fallon’s debut

Jimmy Fallon in his debut as host of "The Tonight Show" Monday night. (Photo: NBC)

Jimmy Fallon in his debut as host of “The Tonight Show” Monday night. (Photo: NBC)


NEW YORK, Feb. 18, 2014 — Jimmy Fallon and his handlers got a great deal of it right in producing his debut show as host of “The Tonight Show” Monday night.

The set was beautiful — a classy interior that reflected the iconic architecture of midtown Manhattan where the newly relocated “Tonight Show” is now situated.

The show made the most of its new New York  home when it featured a sunset performance by U2 on the roof of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  It was as if to say to doubters who pooh-poohed the show’s move from California (doubters such as yours truly): Here’s why we moved from boring suburban Burbank to the very center of New York City,  OK?

And, as if to dispel the notion that New York would not be as fertile a location as southern California for accessing A-list guests (again, yours truly is guilty as charged with promoting this perception), a parade of A-listers came on one at a time to participate in an elaborate comedy bit “welcoming” Jimmy to “The Tonight Show” — from Robert De Niro to Lady Gaga.

They’re both closely associated with New York City, but at least one of the other stars was not — Kim Kardashian — who’s a southern California celebrity if there ever was one.  She’s also the only one of the celebs seen Monday night on “Tonight” who was also seen on Jay Leno’s final show earlier this month, providing (perhaps inadvertently) the only discernible link between the two shows.

In fact, Fallon’s “Tonight Show” was so shiny and new and full of upbeat energy that it was easy to forget that Leno was last seen a mere 12 days earlier.   While watching the debut of the Fallon “Tonight Show” Monday night, it seemed as if Leno had been gone a lot longer, and his “Tonight Show” a relic of the distant past, rather than a show that ran for the better part of 22 years and ended only on Feb. 6.

One nice touch: Positioning the U2 rooftop performance in the middle of the show,something late-night shows never do traditionally.  Placing the musical guests at the end of the show — as all of the shows do — is so customary that slotting the U2 number earlier in the show was a downright revolutionary thing to do.  I found myself thinking: Hey, are they allowed to do that?  It turns out that they are.

The only weakness of the show was, again, Fallon’s comportment with his guests.  With both Will Smith and U2, Fallon played the role of the wide-eyed, grinning, giggling fan who just can’t believe that these stars are sitting there in the same room with him.

It’s an attitude he ought to lose: The top-tier hosts in late-night have never affected that pose.  David Letterman, Jay Leno, even Jimmy Kimmel — they always come across as if they regard these celebrities as their equals, not as sacred idols whose presence on their shows constitutes some sort of miracle.

That was the style established by Johnny Carson, whose mantle Jimmy Fallon now wears, for better or worse.  Get used to it.


Children’s hour: Fallon takes over ‘Tonight’

MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND: Jimmy Fallon drenches Tom Cruise with water on NBC's "Late Night."

MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND: Jimmy Fallon drenches Tom Cruise with water on NBC’s “Late Night.”



NEW YORK, Feb. 14, 2014 — No one in their right mind would describe Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” as sophisticated, but it’s sure going to seem that way when it is compared to what we’re in for when Jimmy Fallon takes over.

Fallon’s “Tonight Show” takeover, which starts Monday night, represents a high-profile triumph for the forces of immaturity.  He is the embodiment of the Peter Pan mentality that seems to have  gripped a generation of young men for whom childlike pranks and games are the most important things in life.

RACER'S EDGE: Josh Duhamel (right) in an ice-chest go-cart race with Jimmy Fallon.

RACER’S EDGE: Josh Duhamel (right) in an ice-chest go-cart race with Jimmy Fallon.

Not satisfied with simply talking to his guests, Fallon is like a hyperactive child with ants in his pants who always seems on the verge of leaping from his chair.  Maybe that’s because he simply can’t wait for the fun-and-games portion of the show, when he will force some hapless guest to race him down a back hallway in a go-cart, join him in an egg-smashing contest, or get drenched with a Super Soaker.

Since Fallon has insisted repeatedly — without apparent embarrassment — that he plans to basically do the show he’s been doing when he assumes his “starring” role on “The Tonight Show,” then we can assume he plans on turning “The Tonight Show” into some kind of late-night version of “Double Dare.”

Warning to anyone sitting in Fallon’s “Tonight Show” guest chair: You might get slimed.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with having fun on a late-night show.  But the key to success in late-night, among other things, has traditionally been the host’s — and his support personnel’s — skill in balancing their show’s more manic portions with the quieter segments, which, generally speaking, are the celebrity-guest portions.

EGGHEADS: Tom Cruise and Fallon have an egg war.

EGGHEADS: Tom Cruise and Fallon have an egg war.

One could argue that the celebrity interview portions of the late-night shows are often the dullest parts of the shows, but that all depends on the guest and the interviewing skills of the host.

David Letterman happens to be good  at this, and Jimmy Kimmel does a fair job as well.

No one will ever accuse Jay Leno of possessing interviewing skills on par with Barbara Walters, but Leno made his celebrity guests feel relaxed and comfortable and the segments seemed tailor-made for the half-hour after midnight when a great chunk of his viewing audience was closing in on bedtime.

One of Fallon’s problems is that he seems incapable of carrying on a conversation with a guest that consists of anything more than Fallon fawning all over him (or her).  As a result, he relies heavily on back-hallway footraces to relieve him of the apparent torture of talking to somebody.

The last thing any late-night viewer needs is to be suddenly jolted into full wakefulness by a grown man — Fallon — suddenly breaking into a water balloon war with Tom Cruise.  Sure, this stuff seemed to go over well with Fallon’s audience at 12:37 a.m. perhaps because they were on the younger side and not particularly put off by Fallon’s “Romper Room” mentality.

But “The Tonight Show” is not “Romper Room.”  Traditionally, “The Tonight Show” has been a show by and for grownups — not old people, just mature ones.  I suppose it’s asking too much to hope that Fallon, who’s 39 for heaven’s sake, will grow up by Monday night.


Annals of Leno: 4 biggest ways NBC insulted Jay

Jay-Leno z

END OF AN ERA: Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” 1992-2014.


NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2014 — In these final days of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” NBC’s indifference to Leno has been breathtaking.

Here’s a guy who maintained the network’s dominance in the one time period left where this once-mighty network could still lay claim to a top ranking in the Nielsen ratings, and yet, you get the feeling that NBC can’t wait until he vacates the premises.

The way he’s being treated, you would think he was personally offensive or something — like an unwanted guest with body odor.

Here are four ways NBC has insulted a man who is, arguably, the network’s top star:

1) They gave Jimmy Fallon “starring” billing: This is an important point.   In show business, billing is everything.  So when Fallon was awarded “starring” billing in the new “Tonight Show” title (as in, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”), you had to wonder why NBC never gave Leno “starring” billing (his show was always “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”).  The last person to have “starring” in the show’s title was Johnny Carson.  Tradition seemed to hold that one might earn “starring” billing after a number of years in the job — which means Leno should have earned it long ago.  But he never got it.

2) They’re moving “The Tonight Show” to New York: This idea is still puzzling since such a move would seem to instantly handicap the new “Tonight Show” in its pursuit of guests — the majority of whom can be found in California.  The reasons for the move probably have more to do with a personal preference on the part of Fallon or, more to the point, his boss Lorne Michaels, for living on the East Coast.  Whatever.  The point here is: The move is another slap at Leno, implying that, somehow, the West Coast “Tonight Show” became so tattered and woebegone when he hosted it that drastic measures such as moving the show to New York simply had to be undertaken in order to rejuvenate and save the show (which happens to be No. 1 in late-night).

3) They are largely ignoring Leno’s final shows: There is none of the buildup — in the form of promo spots or general excitement — that came in the days leading up to Carson’s farewell in 1992.  And even though Leno’s “Tonight Show” has far fewer viewers than Carson’s did at that time, Leno still deserves attention in these final days — if only to drive up the ratings for his final shows for the sake of earning more money from advertisers.  Instead, when you watch these final shows, you get the feeling Leno and his staff are just kind of winging it on their own — producing various “best-of” segments, and booking guests with long ties to the show and to Leno.  In fact, these farewell shows have been quite good — and once again, the only people who appreciate them are the people who have watched Leno all along.

But not NBC, of course.  Instead, Leno is getting showcased everywhere else — including a profile and interview on “60 Minutes” on CBS, an appearance on his friend Ellen DeGeneres’ afternoon talk show, and last Friday, a one-hour special about his life and career on CNN.  But on NBC?  So far, nothing.

4) They booted him from the show in the first place: As written many times previously (at least by me), NBC never really had to remove Leno, since he was leading all the competition in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo the networks crave.  Instead, the network programming execs could have simply focused on everything else that’s wrong on the network — from mornings to prime time.  But hey, what do I know …

To his credit, Leno isn’t revealing how he really feels about the way NBC has treated him.  In the “60 Minutes” interview, he adopted a hard-headed, business-like approach to the situation.  Simply put, the money NBC pays him (which he himself agreed to reduce voluntarily not long ago in order to save some jobs on the “Tonight Show” staff) makes the insults easier to swallow.  Said he, “Look, show business pays you a lot of money, because eventually you’re gonna get screwed. …  That’s the way it works.  That’s the way these things are.”


Aftermath: 4 million Leno viewers up for grabs


Jay Leno (right) and Jimmy Fallon in a publicity shot created by NBC last year.


NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2014 — It’s the big question underlying the Jay Leno-Jimmy Fallon switch on “The Tonight Show”: WWTTSFMVD?

That ungainly (and none too clever) acronym means this: What will “The Tonight Show’s” 4 million viewers do?

Four million is the Leno show’s nightly average (most recently for the week of Jan. 13-17).  An hour later, NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” averages around 2 million per night (2.1 million that same week).   Which means: To equal Leno’s average in total viewers: Fallon will need to add about 2 million viewers a night — almost twice the audience he now draws at 12:35 a.m.

He’ll need fewer than that 2 million to beat David Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC at 11:35 though.  Kimmel averages around 2.5 million viewers a night.  Letterman had a nightly average of 2.9 million during the week of Jan. 13-17.

But that’s the battle for “total viewers,” which doesn’t mean much when it comes to selling lucrative commercial minutes in late-night.  The more crucial battleground is the demo race — viewers 18-49 — the so-called “younger” viewers networks crave.

Guess who always wins that battle? Jay Leno — the “old” guy NBC is jettisoning for the “young” guy Fallon.  Leno, 63, had a 0.9 rating in 18-49s during the week of Jan. 13-17.  He beat Letterman, 66, and Kimmel, 46, who tied at 0.6.  At 12:35, Fallon, 39, had a 0.7 rating in the demo — which means he could win the demo race against Letterman and Kimmel at 11:35.

In a nutshell, that’s the reason NBC is moving Fallon to “The Tonight Show” in the earlier time period — because the network believes he can maintain, or possibly improve on, Leno’s dominance in the demo.  Of course, one could argue that the network could just as well have kept Leno there, since he was winning the demo already.  But as far as arguments go, that ship has sailed.

The question remains: What will these 4 million viewers do?  It’s not an easy question to answer:

1) A number of them could go to Letterman: If you subscribe to the theory that older viewers (the ones not in the key target demo anyway) will likely seek out Leno’s only remaining age-group peer in late-night television, then Letterman could experience a sudden spike in viewership.  In fact, it could be enough for Dave to reclaim the top spot in total viewers for the first time since 1995.

2) On the other hand, Leno’s fans chose Jay for years over Letterman: Though they’re close in age, Leno and Letterman are far different, with distinct styles and audiences.  They are so different that the last thing a long-time Leno fan might do is suddenly adopt a nightly Letterman habit.  It’s just as unlikely that Fallon or Kimmel will emerge as credible substitutes for Leno either.  It could come to pass that at least some of these 4 million viewers — perhaps the older ones — might give up on late-night TV altogether.

3) Some of the 4 million will stick around, though, and seek out a new show to watch every night.  And it’s entirely possible they’ll bypass Letterman in favor of Fallon and/or Kimmel.  Still, for the diehard Leno fan of a certain age, the younger, manic comedy of Fallon will take some getting used-to.  (Really — sometimes watching Fallon is like watching a hyperactive child.)   As for Kimmel, he has a comedic point-of-view that’s all his own, and he has been famously outspoken about his personal distaste for Leno — which could prevent some Leno fans from adopting a Kimmel habit.  One possible scenario: The Leno audience will get split primarily between Fallon and Letterman, leaving Kimmel pretty much where he is now, with 2.5 million viewers nightly.


NBC’s bold move: Fix a show that wasn’t broken



NEW YORK, April 4, 2013 — They didn’t have to do anything.

That’s what’s so mysterious about NBC’s decision to push Jay Leno out the door to pave the way for Jimmy Fallon to take over “The Tonight Show.”

Lost in all the hysteria in the 24 hours since the announcement (not to mention all the tumult behind the scenes and on stage over the last several weeks) was this simple fact: “The Tonight Show” was fine, and NBC could have kept Leno around for years and it still would have been fine.

Instead, you have a network and its executives behaving as if “The Tonight Show” was an old wooden house that was burning to the ground, and they’re a group of firemen who have been called upon in a dire emergency to save it.

So they applied the most drastic measures possible — awarding the show to another younger guy who, like Conan O’Brien before him, acquits himself well every night on the network’s other late-night show, but who, like Conan, is no sure thing in the earlier time period.

And as if that wasn’t enough to extinguish the “blazing inferno” that is late-night’s highest-rated show, the network decides to move the show to New York from Los Angeles — the city where it reigned supreme in its time period for most of its 42 years there.

Certainly, the real conflagration burning down the house at NBC is its prime-time lineup — which for years now has featured show after show after show that no one wants to watch.  Meanwhile, with Jay Leno as host, “The Tonight Show” has been a show people want to watch for 22 years.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon is being portrayed by NBC as the man who will “save” “The Tonight Show” — a show that didn’t need saving.

So why’d they do it?  A couple of theories on that — all wrong-headed:

1) Jay, who will be 63 this month, was getting too old, and if he continued as host and aged on the air, younger viewers would abandon him for Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. 

This happens to be hogwash.  Leno has been aging on the air for 20 years and has long held his own with the younger viewers NBC craves.  The thing about this “aging” issue: When a TV personality becomes “too old” to continue, it becomes fairly obvious to everyone.  Clearly, Leno’s voice still booms and, to all appearances, he seems to maintain a hale and hearty constitution.  Who knows: Maybe as he approached 70, he would have seemed “too old” to host a late-night show.  Or maybe he would have become even more beloved.  Who knows?  We’ll never know now.

Moreover, it’s doubtful that Fallon, at least in his first year or more, will equal Leno’s ratings in total viewers (that is, people of any and all ages), even if he draws a respectable number of younger viewers.  Thus, with Fallon, NBC will draw fewer viewers overall, but it might get a bump up in the 18-49 demo.  That’s wrong-headed for a very basic reason: At its core, network TV is supposed to be about growing audiences, not accepting lower ones, for whatever the reason.

2) If Fallon wasn’t guaranteed “The Tonight Show” in this round of contract negotiations (which apparently wrapped the day before NBC’s announcement this week), then he’d leave for another network. 

Maybe he’d even replace Letterman on CBS in a few years and would then be competing with NBC.  Or maybe not.  The real question is: Who cares?  This reason is always trotted out by some at times like these, as if a talent like Fallon is so irreplaceable that the network’s very future hangs in the balance.  It’s just not true.  Or, at the very least, one has no way of knowing if it will be true or not.   Thus, there’s no rational reason to base decision-making on that kind of “what if.”

And by the way, there’s no guarantee that Fallon will do any better in the ratings on “The Tonight Show” than he’s doing on “Late Night.”   Nor is there any evidence he would beat the pants off NBC if he wound up elsewhere.  Here’s a prediction: When Fallon takes over “The Tonight Show,” that show’s traditional viewers will flock to Letterman and Dave will emerge as the top-rated personality in late-night.

3) “The Tonight Show” needed fixing: On the contrary, “The Tonight Show” is a well-oiled machine, functioning in all ways as it is supposed to — writers and producers creating funny, topical monologues for the host, dreaming up comedy bits, and booking A-list celebrities for Leno to chat with and musical guests to end each evening.  It’s not rocket science, but nor is it easy to do. And yet, NBC has decided the time is ripe to completely dismantle and uproot this thing.

And by the way, part of the show’s success stems from its location in southern California, where it is well-established as a must-visit destination for every TV, movie and music star in the area — which happens to be most of them.  Moving this show to New York, where it will be just another NBC late-night show originating from 30 Rock, just feels like the wrong move.

The bottom line is: What if NBC had just done nothing, and instead focused its attention on the dayparts that are really in trouble — such as prime time and mornings?  Here’s another prediction: The world would not end.   And NBC would have had something to brag about — a nearly unbroken record of dominance in late-night.    And now?  Who knows?


Fallon in 2011: I’ll take over when Jay’s ready 

Jimmy Fallon ponders the possibility of replacing Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."

Jimmy Fallon ponders the possibility of replacing Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”


NEW YORK, May 29, 2013 — Jimmy Fallon said two years ago he’d “love” to host “The Tonight Show,” but only when Jay Leno “is ready” to hand over the reins.

Fallon said it on Ellen DeGeneres’  talk show in March 2011.  It was a time, much like the present day, when stories were circulating that NBC was grooming Fallon to take over “The Tonight Show.”

“If they offered that to you, would you go into that time slot?” Ellen asked Fallon, who first gave a less-than-serious answer.

“Letterman did [NBC’s “Late Night”] and then he went to CBS,” Fallon said.  “Then Conan did [it] and he’s at TBS.  So I think if there’s a lesson to be learned, if you do this, you’re guaranteed not to host ‘The Tonight Show’!”

Turning serious, Fallon said, “Of course, I’d love to do it whenever Jay’s ready, if Jay wants to retire.”

Why bring this up? Simply because it can be instructive sometimes to comb through the archives for instances where history repeats itself.  As far as I can tell, that round of stories about Fallon replacing Leno originated in December 2010 with a New York Post story that reported Fallon was even then being eyed to take over for Jay.

Granted, the stories back then were less specific than the stories circulating now that say Fallon’s “Tonight Show” takeover is, for all intents and purposes, a done deal — with Fallon set to replace Leno in summer 2014, after Jay gets a final “farewell” season starting in September.

In addition, it’s always interesting to go back to past statements — like the ones Fallon made that day on “Ellen” — to assess their relevance in light of more recent events.  Certainly, Fallon’s assertion then that he would “love” taking over “The Tonight Show” only if and when Leno is ready to retire may have been wholly sincere.

But the fact is, all the recent stories about NBC’s Fallon-Leno replacement plan (which the network has yet to confirm) indicate that Leno is not “ready” nor is he thinking about retirement.  Instead, NBC is expected to force the issue by not renewing his contract when it expires next year.

And in response, Leno’s been defiantly fighting back as only he knows how — by skewering his network with monologue jokes almost nightly for the better part of three weeks.

So, how does Fallon feel today about taking over “The Tonight Show” at a time when Leno, by all appearances, does not seem “ready” to retire?  Fallon has made no comment this time around like the ones he made on “Ellen” two years ago.


Leno jokes: ‘Young’ Jay will replace ‘old’ Dave 

David Letterman (left) is three years older than Jay Leno.

David Letterman (left) is three years older than Jay Leno.


NEW YORK, March 28, 2013 — Jay Leno returned to joking about NBC in his “Tonight Show” monologue Wednesday night, but he reserved his best comedic “comment” on his situation for the show’s second segment.

It was the nightly comedy bit that always comes after the monologue segment.  Wednesday’s was called “What’s Trending Tomorrow” — a parody of what’s trending “today” on social media, with Jay pushing the subject forward to “tomorrow.”

The item about late-night TV was a great joke, and possibly the most direct comment Leno has made — comedically, of course — about the rumors swirling around him that he’ll be replaced next year.  While most of the jibes he’s delivered since March 11 about the late-night situation and NBC’s struggle for prime-time ratings have fallen just short of including the key details, this was the first time he has mentioned the name of the man who will likely replace him, Jimmy Fallon.  Leno also mentioned David Letterman, who was a key part of the punchline.

In the bit, Jay said: “Trending right now … Jay Leno beset by rumors he’s being replaced by a younger host [a picture of Jimmy Fallon was then shown on a screen behind Jay].  Trending tomorrow … David Letterman also being replaced by a younger host …  [then a photo of Leno himself was shown].  Yeah!  Yeah! There you go!” Leno said.  “I like that one!  That was a fun one.”

He was right — it was a fun one.  For the record, Fallon is 38, Leno is 62 and Letterman is 65 (Leno and Letterman will be 63 and 66, respectively, next month).

Leno opened his Wednesday monologue with an NBC joke — the first one he delivered since last Friday (after abstaining from the NBC jibes on Monday and Tuesday of this week).

“Folks, oh, my God, listen to this,” Leno said.  “Monday night the [NBC] prime-time shows ‘The Voice’ and ‘Revolution’ moved NBC into the No. 2 position.  You know what that means?  No. 2 — between Easter and Passover, this is truly the season of miracles!  We’re No. 2!  We’re No. 2!  Amazing! …  And I’ve been saying that for the last week, that NBC is a big No. 2!  Haven’t I been saying that?  Congratulations!”

A few minutes later, Jay delivered a second NBC joke, this one referring to the sanctity of contracts: “Speaking of T-Mobile,” he said (following a joke about a prison inmate who tried to smuggle a cellphone into a California prison for Charlie Manson), “they announced yesterday they are doing away with contracts.  So apparently they got the idea from NBC!  I’m not sure how that works!”

Of course, no rumor has yet suggested that NBC seeks to break or otherwise “do away” with Leno’s contract.  The reports have said only that he’s not likely to get a new contract when his current one expires in 2014 — which is when he would then be replaced by Fallon.


Move ‘The Tonight Show’ to NYC? Fuhgettaboutit

LA 3

Tale of two cities: NBC’s Burbank headquarters (top), home of Jay Leno; and (bottom) NBC Studios in New York, home base for Jimmy Fallon.


NEW YORK, March 22, 2013 — Moving “The Tonight Show” to New York would be a huge mistake.

Why?  Because it will instantly rob the show of the one advantage it has been able to count on for decades as the No. 1 show in late-night: First dibs on Los Angeles-based guests.  And since L.A. is where 90 percent of the nation’s top movie, TV and music stars live and work, it stands to reason that a show like “The Tonight Show” would want to preserve that access.

But no.  Reports this week have NBC ramping up the construction of a new studio within its 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York that would be the new home of “The Tonight Show” hosted by Jimmy Fallon.  The move would uproot the show from southern California, where it has reigned as the top-rated show in late-night for the better part of 41 years.

Even worse, NBC would be voluntarily ceding its hard-won top position in the L.A. booking wars to the one guy whose move to an earlier time period has given NBC and its executives so much angst in the first place, Jimmy Kimmel.

When or if “The Tonight Show” moves to New York, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will instantly become the first choice for L.A.-based celebrities and their publicity handlers — easily out-booking Craig Ferguson on CBS and Conan O’Brien on TBS.  Meanwhile, in New York, the new Fallon “Tonight Show” will be competing for guests — always a more-limited pool of them in New York, compared to L.A. — with David Letterman.

And unless Fallon can maintain “The Tonight Show’s” top position in the ratings, Letterman will be first in line for top celebrities when they’re in New York.  Can you imagine?  Guests will appear on “Letterman” on CBS, and then, the next evening, they’ll be on Fallon’s “Tonight Show” — signaling to anyone who watches late-night TV that NBC is no longer in the driver’s seat.

In fact, that scenario is what happens now with A-list guests in New York — they go on “Letterman” first and then show up the next day on Fallon’s “Late Night.”  So how will “The Tonight Show” benefit from playing second fiddle to Letterman?  The answer: It won’t.

So why is NBC considering this move in the first place?  I suspect it has to do with issues of internal management combined with a dash of wishful thinking.

Network executives might feel the consolidation of NBC’s three big late-night shows — “Tonight,” “Late Night” and “Saturday Night Live”– under one roof will somehow bring all three shows into some kind of hoped-for creative uniformity based somewhat on the successful “SNL” model.  Fallon’s “Late Night” is heavy on “SNL”-type sketch comedy and it is assumed that it will continue in that vein with probable new host Seth Meyers.  The aim would then be to transform “The Tonight Show” into the same kind of show — all under overseer Lorne Michaels, of course.

Michaels would probably relish the opportunity to assume control of “The Tonight Show.”  He may even feel he deserves it, because of all he has contributed to NBC’s success in late-night over the years.  He wouldn’t be entirely wrong there, and NBC might be willing to reward his loyalty,  hard work, and talent for generating profits with this new trophy.  In addition, NBC might feel that the “SNL” approach is only possible in New York for some reason.

Moreover, the last time they moved a New York guy to L.A. — Conan — it didn’t work out.  So maybe they’re reluctant to send another New York guy to the West Coast.  Or maybe Fallon is dead set against moving to California (although I doubt this).  Whatever is going on behind the scenes at 30 Rock, none of it seems compelling enough to propel moving “The Tonight Show” to New York.

The wishful thinking part is this: That when it comes to booking guests, so many of them come to New York on their publicity tours for new projects that there are more than enough A-level celebrities running around midtown at any given time that there’s no longer a shortage of them these days for the New York-based late-night shows.

Why is that thinking “wishful”?  Because it’s not true.  Despite all the talk shows here, and all the celebs that parachute in to make the talk-show rounds, there are never enough to go around — which creates “slack” times when talk shows struggle for top guests.

This is a truism that cannot be wished away.  It’s also a truism that one of the advantages “The Tonight Show” has enjoyed for 41 years has been its position at the pinnacle of the Hollywood establishment — first with Carson and then with Leno, who’s a Hollywood/Beverly Hills insider if there ever was one.

The reasons NBC has for moving “The Tonight Show” to New York City would seem to have everything to do with internal network politics, and nearly nothing to do with benefiting the show and ensuring its future as TV’s top-rated late-night show.

Of course, will someone please explain to me why NBC is monkeying around with this show in the first place, when so many other issues — most notably, prime time and mornings — would seem to demand the majority of the company’s attention at this time?

In the final analysis, moving the show back to New York after 41 years of success and warm-weather comfort in southern California makes about as much sense as bringing the Dodgers back to Brooklyn.


Complete timeline of Jay Leno’s war with NBC


Jay Leno (Photo: NBC)



NEW YORK, March 20, 2013 — While other Web sites are just beginning now to cover the story of Jay Leno’s war on NBC, I’ve been following it ever since it first began on March 11.

That was the day — a Monday — that Leno and “The Tonight Show” returned from a week off.  As a result, it was Leno’s first opportunity to comment on a story that broke 10 days earlier, at the very beginning of the show’s one-week hiatus — that NBC was close to having a plan in place to replace Leno with Jimmy Fallon in summer 2014.

The story from The Hollywood Reporter broke on the evening of Friday, March 1, after that evening’s “Tonight Show” had been taped and the show’s writers and producers had decamped for their one-week break.

Leno made no public comments about the story during the week the show was dark — March 4-8 — but on that very first night back on March 11, he expressed his displeasure with the story as only he can — in his “Tonight Show” monologue.  It’s a familiar pattern with Leno: He doesn’t comment directly on the situation in his jokes and comments, but the message isn’t lost on his audience, who knows exactly what he’s talking about — and Jay knows it.

Since no one else has covered this story as completely as I have, here’s a complete timeline of Leno’s jokes and comments about NBC since March 11, through Friday, March 22.

Monday, March 11

Two monologue jokes dealt directly with the replacement story (but without mentioning the story specifically), starting with: “You all look surprised to see me!  I’m shocked!”  (He was reacting to the standing ovation he received from the studio audience when he came on stage.)

Then, later in the monologue, he said: “According to a survey, 12 percent of workers admit to having sex at work. Now, I myself have never had sex at work. I’ve been screwed by my employer, but I have never, never, never had sex!”

A third monologue joke poked fun at NBC’s ongoing struggle in the prime-time ratings race, which has it ranked fifth among all major networks — ranking behind even Spanish-language Univision.  “Right before he died, [late Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez did have some last words,” Jay said. “He said he was just happy he lived long enough to see Univision beat NBC!”

Tuesday, March 12

This monologue had two jokes that were even more pointed than the ones Leno delivered the evening before: “You know, we were on vacation last week,” he said, opening Tuesday’s monologue (after taking the stage for a second consecutive standing ovation).  “And when I came back yesterday, NBC had really beefed up security. Yet, despite that, I was still able to get on the lot!”

The second joke that evening, this one having to do with the resignation of Pope Benedict: “And of course rumors are flying at the Vatican,” Leno said. “The latest one, according to the Italian press, is that Pope Benedict did not retire. They say he was forced out by NBC!”

Friday, March 15

For some reason, Leno let the subject rest on March 13 and 14.  But on  Friday, March 15, he was back at it, for reasons related first to the day’s date, and also to one of the evening’s guests, fellow late-night host Craig Ferguson of CBS.  Here’s the monologue joke Leno delivered that evening: “You know what today is?” Today [March 15] is the Ides of March. This is when Julius Caesar was stabbed in the back by the people he trusted. Not a good day to be working at NBC!”

Then, later, Leno and Ferguson (who hosts “Late Late Show” on CBS) had this exchange, in which Leno expressed his frustration with NBC executives:

“I don’t know what your relationship is like with NBC,” Ferguson said, after Leno asked Craig how it’s going at CBS.

“I have a very good relationship with CBS and I know you have a very good relationship with NBC,” said Ferguson, who obviously knew that wasn’t true. “But I do like the feeling of being able to go and do standup [comedy] just in case anything goes wrong and I have to earn a living outside of the world of [late-night TV] …”

“That’s true because when you do this show you don’t really know how you’re doing,” Leno said.  “You get notes like this [Jay picks up a blue note card and reads], um, ‘You’re not doing well with immature boys between 11 and 14, so if you could do something … ’ So you don’t really know!”

By contrast, Leno said of his outside standup work, “When you go out on the road, they laugh, you get your check, you move on. You don’t get the network notes.”

“Yeah, you’re autonomous,” Ferguson said.

Then, on the evening of March 15, at around the same time that “The Tonight Show” was being taped on the West Coast, the New York Times posted a story on its Web site that said Leno had clashed recently with the head of NBC programming, Robert Greenblatt, who was reportedly unhappy with the many jokes Leno had been doing the last few weeks about NBC’s ratings woes.

Monday, March 18

So, on Monday, March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, came a monologue joke that played like a reaction to the Greenblatt story: “You know the whole legend of St. Patrick, right?  St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland — and then they came to the United States and became NBC executives. It’s a fascinating story!”

Tuesday, March 19

Then, on Tuesday, March 19, came this joke referring to NBC’s ratings struggle: “Did you hear about this?  A 28-year-old woman from Serbia has a rare brain condition where she sees everything upside down.  The good news? She’s now been given a job at the White House as President Obama’s economic adviser!”

And here’s the part about NBC: “Isn’t that crazy? It’s unbelievable. She sees everything upside down. In fact, she thinks NBC is at the top of the ratings!”

Then, in a comedy bit titled “Midseason Replacements” — in which Leno presented brief “trailers” for fictional midseason shows — Leno made another reference to NBC’s low ratings.  It was just after he showed a “clip” from a show called “Mourning Wood,” about a man named Wood whose wife had just died:  “I think NBC’s got a hit on its hands with that one.  I think that’s gonna be our turnaround show!”

Wednesday, March 20

In this monologue joke, Leno likened NBC to the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era: “This is kind of scary.  Scientists say they’re getting closer and closer to being able to do ‘Jurassic Park’-style cloning of extinct species.  Imagine that? Things that were once thought to be extinct could now be brought back from the dead, so there’s hope for NBC!  It could turn around!”

Thursday, March 21

Leno opened his monologue with this joke: “You all excited about March Madness?  You into March Madness?  People talk about who’s in, who’s out, who’s gonna be eliminated …  and that’s just here at NBC!  Wow, I have never been in the paper this much!  It’s fantastic!”

Friday, March 22

Jay dropped two NBC jokes into the middle of his monologue.  In fact, when he began reciting the set-up for this first one, I sensed an NBC joke on the way as soon as he began talking about a knife blade stuck in a man’s back: “Doctors in Canada were shocked after pulling a three-inch knife blade from the back of a 32 year-old man,” Leno said.  “The knife had been in there for three years.  Imagine that, the guy had a knife in his back for three years.  He must have worked at NBC too!  I couldn’t believe that!  I was stunned by that!”

In his second joke, Jay acknowledged that he had dinner with NBC executives Thursday night (including Robert Greenblatt, according to reports — the network programming boss who complained about Jay’s NBC jokes) in an effort to smooth out their differences:  “Now, have you heard about this alleged feud that I’m having with NBC?  I think it’s going to be OK.  This is real: I had dinner last night with a bunch of NBC executives.  To make it up to me, what they did, they are sending my wife and I on an all-expenses paid Carnival Cruise!  How about that?  So it looks like it’s going to be OK!  Fantastic!”

Wednesday, March 27

After taking a break from the NBC jokes for two days — Monday, March 25, and Tuesday, March 26 — Leno returned to the subject Wednesday night with two monologue jokes plus an additional joke included in the evening’s comedy segment.

The first monologue joke: “Folks, oh, my God, listen to this,” Leno said.  “Monday night the [NBC] prime-time shows ‘The Voice’ and ‘Revolution’ moved NBC into the No. 2 position.  You know what that means?  No. 2 — between Easter and Passover, this is truly the season of miracles!  We’re No. 2!  We’re No. 2!  Amazing! …  And I’ve been saying that for the last week, that NBC is a big No. 2!  Haven’t I been saying that?  Congratulations!”

The second monologue joke, delivered a few minutes later: “Speaking of T-Mobile,” he said (following a joke about a prison inmate who tried to smuggle a cellphone into a California prison for Charlie Manson), “they announced yesterday they are doing away with contracts.  So apparently they got the idea from NBC!  I’m not sure how that works!”

Here’s the bit he did in the evening’s comedy segment in which he joked that David Letterman is even older than him.  The bit was called “What’s Trending Tomorrow,” and it was a parody of what’s trending “today” on social media, with Jay pushing the subject forward to “tomorrow”: “Trending right now,” Leno said.  “Jay Leno beset by rumors he’s being replaced by a younger host [a picture of Jimmy Fallon was then shown on a screen behind Jay].  Trending tomorrow … David Letterman also being replaced by a younger host …  [then a photo of Leno himself was shown]!  Yeah!  Yeah! There you go!” Leno said.  “I like that one!  that was a fun one.”

Thursday, March 28

Only one joke on this show — a monologue joke that referred to the way Jay perceives he’s being covered in the media: “Paleontologists in Germany say a 30-foot dinosaur called the ankylosaurus probably had a six-foot long penis.  A six-foot long penis.  Now I understand what the critics are talking about when they call me a dinosaur!  This is what they …  It was actually a compliment!”

Monday, April 1

Two monologue jokes, starting with: “Before we get started,” Leno said, “let me say that NBC and I have reached a peaceful, amicable agreement that will be beneficial to both sides … April Fools! It will never happen!”

Then, later: “Well, during his meeting with [new Pontiff] Pope Francis last week, Pope Benedict, the outgoing Pope, said that he would spend his retirement hidden from the world … unless of course he gets a better offer from the Fox Network! Then he might move!”

And the show ended with that much talked-about duet between Leno and Jimmy Fallon — sung to the tune of “Tonight” from “West Side Story.”


Huge trap that could snare Kimmel: His big mouth

Jimmy Kimmel with sidekick Guillermo Diaz on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." (Photo: ABC)

Jimmy Kimmel with sidekick Guillermo Diaz on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” (Photo: ABC)



NEW YORK, Jan. 8, 2013 — Nobody likes a big mouth.

And suddenly, Jimmy Kimmel has grown the biggest mouth in show business.

And he’s been shooting it off at just the wrong time too — just when he’s on the verge of a high-profile switch to an earlier time slot where he (and more importantly, ABC) hopes to win new fans.

For some reason, Kimmel has adopted a bizarre strategy for his assault on the 11:35 p.m. hour that consists of two parts that are diametrically opposed.

One part seems to be: Attack Jay Leno without mercy.

And the other part is: Kiss up to David Letterman — also without mercy.

The problem is: Both tactics are tanking.

Kimmel’s attacks on Leno — who has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from a standup-comedy style that Kimmel apparently doesn’t care for — make Kimmel seem like a jerk.  It’s doubtful his attacks will persuade anyone to ditch the “Leno” show in favor of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

And his kissing up to Letterman has only succeeded in making Letterman squirm every time he encounters him.

Ever since last summer, Kimmel’s been on an anti-Leno tear, starting with the f-bomb he dropped in August at the mere mention of Leno’s name during a public appearance in New York.  Then there have been all the subsequent instances — particularly in recent weeks — when Kimmel seemed to go out of his way to tell interviewers that he dislikes Leno, disrespects Leno’s comedy, and derisively compares Leno to “Jason,” the unkillable psycho-killer from the “Friday the 13th” movies.

CLASS-LESS ACT: Cheeky Jimmy Kimmel, on the cover of Rolling Stone, positions himself to compete with Leno and Letterman.

On the cover of Rolling Stone, cheeky Jimmy Kimmel positions himself to compete with Leno and Letterman.

In his most recent attack, in the cover-story interview he gave Rolling Stone magazine, Kimmel inexplicably accused Leno of “selling out,” and boldly declared that Leno hasn’t “been a good stand-up in 20 years.”  Selling out?  The only things Leno seems to sell out are clubs, casino venues, theaters and playhouses across the United States.   As for Leno’s abilities as a stand-up, the 3.3 million people who watch his monologues every night on “The Tonight Show” — as well as those who buy all the tickets to see him perform — would seem to disagree with Kimmel.

As a matter of fact, Kimmel’s boyhood (and, apparently, adulthood) idol David Letterman disagrees with Kimmel too.  Letterman told Oprah Winfrey in the interview that just aired last weekend on OWN that Jay Leno is “the funniest guy” that Letterman has ever known.  “Just flat out,” Letterman stated unequivocally in the Oprah interview, “if you go to see [Leno] do his night club act, [he’s] just the funniest, the smartest — wonderful observations — and very appealing as a comic.”

What does Letterman think of Kimmel?  “He’s a nice kid,” Letterman answered condescendingly when Charlie Rose asked him about Kimmel in the interview they did last month.  A “nice kid”?  If that wasn’t an outright dismissive assessment of Kimmel, then it was at least a sign that Letterman hasn’t spent more than 30 seconds thinking about Kimmel in his entire life.

Letterman acknowledged that “nice kid” Kimmel has been nice to him.  “[He’s] been very gracious to me to the point where it’s made me self-conscious,” Letterman told Rose.

Indeed, Kimmel’s gushing over Letterman made Dave visibly uncomfortable when Letterman was Kimmel’s guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in October in Brooklyn.  Then, when Kimmel saluted Letterman at “The Kennedy Center Honors” in Washington last month — with his stories about his adolescent worship of Letterman — a CBS camera caught Dave grimacing.

As for Kimmel’s intense dislike of Leno, the world is still waiting to hear a credible answer to a key question: Why?  I asked Kimmel that question in a conference call last month and you know what his answer was?  He didn’t like the way Jay won “The Tonight Show” back in ’92, beating out Kimmel’s idol — Letterman — for the job.

Here’s what Kimmel said that day: “For me, when the book ‘The Late Shift’ came out [New York Times reporter Bill Carter’s 1994 book about Leno and Letterman’s battle to succeed Johnny Carson], I realized that Jay had schemed to take something from someone that I admired.  I mean, that’s what did it for me, I guess.”

To which I wish I would have said: Jimmy, you’ve got to be kidding me.  What do you care about the battle over the “Carson” show when even Jay and Dave have put it behind them?  It’s old news.

The bottom line is this: The “Kimmel” show still lags far behind Jay and Dave in the ratings.  For the fourth quarter of 2012, the average nightly viewership for each of them was: Leno, 3.5 million; Letterman, 3.1 million; and Kimmel, 1.9 million.

On Tuesday night, Kimmel joins the 11:35 battle against two guys who have been doing it a lot longer than he has.  At its very foundation, the battle is about likability.  But Kimmel — with his attacks on Leno and his sophomoric brown-nosing of Letterman — is looking very unlikable at the very moment when he desperately needs to be liked.


Kimmel vs. Fallon: A tale of two Jimmies

Jimmy Fallon


NEW YORK, April 20, 2011 — Someday, all late-night hosts will be named Jimmy.  But until then, we’ll settle for the two we have now – Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, who just happen to be doing the brightest shows in late-night.

And we can’t help but be fascinated that both of these guys are named Jimmy, which is pretty incredible when you consider that there aren’t that many late-night hosts to begin with.

How many?  Let’s count ’em off: Dave, Jay, Conan, Craig (Ferguson), George (Lopez), Jimmy (Fallon) and Jimmy (Kimmel).  That’s seven male late-night personalities hosting “traditional” late-night shows (which is why we’re leaving out Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) and two of them are named Jimmy.  Or, to put it another way, nearly 29 percent (more than a quarter, almost a third!) of all male late-night hosts are named Jimmy.

Moreover, the two Jimmies compete against each other, but only for 25 minutes – which means that, when you’re deciding between the two, it comes down to choosing (roughly) the first half of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” on NBC (12:35-1:35 a.m./11:35-12:35c) over the second half of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC (midnight-1 a.m./11c-midnight).

Jimmy Kimmel

Adding to the vexation: The two Jimmies are eerily similar and yet, at the same time, they’re so so different!

Did you know that both Jimmies were born in Brooklyn?

Kimmel, a Scorpio born on Nov. 13, 1967, is 43.  He and his family moved to Las Vegas when he was nine.  Fallon, a Virgo, is 36.  He was born on Sept. 19, 1974.  He and his family moved to the town of Saugerties in upstate New York when he was little.  And get this: The fathers of both Jimmies worked for IBM (according to Wikipedia).  Coincidence?!  Probably.

Of course, both Jimmies grew up to become late-night talk-show hosts.  And, while Kimmel’s been at it longer, both Jimmies got their late-night gigs at around the same age.  Kimmel was 35 when he got his show in 2003 after ABC enticed him away from “The Man Show” on Comedy Central.  Fallon became host of NBC’s “Late Night” at age 34 in March 2009 after Conan O’Brien left to take over “The Tonight Show.”

Here in the present day, the two Jimmies are scoring very similar ratings.  In the most recent late-night ratings report – for the week of April 4-8, Kimmel had a slight lead, attracting an average of 1.789 million viewers each night, compared to Fallon’s average of 1.675 million.  One reason Kimmel was out ahead: His lead-in, “Nightline,” beat Fallon’s lead-in, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” that week in the nightly total-viewer count.

But that’s where the similarities seem to end.  Kimmel’s rise in show business differed markedly from Fallon’s.  Before co-hosting “The Man Show” with Adam Carolla, Kimmel was Ben Stein’s sidekick on the old Comedy Central quiz show “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”  Fallon, of course, came up via “Saturday Night Live,” where he appeared from 1998 to 2004, then left NBC to star in a string of movies.

The two Jimmies have both coasts covered.  Kimmel’s doing “Jimmy Kimmel Live” from the heart of Hollywood.  His greatest talent – other than affecting a relaxed, unruffled and slightly disheveled demeanor every night – is his ability for making A-list friends in Hollywood and then recruiting them to participate in his most elaborate bits (“The Handsome Mens Club,” “Hottie Body Hump Club,” “The King’s Speech” spoof he did on Oscar night with Mike Tyson, and many others).

Fallon’s hosting NBC’s “Late Night” from the heart of Manhattan – at NBC’s storied headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  He possesses basic performing skills that Kimmel lacks – most notably Fallon’s musical ability and a talent for impersonation (though possessing these skills has never been a requirement for hosting a late-night show).  It’s a matter of individual taste, but we happen to think Fallon’s extremely likable.  And we love the bits he and his writers have developed – “Thank You Notes,” “Robert Pattinson Is Bothered” and many others.  And we love Fallon’s band, The Roots.

So who’s the best Jimmy in late-night?  We reported, now you decide!


End of an era as late-night TV grows on cable


NEW YORK, April 12, 2010 — It’s the end of the world as we know it.

TBS’ decision, announced today, to mount two back-to-back late-night shows on weekday evenings means we’ve reached another one of those watershed moments in the evolution of cable TV’s long effort to even the playing field with the old broadcast networks.

Have you heard? Conan’s going to cable.

Once upon a time it would have been unthinkable:  Two hours of original late-night talk and comedy on a basic cable channel — a two-hour block of programming that for years was something only a broadcast network could afford to do.

Not anymore.

By signing former NBC star Conan O’Brien and pairing him with George Lopez, TBS is signaling that the era of late-night dominance by the likes of NBC and CBS is over.  TBS is saying: We can do it too — we have the distribution, the money (via advertising and subscriber revenue), the audience numbers, the channel positions and the know-how to do what the old guard can do.

Imagine it: Here’s this cable network that traffics almost exclusively in reruns of old sitcoms, running hour upon hour of them — “The Office,” “Family Guy” and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” some “Seinfeld” and heaven knows what else.

And yet, despite this cable channel’s paucity of original anything, its analysis of the TV landscape has revealed that the time is right to take on the biggest, most established TV networks in late-night TV, and not with half-hour satires such as “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report,” or with a single hour either.  No — TBS plans on taking on CBS and NBC with two hours of traditional television: Personality-hosted late-night shows with monologues and celebrity guests — the kinds of shows seen since the dawn of time only on the so-called “big” networks (and only on CBS since 1993).

Over the years, the cable networks grew and the broadcast networks shrank.  Now, in the wake of Conan O’Brien — a network TV stalwart — deciding to stake his future on cable, you might say they’re all pretty much the same.


Leno fan’s desperate plea: Show us the funny!

JAY IT AIN’T SO! Something’s missing from Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” monologues lately — comedy!


NEW YORK, March 19, 2010 — As the unappointed representative of millions of Jay Leno fans, I have to ask NBC: What have you done with our Jay?

Hey, I know no one elected me spokesman for the entire Leno nation, but I’m certain I’m not the only die-hard Leno fan who’s been watching him since his (rightful) return to “The Tonight Show” and wondering if somewhere between losing “The Tonight Show” the first time and then flopping earlier this season at 10 p.m., Jay and his writers have forgotten how to write a funny monologue.

And they’d better relearn how to write one — fast.  Ever since Jay returned to “Tonight” on March 1, I’ve detected that something was off, but I did not pinpoint the problem until this week.  And lo and behold: It’s the monologue, for 17 years the most important and easily the most popular portion of Leno’s “Tonight Show.”

The Leno monologue must be seen as the principal driver of Leno’s dominance of late-night TV at least from 1995 (when he first passed Letterman) to 2009, when Conan O’Brien replaced him.  Here was this mainstream comedian, one of the best-liked personalities on television, whose sole talent lies in the swift delivery of jokes, one after another, with set-ups and hilarious punchlines.  To take advantage of this talent, the Leno monologue became the longest in late-night — 10, 12 or 15 minutes long — and the monologue’s effectiveness would determine whether viewers would stick around for subsequent segments or drift elsewhere.

Well, lately, I find myself drifting elsewhere as Jay offers this weakened version of a monologue that was formerly one of the most dependable things you could look forward to watching on TV night after night after night.

You can tell Leno’s monologue has weakened by listening to the reaction of his studio audience.  Lately, laughter is more often than not supplanted by applause, the reaction by which comedy audiences register their recognition of the situation a comedian has set up or observed.  Such applause — known to comedians as “mercy applause” — shows the audience  politely “appreciates” the attempt at humor and even likes the comedian personally — in this case, Jay — though they don’t find his observations particularly clever, illuminating, surprising or funny.

With a weaker monologue, Leno’s new show is a weaker “Tonight Show” than it was in the era before the insertion of Conan O’Brien interrupted Leno’s flow.  This situation likely explains why Leno has not yet won back the ratings he once enjoyed at 11:35 p.m.  In addition, the studio in which Leno is performing — the one left over from the failed 10 p.m. experiment — lacks the intimacy of his former surroundings on “Tonight.”  This studio was always too big, the stage and audience bleachers so wide that Leno seems a mile away from portions of his audience (and also from his band and Kevin Eubanks, Leno’s nominal sidekick who is now situated so far away that he hardly seems part of the show).  In fact, a similar studio and set arrangement was a problem for Jay in the first years after he took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson.  When NBC designed a more intimate scenario for him, he blossomed.

Job one for Leno and NBC in these first weeks back on “Tonight”: Fix this monologue situation soon or “The Tonight Show” will be permanently damaged.


Andy Richter on NBC and Leno: Yes, I’m angry

Candid Andy: Andy Richter spoke out about NBC and “The Tonight Show” this morning on “Live! with Regis and Kelly.”


NEW YORK, March 9, 2010 — Andy Richter emerged this morning as the first member of Team Conan to speak out publicly since NBC canned his pal Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.”

Richter’s opportunity came on “Live! with Regis and Kelly,” where Richter was subbing for Regis Philbin, who was on vacation.

Kelly Ripa dove right into the topic of NBC’s late-night debacle at the top of “Live” this morning.

“It’s a big thrill for us to have you here,” Ripa told Richter.  “I feel like you are the ‘get’ of the century right now.”

In reply, Richter, O’Brien’s sidekick and announcer on the ill-fated Conan “Tonight Show,” confirmed this was his first appearance on TV and first chance to speak out on the subject since the show ceased production in January.

“And I actually can be on TV,” Richter noted, “Conan can’t . . . In fact, I’m not even sure I can say his name.  I may be getting him in trouble for just saying his name.”

“Does that mean you didn’t get the big money [referring to the multimillion-dollar severance package reportedly negotiated by Conan’s reps when he exited NBC]?” Ripa asked.

“Conan is putting a lot of his own money out there,” Richter said, explaining that most of the Conan “Tonight Show” staff did not receive generous severance packages.  “[Conan] formed a little corporation just to pay people,” he said.  “All these people moved from New York to California to be on the show and a lot of the people, they’re robbed of their contacts and so even in a downtime like this they don’t have the contacts that they would have here on the East Coast to go get work elsewhere.  . . . Now they’re in Los Angeles with lots of skills in a television town and not really knowing a lot of people there.”

Richter revealed that he’s OK financially, at least for now, because he’s “still actually under contract at NBC for a while — not on the air, but I’m still an employee.”

“So what do they have you do now — cleaning up the office and stuff?” Ripa asked.

“No, in fact it was ‘We need your ID!’ It was like that, yeah,” he said, describing the way he and other show staffers got the heave-ho.  “We had a week or so to pack up and clear out.”

Not surprisingly, Richter said he was as surprised as anyone else on the Conan “Tonight Show” that NBC had decided to halt the program.  Indeed, he felt he was set for life.  “I thought, ‘I’m on “The Tonight Show”!’ That’s as good as it gets in show business.  I’m a tenured professor of show business now!”

Getting to the heart of the matter, Ripa asked him, “Do you have any ill feelings toward NBC and Jay [Leno]? Not that you’re going to be honest . . .”

But Richter was honest.  Said he, “Um, yes!  Yes, I do.  Why wouldn’t I?  NBC, definitely . . .  Everybody said they were going to do something and then they didn’t.  They all said years ago, ‘We’re going to do something’ and then they didn’t.”

Ripa asked him if the difficulty of producing a new “Tonight Show,” starring Conan and his team, was compounded by NBC’s decision to place, essentially, another late-night-style show — “The Jay Leno Show” — at 10 p.m. weeknights.

“It was very difficult,” Richter said.  “I don’t think it was a good plan.  There was a lot of planning that was done that was very short-sighted.”

Ripa also asked Richter about the rumors that a Conan stage show was being organized for a summer tour.  “It’s a possibility, a distinct possibility,” Richter said.


Five ways to fix NBC: All Jay Leno, all the time!


Jay Leno: From Most Valuable Player to Only Valuable Player.


NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2010 — Not that anyone from NBC has called and asked, but in case they do, I have five helpful suggestions to get NBC on its feet again — and each of these ideas have one thing in common: Jay Leno!

1) Jay Leno at 10 p.m. and 11:35 p.m.: Hey, why not?  Aspects of the 10 p.m. plan still make sense, if NBC is still hellbent on saving money on prime-time shows.  And Leno is their guy.  Got a problem at 10?  Call Jay Leno.  Need him to come back and stop the bleeding on “Tonight”?  Just call Jay.  He’s such a workhorse, he’ll do anything to help NBC, even host two shows every night!

2) The NBC Nightly News with . . . Jay Leno! Sure, serious news guy Brian Williams can still have his oh-so important newscast every evening — but only if he agrees to move the newscast a half-hour later, so Jay can do a half-hour “newscast” of his own — a fun-filled half-hour of topical monologue jokes and hilarious pretaped comedy bits derived from the day’s biggest news stories.  Tell Brian he can still handle the serious side of the news, if only to keep him from going to another network.  Hey, everyone knows the nation gets its real news from Jay Leno anyway — this just makes it official!

3)  Jays of Our Lives: Freshen up this aging afternoon soap opera with a new character, a television personality embroiled in his own long-running soap opera — Jay Leno as himself!  In this new storyline, which could run for five years or more, Jay plays a successful comedian who manages to maintain the highest ratings in late-night as host of the show that represents the pinnacle of achievement in the comedy business.  Everything’s going well until NBC decides to replace him in five years with a brash newcomer.  Get ready for a bumpy ride!

4) The Today Show with Jay Leno: Why not launch a fifth hour of “Today” starting at 11 a.m. and let Jay do for mornings what he did for late-night — keeping NBC No. 1 (until the network decides idiotically to yank him from mornings too).  In this fun-filled hour, Jay delivers his first topical monologue of the day, riffing on the morning’s headlines and parodying the newsmaker interviews seen on the first two hours of “Today.”  If you liked Jay feuding with David Letterman in late-night, just wait ’til he and Barbara Walters go at it at 11 o’clock in the morning!

5) The Jay Leno Channel (JLC):  It’s no secret — NBC is staking its future on cable television and this new all-Jay-all-the-time cable network fits right in with NBC’s strategy of relying solely on Jay Leno to keep the company afloat.  Package scores of his old monologues into “Best of” retrospectives, play every old movie in which Jay appears — from “Major League II” to “Space Cowboys” — have Jay host everything from cooking shows (“Iron Chef” hosted by “Iron Jay”?) to late-night infomercials.  He’s the hardest-working man on NBC’s payroll and now, this new destination on cable ensures that NBC gets its money’s worth from its most loyal — and valuable — soldier.  Who else?  Jay Leno!


Conan, standard bearer for ‘youth,’ is an aging 46

Conan O’Brien: Wish him luck.


NEW YORK, Jan. 25, 2010 — Neil Young first recorded “Long May You Run” 34 years ago, in 1976.

He performed the song last Friday on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show.”

It’s a great song, but a pretty old one, the equivalent of performing a song from 1944 on “The Tonight Show” of 1976.  In 1976, Conan was 13.

In liner notes on the 1977 compilation album “Decade,” Young wrote that “Long May You Run” was a song about a car and a woman.

“‘Long May You Run’: A song written for my first car and my last lady,” Young wrote. “As Dylan says, ‘Now that the past is gone’ [from Dylan’s “Wedding Song”].”

Search for information on the Web about the car and the story behind it and you will find endless debates about which car (two hearses — one a Buick, the other a Pontiac — are in contention), whether the song’s subject is a car or a motorcycle, and what the lyrics mean, the usual inconclusive Google search.

However, it is clear the song was not written about a late-night talk-show host, though some of its lyrics were adaptable to the situation in which Young performed it on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show” last Friday (the lyrics include, “We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather, long may you run.”).

The song is a classic example of what used to be known as “album rock,” but today, if categorized for radio play, it would be classified as “classic rock,” basically, an oldie, but not as old as the more traditional “oldie” — more likely a Top-40 pop song from the 1950s or ’60s.

Will Ferrell singing “Free Bird” on Conan’s last “Tonight” show.

The same can be said for “Free Bird,” the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic first recorded 37 years ago, in 1973.

Conan’s last “Tonight Show” closed with “Free Bird,” sung by Will Ferrell, backed up by The Tonight Show Band, and assisted on guitars by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (another icon of classic rock), Beck and, impressively, Conan himself.

When Young finished singing “Long May You Run” and Conan came over to greet him, Young, 64 and as much a “classic” as anyone, told Conan he came on the show to support him because of all that Conan had done over the years for the exposure of new music.

You might not have heard it; Young said it rather softly and it was partially drowned out by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to Young’s performance (and, apparently, you can’t try and hear what Young said now, since it looks as if NBC has barred video of the performance from being posted on YouTube though it could be found there throughout the weekend).

Conan’s emphasis on emerging music acts has been his pattern over the years, particularly on “Late Night,” where music bookings tended toward artists on the way up who hadn’t quite gotten there.

And yet, when it came time to load up on the sentiment on his final “Tonight Show,” Conan revealed a personal preference for the classics, which would tend to separate him from the younger fans who showed their love for him in the waning weeks of his “Tonight Show.”

The fact is: Conan O’Brien is 46 years old. It’s a funny age for show business, especially for the way show business, or the television version of show business, is now constituted.

At 46, he’s a little old to be considered “young.” Though he’s not yet 50, he is too old to comb his hair into a point at the center of his scalp, or wear a backward cap, or go self-consciously unshaven, or wear intentionally faded jeans with an untucked shirt.

This is the outfit worn by “young” TV personalities and movie stars these days — on MTV, on the talk shows when they appear as guests, or in commercials for computers, cellphones, fast-food chains and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Moreover, at age 46, how much longer can Conan get away with the kind of sophomoric comedy that’s better suited for younger personalities?

At some point, Conan’s going to have to reinvent himself as a more mature performer capable of evolving a persona that will be seen as hip enough to continue drawing younger fans, while, at the same time, retaining his many other fans who will inevitably age along with him.

David Letterman, 63, enjoys a reputation for accomplishing this feat — the aging crank who nevertheless possesses a subversiveness that is supposedly still attractive to younger viewers.  However, reputations are often inaccurate.

The truth was: Jay Leno, now 59, had better younger demographics than Letterman when Leno hosted “The Tonight Show.”

And Leno’s younger demos weren’t that much worse than Conan’s.

I can remember seeing Leno perform in Atlantic City a few years back, and most of his audience was composed of extremely worshipful college kids, among whom he apparently has a huge following, whether erudite critics in New York and L.A. care to accept it or not.

Ultimately, a great scenario for Conan — given the caveat that nothing at all is certain in show business in general or late-night television in particular — is that, in a few years, he may be in a position to take over for Letterman.

The odd thing is, he might then be competing with an aging Leno, and he, Conan, just might beat him.


Fired, but still on? You’ve got to be kidding me!

Enough already: NBC should have muzzled Conan, but instead, they’ve allowed him to hammer them night after night.


NEW YORK, Jan. 22, 2010 — Where, oh, where are the broadcasting executives of yesteryear, the ones who would never tolerate wayward air talent who would use their airwaves to brutally lambast their own stations or networks?

If they had the opportunity to watch Conan O’Brien blasting NBC left and right these last two weeks on “The Tonight Show,” those execs — the ones from an era long ago, who weren’t afraid to exercise their power, and who regarded air talent as children in need of adult supervision (and discipline) — wouldn’t recognize their business today.

Sure, Conan’s nightly battle of wits with NBC has fueled a sharp (and much-needed) uptick in the ratings for “Tonight” these last two weeks or so.  But at what cost?  The accumulation of hard-edged humor, emanating from their own stages and skewering NBC management night after night, has only succeeded in planting an image in the public brain of a giant communications company in chaos, whose managers are so ineffective that a guy they fired is allowed to continue appearing on their air, spending their money and impugning their reputations.

Hey, it’s not that I have sympathy for TV executives.  Indeed, I’m having as much fun as everyone else watching them get splattered with mud every night.  It’s just that I keep returning to the same thought: What is wrong with this picture?

I can still vividly recall the time nearly 20 years ago when one of CBS’s highest-ranking execs, a division president,  schooled me in the ways of managing broadcast talent over lunch in his private dining room at CBS headquarters.  I had asked him what he thought of Howard Stern, who was then in the first years of his growing notoriety as the nation’s foremost practitioner of what would come to be labeled “shock radio.”

“Children,” this executive said dismissively, frowning between bites of his lunch.  “Air talent – they’re all children.  And that’s how you have to treat them.  Like children.”

And I can remember when fired air personalities were really fired.  Once upon a time, tradition held that, once they were fired, air talent was barred from the facilities, lest they engage in malicious mischief detrimental to the company.  This custom was most notable in the radio business, owing to a handful of occasions when fired disc jockeys returned to work, locked themselves in their studios and would then play a record such as “Feelings” or “You Light Up My Life” as many consecutive times as they could before private security or the police were able to dislodge them.

What is the problem with these NBC executives who are permitting Conan O’Brien to whine and complain every night on their network and on their dime?  And why are they letting him have a “farewell” broadcast?  Maybe NBC management felt that, if they abruptly shut down production on O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” last week, when he informed them he would not accept a “Tonight Show” starting at 12:05 a.m., that they and their company would take some sort of bath in the media and in the court of public opinion.

But it would have been no worse than what has happened as a result of allowing O’Brien to continue.  And at least the people running NBC would look like they possessed backbones, and were really in charge of their company, if they’d shown Conan the door instead of seeming to grant him carte blanche to wage a public war on them at their expense.

As things stand now, tonight’s farewell show will likely be the highest-rated of O’Brien’s entire, short-lived tenure on “The Tonight Show,” which possibly sets him up nicely to become established on a competing network by next fall.


How Edd Hall wound up in Dave’s anti-Jay promo


He’s Edd Hall.


NEW YORK, Jan. 20, 2010 — Jay Leno’s former announcer, Edd Hall, insists he’s not carrying any grudges against Leno and NBC.

But he doesn’t exactly feel warm toward them either, Hall indicated in his first interview today (1/20/10) since he lent his voice to a David Letterman comedy bit that skewered Leno on Letterman’s “Late Show” Tuesday night.

In the bit — a 30-second parody promo spot ballyhooing Leno’s return to “The Tonight Show” — Hall’s exuberant announcer’s voice was heard reciting copy that accused Leno of stealing comedy bits from Letterman and Howard Stern.

“Hey, late-night fans!” Hall announced, as videotape and still pictures of Leno and “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks were shown on screen.  “In just a few short weeks, Jay Leno will be back where he belongs as host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ and all your favorite elements of Jay’s ‘Tonight Show’ will be back!  The phony handshakes!  The guy with the guitar [Eubanks] who laughs at everything!  The bit [Leno] stole from Letterman’s ‘Late Night’ show!  [Headlines from small-town newspapers are shown.]  The bit [Leno] stole from Howard Stern!  [‘Jay Walking’ image is shown.]  The announcer he stole from Howard Stern!  [Photo of John Melendez is shown.]”

The bit ended with Hall voicing the words for which he became famous when he was Leno’s announcer for Leno’s first 12 years on “Tonight”: “And me, I’m Edd Hall!”

In a phone interview from California today, Hall pointed out that he started his career as an NBC page in New York in 1979 and several years later, wound up working for “Late Night with David Letterman” as a graphics producer and occasional announcer for comedy bits, which is how he came to be hired for “The Tonight Show” when Leno took the show over from Johnny Carson.

Hall said he maintains close ties with friends in both the Leno and Letterman camps, though his sentiments seem to lean closer to the Letterman side these days.

“I like both of these guys,” Hall said.  “But look, NBC has made plenty of, shall we say, unusual decisions regarding late-night, and frankly, replacing me with John Melendez was one of them, so . . . I don’t feel the allegiance to Jay that I once did and I never left on bad terms with Letterman.”

Hall said he received a phone call from a Letterman producer at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday (Pacific time) to ask Hall if he would record a voiceover for that night’s show in about an hour.  Hall said yes, recording the voiceover locally (the rest of Tuesday night’s promo bit was produced in New York).

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to, you know, ‘Ooh, I’m gonna get Jay tonight with this one’,” Hall said.  “I had no problem with it.  It’s comedy.”

He reported that no one from the Leno show has contacted him to ask why he agreed to play a minor, but supporting role in Letterman’s stepped-up attacks against Leno.

“I have not [heard from Leno],” Hall said, struggling to explain his relationship with Leno and his producers and writers.  “[It’s] not that I left on any bad terms, but . . . they haven’t called me to do comedy bits.”

Hall said he’s done a number of such bits for Letterman’s people over the last few years, although this one, which was pretty pointed in its criticism of Leno and aired in the midst of the current storm roiling late-night TV, has attracted more attention for Hall than any of the others.  He revealed that he even did another one recently that is also related to the ongoing drama in late-night that has not aired yet.  He doesn’t know if it ever will.

“The thing is with these monologue bits is that they record about 15 or 20 of them and two air,” Hall explained.  “I’ve done a lot of them for them before that haven’t aired.”

The one that has not yet aired got Hall prepared for the second one.  Said he, “The idea was that they wanted a ‘Tonight Show’ announcer to do it, and so I knew what this was all about.”


Comedy Darwinism: Survival of the funniest

KINGS OF COMEDY: Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno on the premiere episode of NBC’s ill-fated “Jay Leno Show” last September.



NEW YORK, Jan. 19, 2010 — The most revealing commentary on the whole NBC/Leno/Conan mess came from Jerry Seinfeld.

It revealed all you needed to know about show business.

Seinfeld, who is so wealthy and successful that he can be as honest as he feels like, laid it on the line: Conan O’Brien wasn’t good enough, so he got yanked.

“What did the network do to him?” Seinfeld shot back when a reporter at the Winter TV Press Tour in Pasadena earlier this month probed for Jerry’s opinion on whether NBC wasn’t being fair to O’Brien.

“I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan,” said Seinfeld, demolishing the complaint from Conan’s camp that poor lead-ins from local news and Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show hurt the ratings for Conan’s “Tonight Show.”

“Once they give you the cameras, it’s on you,” Seinfeld said.  “I can’t blame NBC for having to move things around. I hope Conan stays — I think he’s terrific. But there’s no rules in show business, there’s no refs.”

The lesson learned?  Show business is a dog-eat-dog world.  And at the top of one segment of show business — the comedy business — there is only room for a few.  And those few are more likely to respect those who came up the hard way than those, like Conan, who didn’t.

Seinfeld happens to be one of the ones who paid his dues; Jay Leno is another, which might help explain why these two are friends, or at least as close to being “friends” as two people can be in their business, assuming they never wind up competing for the same thing, which hasn’t happened to them yet.

Conan O’Brien, a Harvard-educated comedy writer from “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live,” didn’t come up the hard way in the manner of Leno and Seinfeld.  They worked for years in malodorous comedy clubs — the places Seinfeld once characterized (in his 2002 documentary film, “Comedian”) as the “smelly gyms” of show business.

O’Brien didn’t rise through the ranks — he leapt over them when he was plucked from obscurity by Lorne Michaels to take over NBC’s “Late Night” when David Letterman left, one of the most unlikely and improbable lucky breaks ever recorded in the history of show business.

In the Darwinistic world of the comedy business, lucky breaks such as the one awarded Conan are an alien concept, which is why comedians such as Seinfeld and Leno will never admit a lucky break recipient such as Conan O’Brien into their exclusive circle.

In fact, if comedy has a hierarchy, Leno and Seinfeld are the business’ top dogs, measured especially by the yardstick that matters most, which is earning power.  They live in a rarefied world in which they two may be the only two residents.  Even Letterman, who paid his dues in the comedy clubs so many years ago, today eschews the live performances from which Seinfeld and Leno still make their bread and butter.

Seinfeld, swimming in residual money from the eternal rerun plays of his eponymous sitcom, and Leno, who makes so much money from live performances that he claims to bank his six-figure weekly paychecks from NBC and then never touches the money, are two peas in a unique pod.

Seinfeld was Leno’s first guest on “The Jay Leno Show” last September.  Seinfeld wore a tux, as if to say: Here at the pinnacle of show business, here is how we dress; it’s OK for the rest of you peons to go casual.  But not me.  (Leno wore his usual business suit and tie.)

Leno appeared in Seinfeld’s “Comedian” documentary and Seinfeld was Leno’s first phone call in 2004 when NBC proposed that he relinquish “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien in 2009.  Seinfeld, playing the role of comedy godfather, apparently advised Leno to say yes.

“I called up my buddy, Jerry Seinfeld,” Leno said on “The Tonight Show” on Sept. 27, 2004, explaining why he agreed with NBC’s plan to replace him in five years with O’Brien — the news of which had broken earlier that day.

“I said, ‘Jerry what do you think?’ . . .  Jerry quit his show when it was the most popular, and I’m proud to say [“The Tonight Show’] show has been No. 1 and we’ll keep it No. 1 and then in ’09 I’ll say, ‘Conan, take it over, it’s yours,’ ’cause, you know, you can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out when you know you’re still doing good,” Leno said, the words seeming to pour out of him.

Carried out on a stretcher?  Dragged off by a team of wild horses was how Letterman put it back then when he commented on the transition plan two days later on his own show, “Late Show” on CBS.

“[Leno has] quit ‘The Tonight Show’,” Letterman said, setting up a joke.  “Jay Leno is leaving ‘The Tonight Show’ . . . He’s going to be gone in five years.  You know what this does?  It saves NBC the cost of a team of wild horses, that’s what that does!”

Now that Leno’s returning to “The Tonight Show,” NBC might have to reserve that team of wild horses after all.


New entry in the pantheon of network screwups

NBC late-night fiasco ranks high on select list of historic TV miscues



NEW YORK, Jan. 15, 2010 — More than one commentator has compared the NBC late-night fiasco to the ill-fated launch of “new” Coke in 1985 — an apt comparison since, in both instances, a huge corporation went overboard hyping a new product, only to have to backtrack later when the great new idea didn’t work.

So how does NBC’s Conan/Leno fiasco stack up against other infamous TV screwups?  When the smoke clears and TV historians are able to put this story into perspective, they just might conclude that it was, in fact, the greatest disaster in the history of  network television.

To help them out, I present this list of contenders for the network screwup crown:

I. “Dolly” (Sept. 27, 1987 – May 2, 1988): Dolly Parton’s Sunday-night (later Saturday-night) variety show represented ABC’s plan to revive the time-honored variety category.  The show never caught on but lasted an entire season anyway, mainly because ABC poured so much money into it, most notably paying Parton a non-refundable $44 million for two seasons — in advance.

II. “The Chevy Chase Show” (Sept. 7– Oct. 15, 1993): Legend has it that Dolly Parton suggested Chevy Chase to host Fox’s newest attempt to launch a late-night show after she turned it down.  Her suggestion led to the most notorious failure in late-night history (until recently).  With much fanfare, Fox bought and renovated a theater on Hollywood Boulevard for Chase, renaming it “The Chevy Chase Theater.”  Chase never looked comfortable or even the least bit happy hosting the show and he later admitted that he hated it.

III. “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell” (Sept. 20, 1975-Jan. 17, 1976): Incredibly, if it weren’t for this failed effort on the part of ABC to capitalize on Howard Cosell’s notoriety by giving him an Ed Sullivan-esque prime-time variety show (originating from the Ed Sullivan Theater), the other “Saturday Night Live” on NBC might never have gotten its famous name (since Cosell’s show had it first) or its Not Ready for Primetime Players (Cosell’s cast, which included Bill Murray, Brian-Doyle Murray and Christopher Guest, was called the Prime Time Players).  Those of us old enough to remember this show can still recall the mountains of hype that would greet each episode, such as the show’s premiere, for which an appearance by the Bay City Rollers was billed as the second coming of the Beatles.  NBC’s “SNL” was called only “Saturday Night” until the cancellation of Cosell’s show allowed NBC to add “Live” to its show’s title.

IV: “Life with Lucy” (Sept. 20-Nov. 15, 1986): Lucille Ball was 75 years-old when she attempted this last, ill-advised comedy series on ABC.  I can still remember one episode in which the elderly Lucy was made to swing comically from a chandelier, a spectacle that instantly told me this show would soon be toast.  It was an embarrassing finale to a legendary career in television.

V: “Coupling” (Sept. 25–Oct. 23, 2003): This series would be forgotten as just another network TV failure — of which there are plenty every season.  But rarely, if ever, has a show sunk so quickly after coming to the air with as much hype as NBC attached to the launch of this remake of a sexually explicit sitcom from the United Kingdom.   The American version’s swift disappearance in fall 2003 after just four weeks (even “The Chevy Chase Show” lasted five) was breathtaking: In the end, 11 episodes of the American version were produced and only four aired.


NBC’s broken promise: We’ll give Jay a full year


Promises, promises: Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker




NEW YORK, Jan. 14, 2010 — It all seems now as if I dreamed it.

But I did not — I WAS there, in a small suite in a tiny boutique hotel no one had ever heard of before, about a half-block from Times Square, seated with a group of about a dozen journalists for an informal news conference with Jay Leno and his boss at NBC, Jeff Zucker.

Again and again, at this news conference hastily convened during network television’s upfront week last May, reporters asked Zucker: What is your network’s commitment to the new prime-time show Jay will be hosting weeknights at 10 o’clock?  The reporters asked this question repeatedly, in any number of various ways, and Zucker never wavered in his answer: The new “Jay Leno Show” would stay on the air for its first year at least, a 46-week run, without regard for ratings.  This was also the assurance the network gave Jay, repeatedly, including on that day, since Jay was there too.

In his many answers to essentially the same question, Zucker indicated that such a commitment was really the only way to handle a concept that was so new and different — basically a hybrid of a late-night talk show and an old-fashioned variety show, but airing five nights a week.

For NBC to learn if the concept would work, this show would have to run at least a year, Zucker explained, because the whole plan was based on the network’s belief that Leno’s show, with 230 new episodes produced per year, with no repeats outside of Leno’s six vacation weeks, would, at various times of year such as the summer, out-compete the other networks whose shows in the 10 p.m. time period would each only have 22 episodes.

To NBC, that seemed to mean that the Leno show would be well-positioned to win the time period in those many, many weeks when the competition was in reruns, or was using the 10-11 p.m. hour to try out various replacement shows.

And Zucker insisted that ratings, at least for that first 46 weeks, would not be a reason to yank the show.  However, that is exactly what has happened — low ratings are the reason NBC is shelving Leno’s 10 p.m. show, leading to the spectacle now on view in which the network tries to cram Leno and Conan both into late-night and, as a result of this bungled effort, might now lose one or both of them.

Zucker might have been sincere last May (and all the other times he repeated the same mantra in the months leading up to the debut of “The Jay Leno Show” last September).  Maybe the ratings really didn’t matter to him.  But apparently, the ratings do matter to NBC’s affiliates — a situation Zucker and the rest of his executive team seem not to have ever considered.  In hindsight, maybe they should have considered the possibility that affiliates would become disaffected if their late newscasts took a hit from Leno’s low lead-in numbers.

But affiliate displeasure of this magnitude is so unprecedented in network television that you can hardly blame the NBC execs for failing to plan for the possibility of an all-out affiliate rebellion in the event that Leno flopped.

On the other hand, their own company owns and operates a substantial station group whose managers might have sent a memo up to corporate at some point in the late-night planning process to ask if they should be worried about the health of their 11 o’clock newscasts.


Analyzing Conan’s letter: A deliberate jab at Jay?

Conan O’Brien: Fightin’ words


NEW YORK, Jan. 12, 2010 — Conan O’Brien’s open letter issued today to “People of Earth” contains a sentence that could be interpreted as a veiled dig at Jay Leno for placidly going along with NBC’s plan to move him back to 11:35 p.m. and thereby disrupt a traditional late-night lineup that has been in place for decades.

The line in question comes in the fourth paragraph of the letter, according to a copy of the letter reproduced on  “Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move ‘The Tonight Show’ to 12:05 to accommodate ‘The Jay Leno Show’ at 11:35,” Conan wrote.  “For 60 years, ‘The Tonight Show’ has aired immediately following the late local news.  I sincerely believe that delaying ‘The Tonight Show’ into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.  ‘The Tonight Show’ at 12:05 simply isn’t ‘The Tonight Show’,” Conan wrote.

And here’s the kicker: Writes Conan, “If I accept this move, I will be knocking the ‘Late Night’ show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot.  That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.”

Now, Conan doesn’t write the following, but he certainly could have, just after that sentence:  “And by extension, Jay Leno’s refusal to reject NBC’s plan to wedge a half-hour version of his own show between affiliates’ local newscasts and the proposed 12:05 a.m. start of ‘The Tonight Show’ means that Leno is a party to the network’s potential destruction of the revered ‘Tonight Show’ franchise.”

Or, to put it another way, in the very same language in which Conan voices his support for Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s “Late Night,” Conan could be implying: “If Jay Leno accepts this move, he will be knocking ‘The Tonight Show,’ which I inherited from him and he inherited from Johnny Carson, out of its long-held time slot.  That would hurt the NBC franchise I love — ‘The Tonight Show’ — and would be unfair to me.”

If Conan’s intention was to imply that Leno is not doing the right thing by acquiescing to NBC’s plan for a half-hour “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35, then Conan might have a fair point, self-serving though it may be.  Let’s face it, Conan has been host of “Tonight” for only seven months — too short a time to tell if he’s capable of restoring the show to its traditional No. 1 position in late-night.  Remember, it’s Leno, and his 10 p.m. show, who’s  getting cancelled due to ratings that have been so low that affiliates were in open revolt.  And when was the last time that ever happened?  A show has to be a pretty dismal failure for affiliates to get up in arms that way.

Maybe Leno should simply be asked to stand down, come what may.  And maybe NBC should simply honor its commitment to Conan.  The problem is: NBC execs have created a situation in which it’s probably too late to do either of these things.


No matter how you slice it, Conan got screwed

Conan’s the loser in this latest late-night story, though he doesn’t deserve to be. Jay Leno wins — again.


NEW YORK, Jan. 11, 2010 — It’s a tale of two personalities — one of them the winner and one of them the loser.

Jay Leno’s the winner, of course.  He’s about to reclaim the 11:35 p.m. start time he prefers for his nightly show on NBC.  And while the show is being billed so far as a half-hour idea, it will likely morph into an hour, and will likely be “The Tonight Show” by the time it premieres after the Winter Olympics because, really, how in the world can Conan stay at NBC after how the network has treated him.

Thus, life goes on for Jay Leno, who is one of these guys who is either very, very lucky or very, very skilled at coming out on top.  This is the second time he’s won this kind of thing — the last time, in ’92, the odds favored David Letterman taking over for Johnny Carson.  But Leno — the old-fashioned, blue-collar “tell joke, get check” comedian  — worked harder to win over affiliates and NBC execs and wound up the winner.

He reminds me of that “Seinfeld” episode, in which bad things happen to Elaine, good things happen to George, and Jerry remarks that no matter what happens around him, his life remains level and well-adjusted.  Leno’s the same way — while TV execs scramble around worrying and tearing out their hair trying to navigate their way out of an impossibly complicated situation they made for themselves, he can be found with his head under a car hood (seemingly) waiting patiently for the moment when someone will call him up and inform him he’s getting “The Tonight Show” back.  He makes it seem as if he doesn’t care, although he does care, a lot.  Still, in his sometimes goofy way, Jay Leno is the coolest cat in the room.

While Jay wins, Conan loses.  It didn’t have to come out this way.  NBC could just as well have decided to dump Leno’s 10 p.m. show and then dump Leno.  So what if he goes somewhere else?  There’s no guarantee he’d do as well.  In addition, his options are pretty limited — ABC is the only network that might have made sense for him, but their guy is Jimmy Kimmel and he’s doing pretty well; anyway, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

In some ways, NBC’s original plan was sound.  They were  right: In a few years, they would have had to find a new host anyway as Leno aged.  What they should have done was just keep Conan on “Tonight” because at some point, CBS will lose Letterman (in 5, 10 years? It doesn’t matter — time flies pretty quickly).  And then, Conan would have been the veteran late-night star everyone would have turned to and he would have been No. 1.

Hey, I’m not even a huge fan of Conan’s “Tonight Show,” but he’s getting a very raw deal.  Sure, he might be enriched by this rumored payoff of $45 million (the reported “penalty” supposedly included in his contract with NBC if the network reneges on “The Tonight Show”), and who wouldn’t love to receive $45 million?

Still, the reality is this: Conan’s getting canceled after just seven months.  His career, which did nothing but rise for nearly 20 years, is suddenly in jeopardy.   NBC is trying to make it seem like he hasn’t been canceled; he’s just being moved by a half-hour.  But really, what else can you conclude but that Conan didn’t work out as host of the traditional “Tonight Show”?  That happens to be a “first” — no one in the show’s storied history has ever failed at it, but that’s exactly what NBC is saying here.

Now, instead of representing the future of late-night TV, Conan joins the list of the late-night also-rans — Chevy Chase, Rick Dees, Pat Sajak and seemingly scores of others.  Sure, you can argue that his long tenure as host of “Late Night” should earn Conan a higher perch in the hierarchy than Chevy Chase.  And you would be right.  At the same time, however, moving to Fox to host a new, untested late-night show represents a demotion.  It’s a consolation prize and a weak one at that, since Fox has no history in late-night except for its failures with Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase back in the ancient ’80s and ’90s.  And there’s no guarantee the Fox affiliates even want a late-night show.  Moreover, even in fourth place, NBC is the classier of the two networks.  Conan’s comedy is more like the comedy of “30 Rock” and “SNL” than the gross-out humor of “Family Guy.”

In the end, this misadventure seriously damages Conan’s reputation.  And whether you like his comedy or not, he — along with all the loyal members of his team who all relocated to California from New York — did not deserve this.  They’re a great group of people — Conan too.  The screwing he’s getting from the company to which he has been loyal for so long, is just breathtaking.


Late-night twists and turns: NBC gets the bends

Chin music: Jay Leno laughs all the way to the bank while NBC squirms.


NEW YORK, Jan. 8, 2010 — A couple of things struck me in the last 24 hours or so as this story about NBC giving up on its Jay Leno experiment has gained steam.

First: You have to love a story that invites you to sit back and watch while a TV network and its executives contort themselves into pretzels in order to find their way out of the convoluted mess they made for themselves.

Just look at the plans being floated in all the press accounts today, based mainly on interviews with unnamed sources — all of them panicky execs putting out all kinds of scenarios that have NBC bending over backward to somehow accommodate both Jay and Conan.  This plan to run a half-hour “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35 p.m., followed by Conan’s “Tonight Show” at 12:05 is shrewdly calculated to please no one — not Jay (OK, maybe a little), not Conan (especially him), not Jimmy Fallon (whose show will then start a few hours before sunup), and not viewers.   Don’t you just love the TV business?

Second: Remember why NBC set this whole Jay-Conan thing in motion in 2004 in the first place?  The network said then it wanted to set the stage for a smooth transition on “The Tonight Show” that would prevent the outbreak of the kind of chaos that accompanied Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992.

Well, nice try, NBC.  Despite your best efforts (or actually, because of them), the tumult in late-night, while different in its particulars this time around, is really on par with ’92-’93.  You have a network trying to juggle its top talent and keep them (if for no better reason than to prevent them from defecting to competing networks) — a task somewhat akin to a slow-witted kindergartner’s attempts to hammer a square block into a round hole.  And the whole thing — shifting Leno to and fro, moving Conan to 11:35 and then pushing him back a half-hour later — is wreaking havoc on the very people that matter most, the viewers, who have had to relearn their late-night viewing habits and will now have to relearn them again.

And third: What does this new drama say about the state of network television?  So-called “experts” have been telling us for several years that network television and its old-fashioned business model — you know the one: A network of affiliated stations covering 98 percent of the country all carrying the programming of a single over-the-air program provider — had at least one foot in the grave and at least a few toes of its second foot.

Then what happens?  A group of network affiliates — local stations that still “broadcast” the old-fashioned way and represent the very vanguard of what you might refer to as old TV media — still have enough juice to bring a network — NBC — to its knees and force changes that the network never dreamed it would have to make, at least not this soon and certainly not at the behest of a bunch of affiliates.

What happens now?  Hopefully, more turmoil and indecision — what better way to start the weekend!

Contact Adam Buckman:

‘News’ about Twitter is news we can’t use

March 19, 2014
Attention, TV news types: Stories about Twitter and Facebook are not news.

Attention, TV news types: Stories about Twitter and Facebook are not news.


NEW YORK, March 19, 2014 — You call this news?

That’s the way I’ve been reacting lately whenever I encounter a “news” story on a TV newscast about Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or any other smartphone- or “new media”-related topic.

Though some might disagree (particularly the news producers and their anchors who are reporting this “news”), my own answer to the question is a resounding no.  Then, my inner dialogue advances to this thought: I eagerly await the day when Twitter reactions and videos going viral are no longer considered “news.”

These so-called “stories” are much too prevalent.  You know the type — the “story” about some topic (usually an instance of celebrity misbehavior) “lighting up” Twitter.  “OMG!” a breathless, grinning anchorperson will exclaim, followed by his or her “report” that “[insert topic] is lighting up Twitter!”  Then will come the inevitable “examples” of these reactions that are “lighting up” the “Twitterverse!”

And this is where these “stories” really lose me.  The highlighted tweets are usually so banal (not to mention bordering on illiterate and lacking in real insight) that you wonder why or how this subject became a “story” worth wasting valuable airtime on.  “OMG,” a Twitterer will exclaim in a typical example, “I cant b leave she [or he] did that! WAJ! [what a jerk]”

I get the same feeling that I’m being had whenever a story is introduced with words to this effect: “It’s the video that going viral today — watch these kittens who seem like they’re dancing the macarena!”

Or, a video-of-the-day may be a clip culled from security-camera footage of a hold-up at a convenience store, or footage from a trooper’s dashboard cam of a particularly difficult arrest in the shoulder of a highway.  Often, these are promoted in such a way on the local newscasts here in New York City that you think the clips were derived locally.  Then, after waiting for almost the entire newscast to see them, you learn they’re from some other state or, worse, some other country.

In New York, the greatest offender of this resort to stories about, and found on, the Internet is the Fox-owned station, Ch. 5.  The station’s 10 o’clock news is so devoted to (and reliant on) stories and tie-ins to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that the show ought to be renamed “The 10 O’Clock News about Twitter and Facebook.”

Suffice it to say that clips found on the Internet from other locales — be they clips of kittens or crimes — have no business being categorized as news and then clogging up TV newscasts.

Or, to put it another way: Why have the reactions of ordinary people on social media — people with no involvement whatsoever in the stories themselves — become such a vital part of everyone’s reporting these days?  I can’t wait until this particular fad is over.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Lotta people getting their heads blown off on TV

March 18, 2014


NEW YORK, March 18, 2014 — It’s a sweeping generalization to be sure, but I’ll say it anyway:

When you get right down to it, TV today can be boiled down to this: It’s a lot of people getting their heads blown off.

Charlie Hunnam in "Sons of Anarchy."

Charlie Hunnam in “Sons of Anarchy.”

Hey, maybe I watch too many violent TV shows, but recently when I encountered yet another blood-splattered scene featuring a bullet administered to another person’s forehead, I had an epiphany.  The thought that occurred to me was this: I’ve seen so many of these forehead-busting gunshots on TV that I don’t even think about them anymore.

Of course, I was thinking about it then, but that’s the point.  I’ve seen so many of them that it came as a surprise to be giving the subject a second thought.  And I wondered: How many heads blown off have I actually seen in a lifetime of watching television?

The scene that triggered this line of thinking was one that occurred in a recent episode of “The Americans” on FX.  That’s the series about Soviet spies who are embedded in the Washington suburbs in the final years of the Cold War in the 1980s.  This particular skull-shattering pistol shot occurred after a mini-massacre in the back room of a restaurant.  The victim was a hapless busboy who had the misfortune to still be hanging around at work.  Well, the gunman — the spy named Phillip played by Matthew Rhys — took one look at this would-be witness cowering in a corner and without substantial hesitation splattered the poor guy’s brains all over the kitchen wall.

I don’t mean to pick on “The Americans” or even FX in particular, but it just so happens that FX is where these shots to the head seem to be administered the most frequently and, it bears mentioning, the most casually.  Jax Teller, the motorcycle club president played by Charlie Hunnam on “Sons of Anarchy,” has emerged as TV’s champion of the casual headshot.  Sure, Jax is an unpredictable character, but this was one aspect of his personality that became predictable last season: Often when you did not expect it, Jax would suddenly produce a gun and blow someone’s brains out, instantly solving whatever complicated “problem” he was trying to work through.

What’s the point?  Just this — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before (because I’ve written variations on it many times): Violence on TV has become so gruesome that frequently seeing people shot in the head (with the resultant gore blasting from the backs of their skulls and onto walls, lamps and draperies) isn’t even shocking anymore.

There has to be something wrong with that, right?

Contact Adam Buckman:

Close to the end: Larry Hagman’s last hurrah

December 18, 2012
Larry Hagman in one of his final episodes of “Dallas,” just a few weeks before his death. (Photo: TNT)

Larry Hagman in one of his final episodes of “Dallas,” just a few weeks before his death. (Photo: TNT)



NEW YORK, Dec. 12, 2012 — Larry Hagman must have had strength and courage to spare because, except for looking a little thin, you would not otherwise think he was close to death when you watch the upcoming first episodes of his final season on “Dallas.”

Sure, he looks elderly (he was 81) in the two episodes TNT sent out for preview.  But, we know now, he was also terminally ill, and would die of cancer just five weeks after shooting the second of those two episodes.  He died in Dallas on Nov. 23, midway into the shooting of the sixth episode of the upcoming second season.

The season starts on Monday, Jan. 28, with two back-to-back episodes starting at 9 p.m. eastern.  In the episodes, Hagman — as J.R. Ewing — has considerably more to do in the second one than the first.

To be precise, I tallied just two scenes with J.R. (plus one quick glimpse) in the first episode, titled “Battle Lines.”  But he figured in seven scenes in Episode 2, titled “Venomous Creatures.”  Filming on the second episode wrapped on Oct. 15, five weeks before his death.  In those five weeks, he participated in the filming of three additional episodes and at least part of a fourth.  (His final shooting date, before his illness prevented him from continuing, has not been disclosed.)

In both of the episodes I watched the other day, J.R. is positioned as a kind of  mentor for the just-as-devious John Ross — his son played by Josh Henderson.  In Episode One, J.R. turns up to deliver a couple of pointed, but throwaway lines — one about snakes, and the other an off-color comment about how much fun it used to be to chase pretty secretaries around the office.

In Episode Two, the “Dallas” writers not only gave him more to do, but more to say, including lines that are so colorful they border on ludicrous (or march resolutely across that border).  “Love, hate, jealousy — mix ’em up [and] they make a mean martini!” he hisses, in one of his conversations with John Ross, as the two plot an underhanded takeover of the Ewing family business.  “And when we take over Ewing Energies, you’ll slake your thirst – with a twist!” J.R. adds, for good measure.

In another conversation with John Ross, J.R. notes his son’s anger with a former love, Elena (Jordana Brewster), who’s now married to John Ross’ cousin and rival, Chris Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe).   “She really did a number on you, didn’t she?” J.R. says to John Ross.  “Carved your heart out with a spoon, then licked it clean!” J.R. added (though his point was already made).

In retrospect, though, the lines were probably fun for Hagman to recite.  And if he was feeling any physical pain, or if he knew he would soon die and these scenes would be among his last, there’s no evidence of that in his performance.

He filmed these scenes (and the ones to come) so close to his death that you might say Larry Hagman died doing what he loved best — playing J.R. Ewing literally to the very end.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Annals of Oprah: Why OWN isn’t working

May 7, 2012

Has Oprah lost her touch? Probably.


NEW YORK, May 7, 2012 — Oprah Winfrey’s OWN isn’t working for the simple reason that Oprah herself seems passé.

Why opine on this subject now?  Because the news is all over the place this week that losses are mounting at OWN.

Among other places, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal says Discovery has sunk $312 million into OWN with no predictions of profitability except for a lukewarm forecast that losses are expected to continue through 2012.

So has Oprah lost her touch?  In a word, yes.  How?  Well, that’s always hard to say.  For some, the decline in her influence stems from the repetitive statements she issues continually, in public appearances and interviews, about “her journey” and “her mission” and her “legacy.”  Truth be told, it all feels tired, not to mention off-putting.

It also comes across as self-centered and egotistical, as if the viewing audience has some kind of stake in helping to ensure Oprah Winfrey achieves fulfillment in her “journey” and accomplishes her “mission,” which has something to do with empowerment and living one’s “best life” and yada yada yada.

Taken together, the shows on OWN play like the TV equivalent of having to eat your spinach.  And here’s an observation I once made about self-help: I once was acquainted with a guy whose bookshelves in his New York City apartment were filled with self-help books — perhaps the most I’d seen in any one place that had been purchased over the years by a single person.

Perhaps he was sincere in his search for guidance when he bought these books, but I was fairly certain he hadn’t read very many of them.  More than likely, he read part of them, perhaps the introduction and first chapter, and then never finished them.  Why?  Because self-help books, like self-help TV shows, are decidedly unentertaining (is that a word?).  In fact, I can say from personal experience with the few self-help books I have tried to read that reading them is a chore.

Try watching “Oprah’s Life Class” — yes, a “class” about “life” led by Oprah, with the assistance of some guest motivational speaker — and you’ll see what I mean.

When you really stop and look at it, there never really was any evidence, much less a guarantee, that Oprah Winfrey could build an entire TV network from the ground up in the first place.  She was hugely successful in a variety of endeavors in the TV business, but launching an entire network was not on her resume.

Oh, yes, there was plenty of evidence that Oprah was capable of making a lot of money for herself and anyone who had the good fortune to go into business with her.  She’d done so with her syndicated daytime show, which probably generated — what? — a billion dollars or more over its 25 years.  And she added to that sum with the other daytime shows and personalities she championed and developed — Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray.

But even more than those successes, the impression that Oprah could mine gold from virtually anything she touched began to form long ago, when her (seemingly) off-the-cuff endorsements of exotic soaps or artisanal popcorn could make the entrepreneurs behind these products suddenly flush with orders, not to mention money.

Nothing represented Oprah’s power in this regard more than her impact on the book business.  Sure, that was fun while it lasted, especially if you were the publisher of some book Oprah just happened to read recently and then mention on her talk show.

But like afternoon talk shows, the book business has changed a lot in the last few years.  Who knows if Oprah could drive book sales today, when books themselves are looking more and more passé.

Certainly, a prominent TV personality falling victim to changing tastes is no crime, especially if you’re Oprah and already a billionaire.  You know, most people don’t get a chance to strike it rich twice in a lifetime.  And it could be that Oprah’s best life was the life she had when she dominated daytime TV for one hour every afternoon.

Now, those halcyon days are gone, and it appears increasingly unlikely that Oprah will be able to return to anything resembling them anytime soon.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Curated: My TV Howl ‘Mad Men’ columns 2010-12

April 5, 2012

Missing from ‘Mad Men’: Don and Betty’s marriage

REMEMBER WHEN: The marriage of Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty Draper (January Jones) was imperfect, but that was the whole point. (Photo: AMC)


NEW YORK, April 5, 2012 — What’s wrong with “Mad Men” this season?

A couple of things, actually, but most notably: The defunct marriage of Don and Betty Draper, which, once upon a time, was the very heart of this show.

It’s gone and with it goes one of the great reasons for watching this show.

This finally occurred to me after watching the first two lifeless weeks of the new, fifth season of “Mad Men,” which is gracing us with its critically acclaimed presence after disappearing for 18 months.

The marriage of Betty and Don (January Jones and Jon Hamm) was once the centerpiece of this show.  It was what the show was about, principally, whenever you’d try and describe it concisely.

What’s “Mad Men” about? you’d be asked.  And you’d answer something like: Well, it’s about this guy, Don Draper, a quintessential Madison Avenue “ad man” of the 1960s struggling to balance his dual lives — one as a swashbuckling white-collar professional in midtown Manhattan, and the other as a family man with a pretty wife and two children who live far from the madding crowd in leafy Westchester.

And it didn’t hurt that the ad man and his wife were like the living, breathing versions of Ken and Barbie — perfection on the outside, while inwardly, they existed in a marriage fraught with tension.  He was concealing his various extramarital affairs, though she had her suspicions; and she was feeling unfulfilled and lonely as a home-bound suburban housewife.

Even when Don’s affairs became known to Betty, it may have been possible to preserve the marriage, at least for the sake of the show.  So what if that would make an already tense marriage even more tense.  Tension happens to be a terrific ingredient to have around when you’re concocting a drama series for TV.

Now, with the two of them divorced and remarried to others, that whole situation’s been tossed out the window.  Moreover, Don married a young, comely co-worker — which does away with another essential part of Don’s lifestyle: His ability to freely pursue his extramarital relationships in New York City, untethered and unobserved by his wife (in the era long before cellphones).  Are we really supposed to believe that Don’s done with his philandering?   And if he is, then is that part of the show now gone too?

It reminds me a little bit of “The Sopranos,” coincidentally a show on which “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner once worked.  “The Sopranos” was also about a guy who struggled to balance his home life and “business” life, but in this case, he was a Mafia don who sought the help of a psychiatrist because he had deep-seated issues with his over-bearing mother.

But then, the actress who played the mother, Nancy Marchand, unfortunately died and Tony Soprano’s mother died with her.  Of course, the show persisted after that, but the principal reason for telling Tony’s story in the first place was gone, and the show was never the same.

As if doing away with Don and Betty’s marriage wasn’t enough, now the makers of “Mad Men” have even done way with Betty — turning perhaps the most beautiful actress on TV into an overweight suburban housewife.  Sure, I understand the storyline behind it, but is this storyline worth doing that to January Jones?

What else is wrong with “Mad Men,” three episodes into the new season (yes, that two-hour premiere night counted as episodes 501 and 502)?

A couple of things gleaned from Episode 503 last Sunday (April 1):

Some things just aren’t ringing true: The pot smoking, for example.  Sure, we all know, or simply assume, that the 1960s saw a big rise in casual marijuana smoking, but mostly among the college generation.  But for two consecutive weeks now, actual grownups have been seen smoking joints within full view of colleagues from work — most recently Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) backstage at the Stones’ concert last Sunday, and a week earlier, Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), who casually mentioned that he’d like to go and smoke some “tea” at Don and Megan’s party.

Was casual pot-smoking of this kind really so sociably acceptable among actual adults in 1966?  Though I’m no expert on this, that doesn’t seem accurate to me.  It seems to me that for men like Don Draper, witnessing a colleague smoking dope in the 1960s would have raised suspicions that that co-worker was some kind of a druggie.  That’s how “drugs” — even pot — were perceived back then, or so I’ve long thought.

Roger used a line in a conversation with Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) that didn’t seem true to its era either.  It was when he was instructing Peggy to make sure she hires a male copywriter for an open position on the Mohawk Airlines account.  “Someone with a penis,” he said, describing the client’s preference.

Well, that sounds more like what a TV writer would compose for a character speaking in the present day.  Certainly, the line was written for Roger Sterling (John Slattery) as an example of his own casual, crass  chauvinism.  But somehow I doubt a man in the 1960s would have put it that way.  He just would have said Peggy needs to hire a man and that would be that.  It’s today’s world in which the word “penis” is used with that kind of abandon (particularly on television, as a matter of fact).  The usage here in “Mad Men” strikes me as careless writing.

Speaking of careless writing that should have been edited: The crack Betty’s husband, the  political operative Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), made about George Romney, then governor of Michigan and the father of the 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was completely out of place and ill-considered.  Why? Because we viewers all know that it represented a dig at Mitt Romney on the part of “Mad Men’s” writers and producers.

The line came when Henry, who apparently works for New York Mayor John Lindsay, told someone on the phone that he didn’t want Mayor Lindsay photographed with Gov. Romney at some sort of public appearance.   “Romney’s a clown and I don’t want him standing next to him!” Henry declares.

Here’s why the line should not have been used: Because it makes us, the viewers, suddenly think of the present day while we’re supposed to be immersed in the world of 1966.  For that reason alone, the producers should have resisted the temptation to include it.

And it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: It was also an obnoxious political viewpoint — again, with contemporary implications — inserted into a TV show where it had no business being inserted.

I could go on about all the things wrong with “Mad Men” this season.  But I’ll save them for next week.  And who knows?  Maybe the show will be back in top form this Sunday.  And wouldn’t that be great?


‘Mad Men’ new-season shocker: It’s boring

‘Mad’ men (l-r): Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) (Photos: AMC)


NEW YORK, March 20, 2012 — Here’s a surprise about this Sunday’s season premiere of “Mad Men” that might spoil the show for you: It’s terrible.

Yes, I know — it’s a shocker.  It might even be the first time any critic anywhere has ever used the word “terrible” to describe “Mad Men,” but there it is.  Sorry.

I hate to spoil a viewing experience for anyone, especially for a show whose return (after more than 18 months away) seems so highly anticipated.  But I can’t help myself: For the first time in my own personal history with this show, stretching back to its glorious beginnings in summer 2007, I was bored stiff watching the two-hour premiere that AMC sent over for preview.

The DVD came with a “letter” from the show’s creator and executive producer, Matthew Weiner, who requested, politely, that critics who view the preview DVD please refrain from revealing various plot points and other developments that might spoil the experience for the show’s fans.  Well, Matt, your secrets are safe with me because nothing much happens in these two hours anyway.

I’ll tell you what happened to me when I was watching it, though:  Some time during a lengthy party sequence (yes, there’s a party in the show — I hope that revelation doesn’t spoil the “experience” for anyone), I realized that I couldn’t have been more bored, and have rarely been so bored, in the process of watching a TV show.  And since it was “Mad Men,” which once upon a time was one of the finest, most electrifying TV series ever produced, this surprising onset of extreme ennui came as a huge shock.

I was so disappointed in what happened to this show that I started contemplating some of the words I might eventually use to describe it in this blogpost.  And besides “terrible” and “boring,” another one came to mind that is even worse: “Disaster.”

Before continuing, here’s a caveat: By all means, watch the two-hour premiere (it starts at 9/8c on Sunday, March 25, on AMC).  And you are more than welcome to enjoy it too.  You just might love it.  But I have a feeling many will not.

And that’s where the word “disaster” comes in.  The last thing an arty TV series like this needs is to come back on the air after an 18-plus-month absence and then bore its core audience to death.  However, that outcome is a distinct possibility.

Why? Well, to delve fully into those reasons might involve revealing details and plot points that Matthew Weiner might not want divulged.  So I’ll try and work around them.

Generally speaking, the whole thing seemed listless, sloppy and predictable.

In the listless department, the aforementioned party is exhibit A.  At just about the time I looked at my watch for the first time ever in the viewing of “Mad Men,” I realized that this party had begun to resemble an old Dutch still-life, with the guests standing or sitting around doing nothing.  At such times, you rely on a literate series such as “Mad Men” to entertain you with dialogue.  That didn’t happen either in this scene or any other in the two-hour show.

The party took place at a new Manhattan apartment apparently purchased between seasons Four and Five by Don Draper (Jon Hamm).  And at this point in this blog post, I was tempted to reveal what happened with Don and his new love, Megan (Jessica Paré).  Remember her?  She was a secretary in the ad agency in Season Four.  As that season came to a close way back on Oct. 17, 2010, she and Don were in love and he asked her to marry him.  (Forgot about that?  That’s understandable since it was 18-1/4 months ago.)  In his letter to critics, Matthew Weiner asked that we not divulge what happened there.  And like the good sport I am, I humbly acquiesce.

Anyway, like so many of the settings in this marathon “Mad Men” fifth-season premiere, Don’s new digs look more like a stage set than a New York apartment.  And so does the office of the ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce.  It’s immaculate, like it’s a display at Ikea or one of those Design Within Reach stores, where they sell knockoffs of iconic mid-century furniture designs.  One thing it doesn’t look like: A Manhattan office where work is performed.

It doesn’t sound like one either.  If you watch the show, try and observe the sound made when people walk around — most notably in the SCDP offices.  Even petite Elisabeth Moss (who plays Peggy Olson) can be heard clomping around like she’s wearing army boots.  That’s because the floors give off a sound like they’re hollow, like a stage set, but not at all like the floors in a Manhattan office building.  They’re usually concrete.

Speaking of architecture, one character refers to an architectural feature in one of the SCDP offices as a “beam” when it is actually a column.  That’s sloppy writing.  Rule of thumb: Beams go across ceilings; columns are those things that go up and down.

And as far as this show’s predictability goes, that can be a problem when a series such as this — one that is about 95 percent character development and about 5 percent plot — has been around for four seasons and is starting its fifth.  We already know so much about the personalities of the principal characters — warts and all — that everything they do in this two-hour premiere seems old hat.

In his “letter” to critics, Matthew Weiner implored us not to divulge plot points that could ruin any surprises for those tuning in on Sunday to herald “Mad Men’s” return.  The thing is: The only surprise I experienced in the season premiere was my own disappointment.


‘Mad Men’ 10/17/10: Don in love? Yeah, right

THE THINKER: Don Draper in another moment of contemplation over the meaning of his life in the fourth-season finale of “Mad Men.” Photo: AMC


NEW YORK, Oct. 18, 2010 — Don Draper in love?  That appeared to be the case Sunday night as ‘Mad Men’ ended its sensational and oh-so unpredictable fourth season on AMC.

Unpredictable?  It was impossible to foresee that swinging bachelor Don (Jon Hamm) would suddenly flip head over heels for his willowy secretary Megan (Jessica Pare), confess that he’s in love with her, and then present her with a diamond engagement ring that he just happened to come by a few days earlier (left to him by the late Anna Draper).

Hey, Matt Weiner, what have you done with our Don Draper?  Up until this season-ending episode, it didn’t seem possible that Draper – who we’ve gotten to know all too well as a hard-drinking hard case who conquers and discards women like he’s James Bond – would ever fall this hard for anyone and then decide to get married and return to the kind of domestic situation he fled when his marriage to Betty (January Jones) fell apart.

And speaking of Betty, the shoe now seems to be on the other foot.  As Don contemplated a future of wedded bliss with bright-eyed, French-speaking Megan, Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) appeared headed for the rocks.

Their status was left up in the air as the season finale came to a close on Sunday, but earlier, Henry angrily confronted Betty for firing Carla, the Draper household’s long-time nanny and housemaid, and not telling him about it.  Icy Betty abruptly fired Carla after Carla permitted troubled neighbor boy Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) to go upstairs and say a quick good-bye to Sally (Kiernan Shipka) before the family moved.  Betty, who earlier banished Glen from seeing Sally, ran into him as he was leaving the house.  “Just because you’re sad doesn’t mean everybody has to be,” Glen told Betty before running off.  By the end of the episode, Betty was completely alone, hauling off the last box from the home she shared with Don, after hearing his news that he’s getting married and settling down again.

Reactions to Don’s engagement news varied according to gender.  His male partners at the ad agency congratulated him heartily, as did his chief copywriter and protégé Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss).  But privately, Peggy expressed herself more candidly when she bonded over cigarettes with Joan (Christina Hendricks) in one of the episode’s best scenes.  Peggy had almost single-handedly landed a new client, Topaz pantyhose, but her achievement was over-shadowed by Don’s engagement news, and Peggy decried the fact that one young woman’s engagement was more important than another young woman’s victory in the business world.

The fourth-season finale – titled “Tomorrowland,” after the then-futuristic Disneyland attraction – seemed to be aimed chiefly at setting things up for Season Five, particularly where Don and Betty’s respective home lives are concerned.  For Don, blasting off for his own personal Tomorrowland meant severing his budding romance with Faye Miller (Cara Buono), who didn’t take his engagement news well at all, and getting his financial affairs in order with the selling of two houses, his own former home in Ossining, N.Y., and the late Anna Draper’s house in southern California (during a trip to Disneyland with his children and Megan as temporary nanny).

With most of the episode given over to Don’s love life, the season’s most critical storyline, the future of the struggling ad agency, was left unresolved.  To find out what happens there, we’ll now have to wait all the way ’til next summer for Season Five.

What did you think of the ‘Mad Men’ season finale?  Are these 13-week seasons too short or what?  And what do you think about having to wait until next July to find out what happens next?  Wouldn’t it be great if ‘Mad Men’ could return sooner?


‘Mad Men’ 10/10/10: Inside Don’s bold PR plan

AD AGENCY ANGST: Don Draper (Jon Hamm, left) performed a financial rescue for Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, center), but Don’s bold strategy for restoring the agency’s reputation seemed to drive senior partner Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) into a sudden retirement in this past Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men” on AMC. Photo: AMC


NEW YORK, Oct. 11, 2010 — Was Sunday night’s ‘Mad Men’ episode really only an hour?  So much happened to so many of the show’s characters that it seems impossible that all that plot development could occur in 60 minutes.

But it did.  In a very complicated turn of events, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) appeared to find inspiration in a heroin-induced painting for a p.r. plan aimed at improving his dying agency’s image in the Madison Avenue advertising marketplace.  The plan involved a full-page ad, written by Don, that he placed in the New York Times without consulting any of his partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

The ad sought to reverse the perception that SCDP was being abandoned by its clients, especially Lucky Strike, which accounted for nearly three-quarters of the agency’s income before quitting the firm a couple of episodes ago.  In addition, the firm tried to land a new tobacco client, Philip Morris, which was planning to launch a new cigarette brand aimed at women (presumably the brand that would become Virginia Slims), but lost to another agency.

So Don’s full-page ad declared that SCDP didn’t want cigarette clients anyway, that the agency refuses to be in business with companies that manufacture and market such a dangerous product.  The ad was aimed at burnishing the agency’s reputation, but by the end of Sunday’s ‘Mad Men’ episode on AMC, it had succeeded only in alienating Don’s partners, who didn’t seem to understand his strategy.  One of them, senior partner Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), appeared to quit the agency for good.  Is the eccentric Cooper really out?  Let’s hope not – he’s one of the show’s best characters.

Meanwhile, the rest of the agency’s senior staff set about firing people in a bid to slash costs.  Then, in an effort to sustain the agency, the partners all agreed to kick in up to $100,000 apiece to ensure that the bank continues the firm’s line of credit.  This put Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) in a bind as wife Trudy (Alison Brie) forbade him from emptying their bank account to save the agency.  Incredibly, Don Draper saved the day, secretly paying Pete’s share of the money.

As if all of the drama about the future of SCDP was not enough, the show returned to Don’s former Westchester home front, to the home of ex-wife Betty (January Jones), where the creepiest kid in all of TV – lonely neighbor boy Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) – was pursuing a “friendship” with Don’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka).  Glen is the boy who vandalized the Draper home earlier this season, and a couple of seasons ago seemed to pursue an icky, inappropriate relationship with Betty, who seemed to come perversely close to acquiescing to his advances.  Now, Betty’s seeing the same child therapist who’s treating her daughter, even refusing to see a shrink better suited for an adult.  What can we say about Betty?  She is one damaged individual.

Perhaps the episode’s biggest surprise was the sudden reappearance of Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), the bohemian artist from Greenwich Village with whom Don carried on an affair in Season One.  Now she’s a wraith-like shadow of her former self, an unsuccessful artist and heroin addict who allows her addict “husband” (we’re not sure if they’re really married) to pimp her out for drug money.  In fact, drug money was the whole reason she staked out Don in the first place.  He felt sorry enough for her to give her some cash and take the abstract painting off her hands that somehow inspired his p.r. scheme.  He did not feel like having sex with her, however, though she offered it freely.

Only one more episode left to go in the fourth season of ‘Mad Men,’ and once again the agency is up against the wall.  Will Don’s p.r. strategy wind up saving the agency and make him a hero to his partners?  Or will he fail?  What do you think will happen next Sunday?  How on earth will they wrap everything up in a single hour?


‘Mad Men’ 10/3/10: Lipstick on Peggy’s teeth

Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) informs Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) that she has lipstick on her teeth in last Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.” Photo: AMC


NEW YORK, Oct. 5, 2010 — Clients may come and go, and the ad agency might be teetering on the brink of ruin, but there’s one thing you can usually count on when watching ‘Mad Men’: Place handsome Don Draper in a room alone with just about any woman, and the result will be sex.

That’s what happened on Sunday night’s episode of the AMC series about the New York advertising biz in the swinging ’60s.  Just minutes after she volunteered to remain after hours to help him read through some client files, Don’s willowy secretary, Megan (Jessica Paré), was offering him some executive assistance of another kind.  Naturally, the emergency facing Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – namely, the loss of its biggest client, Lucky Strike – was pushed aside so these two could dance a horizontal mambo on Don’s office couch.

It was all too predictable, which was a shame because we don’t expect TV’s best drama to be predictable – we expect it to be unpredictable.  Wouldn’t it have been more clever if Don (Jon Hamm) had rejected this young woman’s advances – for a change?

Well, it wouldn’t have been a huge loss for Don if he did, since his new girlfriend – the research consultant Faye Miller (Cara Buono) – was waiting for him in the dim corridor outside his Greenwich Village apartment.  Of course, she had no idea he’d just had sex with someone else.  In fact, Faye is apparently so smitten with him that she showed up on his doorstep despite the fight they’d had earlier in the episode when Don asked her to violate the ethics of her profession and feed him information about the other agencies she works with.  By the end of the episode, she had become willing to do anything he asked.  Does this guy have a way with women or what?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the episode – titled “Chinese Wall,” the 11th installment of the ongoing fourth season – Pete and Trudy Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser and Alison Brie, who was not shown) had a baby daughter and Pete weighed an attractive job offer from rival ad man Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) – yes, folks, you thought his last name was “Shaw,” but it’s just pronounced that way.

Speaking of new relationships, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is now in L-O-V-E with the aspiring writer Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer).  You see that?  Based on the recent rocky history of these two, their new love affair was totally un-predictable – that’s what we expect from ‘Mad Men.’  Peggy’s travails with men straddled the line between serious and comical in Sunday’s episode.  First, she happily sleeps with Abe, then gets seriously sexually harassed by co-worker Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), and then believes a client is making a lewd pass at her with his tongue when he was actually trying to tell her silently that she had lipstick on her teeth.

This recap would not be complete without mentioning Roger Sterling (John Slattery).  Is he this show’s biggest jackass or what?  What a sad sack he’s become lately – concealing the loss of Lucky Strike from the rest of the agency (he’s known since the episode a week before), then carrying on this charade in Sunday night’s episode of faking a trip to see the Lucky Strike people in North Carolina, phoning senior partner Burt Cooper from a hotel in Manhattan (Roger told Joanie it was the Statler, now the present-day Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue between 32nd and 33rd streets) and saying he’d just met unsuccessfully with the clients.  And he’s been harassing Joan (Christina Hendricks) to get her to renew their former love affair.  Fortunately, she seemed to have slammed the door permanently on that idea in Sunday’s episode.

Only two episodes remain in this fourth season of ‘Mad Men.’  Doesn’t it seem like the season just began?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they would make more than just 13 episodes per season?  With only two left, do you think there’s enough time to wrap up the show’s many storylines?  How do you think the season will end?


‘Mad Men’ 9/26/10: The high price of secrecy

PAJAMA GAME: Sanctimonious Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) ruminates on the consequences of deception in this past Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.” Photo: AMC


NEW YORK, Sept. 27, 2010 — Talk about your mid-life crises!  The men of ‘Mad Men’ were mired in the muck of their own self-made messes on Sunday night’s episode of the AMC drama series.

The episode – titled “Hands and Knees” – was the 10th installment of the ongoing fourth season.  It began and ended with the Beatles.  At the outset, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) phoned daughter Sally (Kienan Shipka) some time during the work week to tell her he’d scored two tickets to the Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium the following weekend.  Sally’s reaction?  She screamed, and probably continued screaming all the way to Sunday (Aug. 15, 1965), when the real-life Beatles concert drew 55,000 fans to the home of the New York Mets in Flushing, Queens.

At the episode’s conclusion, we heard an instrumental, ’60s-style, lounge-music version of the Beatles’ hit, “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” a very appropriate choice of music given the many secrets both revealed and concealed on the show.

Over-riding the entire episode: The possibility that Don’s big secret would finally come out as the result of a government background check set in motion by his application for a security clearance.  It had to do with an agency client, North American Aviation, a defense contractor involved in the sensitive business of providing aircraft and missile systems to the Department of Defense.

Don’s secret, of course, is that he was once Dick Whitman and adopted the identity of a dead lieutenant named Donald Draper during the Korean War as a way of getting out of the war.  As a result, “Dick Whitman” is still considered a U.S. Army deserter.  Few people know Don’s secret – among them, wife Betty (January Jones), ad agency colleague Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), agency senior partner Burt Cooper (Robert Morse) and, as of Sunday night, Don’s current squeeze, demographer Faye Miller (Cara Buono).

Incredibly, nobody squealed – not even Pete, who could have used the information to ruin Don and elevate himself in the agency hierarchy.  And even though Pete railed to wife Trudy (Alison Brie) about people who keep secrets, we all know Pete has one himself – that he had an illegitimate child with Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) in Season One.  Pete kept Don’s secret, even though it cost the agency this crucial client.

If Don was facing the possibility that a lifelong secret was about to upend his middle-aged life, then two of his partners faced mid-life crises of their own.  Roger Sterling (John Slattery), apparently already bored with his much-younger wife, has once again set his sights on Joan Harris (nee Holloway – Christina Hendricks), with whom he formerly carried on an affair.  She informed him Sunday night that she’s pregnant with his baby, stemming from their sidestreet tryst in the previous episode.  She went to Morristown, N.J. (a quiet suburb about 30 miles west of New York City), to have the pregnancy terminated.  Roger paid for it.

Meanwhile, upright Britisher Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) was forced to deal with his strict, assertive father, Robert (guest-star W. Morgan Sheppard), who came all the way to New York from the U.K. to order Lane to return to his family and patch up his relations with his wife.  In response, Lane took dad to the Playboy Club (with Don in tow) and introduced his father to his new love, a Playboy bunny who also happened to be black.  In one of the most shocking scenes yet seen on ‘Mad Men,’ Robert Pryce slugged his grown son in the head with his cane, then stepped brutally on one of his hands as his son writhed on the floor in semiconscious agony.

By the episode’s end, it was apparent that Lane’s father had won the confrontation as Lane announced at the partners’ meeting that he was headed home to England for a few weeks.

Incredibly, none of these secrets were the biggest of the evening.  The secret with the most far-reaching consequences for everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was the loss of its biggest client – the one the agency depends on most for its financial health – Lucky Strike.  Roger was the recipient of this bad news and he kept it under wraps, nearly having another heart attack when he got the news.

And now, there are only three episodes left in the season for the agency to pull itself back from the brink of ruin – again! – which was also the situation in Season Three.

OK, ‘Mad Men’ fans: How did you like Sunday’s episode?  And with just three episodes left, where do you think we go from here?


1964: When ‘Mad Men’ collides with ‘Bewitched’

TV’S ORIGINAL MAD MEN: Darrin Stephens (Dick York, left) with boss Larry Tate (David White) on “Bewitched.”


NEW YORK, July 23, 2010 — Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce?   Meet McMann & Tate.

As “Mad Men” opens its fourth season this weekend (Sunday, July 28, at 10 p.m./9c on AMC), the year is 1964 — Thanksgiving to be exact.

It’s a year after the assassination of President Kennedy and much has happened in the lives of the Sterling Cooper Mad men.  Their newly constituted agency — encompassing the names of partners Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) — is up and running in new offices in the then-ultramodern Time & Life building on Sixth Avenue, in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

In the real world of fall 1964, TV audiences were being introduced to another fictional ad agency, McMann & Tate, whose own Mad men were forever trying to lure and retain clients, while partaking in prodigious quantities of booze.

It was “Bewitched,” the ABC sitcom about one man’s effort to strike a balance between his home life in the New York City suburbs and his career in the pressure-cooker of the advertising business.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm, left) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) discuss the future of Sterling Cooper with Roger Sterling (John Slattery, seated). Photo credit: AMC-TV

He was Darrin Stephens (first played by Dick York), account executive at McMann & Tate.  Like Don Draper, Darrin was involved in a continuous struggle with clients.  Also like Don, Darrin reported to a white-haired boss, senior partner Larry Tate (David White).  Draper reported to white-haired Roger Sterling (John Slattery) until he, Draper, was elevated to partner.

The big difference between Don and Darrin is, of course, witchcraft.  Darrin’s wife, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), was a real witch capable of casting spells on neighbors and clients (or, more frequently, undoing the spells cast by her mother, Endora — played by Agnes Moorehead).

Don’s estranged wife Betty (January Jones) might seem like a witch sometimes to Don, but she isn’t one.  He gets no help from witchcraft in performing his responsibilities as creative director at Sterling Cooper.

Sure, “Bewitched” was a silly comedy (a popular one, though, that lasted eight seasons) in which Darrin would suddenly grow donkey ears, compliments of his mischievous mother-in-law.  But in its depiction of the life of a Manhattan ad man in the mid-’60s, it bears striking similarities to “Mad Men.”

The one thing most people cite when they recall “Bewitched” is the consumption of alcohol depicted on the show — something that would be considered politically incorrect to feature so prominently and casually in a prime-time sitcom today.  Back then, though, you probably couldn’t produce a TV show about businessmen in midtown Manhattan without acknowledging the role liquor played in their everyday lives — at lunch, in the afternoons and after office hours.

Liquor, as a plot device, first turns up in the fourth episode of “Bewitched” — in October 1964 — when a prospective client comes to dinner at the Stephenses and Samantha turns him into a dog after he drunkenly makes unwanted advances on her.

In an episode that premiered a few weeks later, in November, Darrin is suspected of making advances of his own — on a teen-aged girl who comes to his office to interview him for her school newspaper.  The enterprising reporter starts pouring drinks in his office and when Darrin tries to take a drink away from her it splashes all over his suit, leading to rumors that he was carrying on a drunken affair with her.  “Bewitched”?  That sounds like “Mad Men”!

The real question for “Mad Men”: Will this show acknowledge the existence of “Bewitched” as part of the AMC show’s 1964 time frame?  “Mad Men” is a show whose producers, writers and set designers are meticulous about the details they apply to establishing the show’s place and time.  They simply must have a scene that acknowledges “Bewitched” and the tribulations of McMann & Tate.  Perhaps Don will go visit his kids on a Thursday evening at around 9 o’clock and find them watching the show.

Or maybe the ABC sitcom will come to the attention of Sterling Cooper’s head of TV, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who might make a comment about the show during a meeting about a tough client.  “You know what would help us now?” Harry might ask.  “Witchcraft!”

Don Draper would likely reply dismissively, in a manner similar to Tony Soprano when he informed his crew that he was undergoing psychotherapy and one of them asked if it was like “Analyze This.”

“That’s a comedy!” said Tony, in an annoyed tone.  “This is serious!”

Contact Adam Buckman:

Nothing huge, just a small thing about HBO . . .

April 1, 2012

TRAGEDY and COMEDY:  Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones,” left) and Warwick Davis (“Life’s Too Short”) have ’em covered for HBO. (Photos: HBO)


NEW YORK, April 1, 2012 — Who else but your humble TV Howl correspondent would notice that, as one dwarf actor leaves the “stage” at HBO, another arrives to take his place?

The two little people in question: Warwick Davis — 42, 3’6″ star of “Life’s Too Short,” the seven-episode comedy from Ricky Gervais that ended its first season last Sunday on HBO; and Peter Dinklage, also 42, 4’5″ star of “Game of Thrones,” the drama about warring factions in something resembling England in the Middle Ages that returns for its second season this Sunday night (April 1) on HBO.

Why point out this unique and no doubt coincidental “changing of the guard” (as it were)?  No reason except that it gives me a chance to give “Life’s Too Short” some ink here.  And, to a lesser extent, “Game of Thrones” too.

I have no idea how many people tuned in for all seven episodes of “Life’s Too Short,” but I did and I loved every jaw-dropping moment of it.  This show was so “wrong” in its political incorrectness that I found myself wondering if Gervais had merely proposed it to HBO almost as a joke to see if they would say yes, simply because the folks at HBO like being in business with him.

And then the joke was on him because they did say yes.   So he and Stephen Merchant then had to actually produce this thing.  What they made was a “reality” spoof that had Davis starring as himself in a mock documentary about his life as a dwarf actor who had appeared in a number of movies with famous titles (parts of “Star Wars” and the “Harry Potter” series, to name two of them).

But in the show, he was seen struggling to find work despite those credits, while also trying to make his way in a world configured for bigger people.  If you missed this show, you missed incredible cameo appearances by Liam Neeson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sting (especially him) and Johnny Depp (especially him too).  (What are you waiting for?  Go watch it on On Demand.)

And you missed Warwick — a dwarf,  mind you, who’s making fun of what it’s like to be a dwarf — doing the kind of slapstick, physical comedy that hasn’t been seen since the silent era: Stumbling out of his SUV, climbing a bookcase to reach a trophy in one unforgettable scene, falling backward in his chair onto the floor of a restaurant and taking the tablecloth and dishes with him.

Much of “Life’s Too Short” was so painful to watch that you just sat there and thought, How on earth are they getting away with this?  In the season’s final scene, Warwick, penniless and homeless, was seen bunking in a friend’s dresser drawer.  I can’t wait for season two — if there is one.

Meanwhile, along comes Dinklage, who steals every scene in which he appears in “Game of Thrones.”  I’m a latecomer to this baffling, sprawling series about various factions of warriors and their kings who are all maneuvering into clashes with one another like some giant chess game.

But in the season premiere airing Sunday — which I got to see in advance the other day — Dinklage emerged as the most riveting character in the whole thing.  And that’s saying a lot because this is the kind of series that’s well-populated with serious actors — the kind of people whose bearing and voices suggest some sort of classical training on the British stage.

Not Dinklage, though.  He’s from New Jersey.

OK, so HBO has two dwarf actors appearing in consecutive series.  Does this mean anything?  How should I know?

Contact Adam Buckman:

Derailed: ‘Community’ run over by Subway

March 29, 2012

Joel McHale (Photo: NBC)


NEW YORK, March 29, 2012 — You’ve heard of a subway hijacking (at least in the movies)?  Well, in this case, the shoe’s on the other foot: Subway has hijacked “Community.”

Or maybe “hijacked” is too strong a word because this wasn’t exactly a hostile takeover.  It was a business deal, with NBC agreeing to give the omnipresent sandwich chain an omnipresence in tonight’s episode of the Joel McHale sitcom.

It’s one of the most grandiose “product-placement” arrangements ever staged.  This one is so long, and so sustained — establishing a presence, and a plotline, for Subway throughout the entire half-hour — that it actually goes way beyond categorization as a mere “product placement.”

If that’s all it was, maybe we’d see a student or two in the Greendale Community College cafeteria tucking into a couple of foot-longs.  But in this Subway hijacking, the sandwich chain opens a shop smack dab in the middle of the cafeteria.  And the “owner/manager” is a guy who legally changed his name to Subway.

That way, the sandwich shop’s name — already visible on a huge sign stretching across half the cafeteria — can be mentioned in practically every scene.  And when the Subway name isn’t being uttered, various characters are fondly fist-bumping each other and wryly reciting the two-word slogan for Subway, “Eat fresh.”

While Subway dominates the episode, two other corporations get on-air script mentions as well —  Bed Bath &  Beyond, and Brita, the water filter company.

On the latter “opportunity”: This one was probably inevitable because it plays on a character’s name, Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs.

Subway is emerging this season as a kind of champion of in-show advertising.  In January, three characters in “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS took a break from police work to have a lengthy conversation about the health benefits of Subway sandwiches.  This Subway scene stopped the episode in its tracks, though it’s reasonable to assume that CBS made a lot of money on it.

And a friend mentioned the other day that Subway also had an in-show presence on Tuesday night’s “Biggest Loser” on NBC (though this kind of sponsorship has long been a staple of unscripted shows — from “Project Runway” to “The Apprentice”).

But this Subway hijacking of “Community” is the most blatant such thing I’ve seen.

When these things arise, the question always is: So what’s wrong with it?

It really comes down to this: TV is already overrun by commercials that come in ever-greater quantities and with increased frequency these days.  With so many commercials to deal with already, do we really have to have them within the shows too?  I mean — really?

This episode of “Community” airs at 8 p.m. eastern, Thursday (March 29) on NBC.

Contact Adam Buckman:

‘Luck’ creator has uneven track record at HBO

March 18, 2012

Kevin Dunn in HBO’s “Luck” (Photo: HBO)


NEW YORK, March 18, 2012 — Is David Milch out of luck?

Well, HBO keeps going back to him, despite the pay-cable channel’s uneven track record with the critically acclaimed producer/writer of TV shows people either love or hate.

Milch’s latest creation, the HBO horse-racing series “Luck,” made television history last week when it was abruptly cancelled due to the deaths of three horses during the filming of the show.  The latest, an accident in which a horse fatally injured itself while being walked back to its stall (it was euthanized), happened last Tuesday.

A day later, HBO made the stunning announcement: Production on “Luck” was being shut down for good.

The show was in the midst of filming one of the early episodes in its second season, even as the first season was still underway.  “Luck,” airing Sunday nights at 9 on HBO, has its second-to-last episode on Sunday (March 18) and its final, first-season episode — now its last episode ever — the following weekend (March 25).  Only nine episodes were made for the first season, and HBO was so excited about the show (for, among other reasons, it had succeeded in luring Dustin Hoffman to star in his first TV show) that the cable channel renewed it for a second season almost immediately after the very first episode aired back in late January.

Now, that’s not going to happen as “Luck” goes into the history books as the first TV series ever cancelled due to the deaths of animals used in its production.

In the wake of this week’s cancellation announcement, two subjects to contemplate: (1) Will “Luck” be missed?  And (2) what of David Milch, the bard of Buffalo (the New York city where he was raised), for whom “Luck” was his fourth go-round with HBO (that we know of)?

First, on the merits of “Luck”: Like Milch’s other shows, this one was an acquired taste.  And according to at least one report we read the other day, “Luck” drew more than a million viewers for its premiere and then, eventually, the audience fell to about half that.  The story even suggested HBO was seeking an excuse to cancel “Luck,” and the unlucky horses provided the reason the channel needed to pull the plug.  That’s just conjecture, but my take is: That’s not a far-fetched scenario at all.

Why’d so many people abandon the show?  For the love/hate reason suggested above.  The thing people love about Milch’s shows, primarily, is the intriguing, highly literate dialogue he writes for his characters.  Lovers of great writing appreciate when his characters engage in his trademark verbal sparring, even when they go off on irrelevant tangents, such as last week’s out-of-left-field conversation in which two characters debated the details of the Three Stooges’ “Niagara Falls” comedy bit.

The unusual tone and tempo of the dialogue is also why millions get turned off by Milch.  For one thing, it’s not what they’re used to hearing on TV shows.  For another, his shows often suffer from an action deficit.  Often, you go entire episodes without much happening.  Instead, the hour is sucked up by dialogues that, yes, are very creative, but also stultifying.

That was the thing with “Luck”: The acting was great, for the most part  (Hoffman, Michael Gambon, Jason Gedrick, Joan Allen, Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy and all the rest), the horse-racing scenes were electrifying, and the cinematography was beautiful.  Still, not much happened.  And that’s a turn-off for many.  (Why include the phrase “for the most part” above?  Because the one cast member I didn’t care for was Nick Nolte, who played a gravel-voiced horse trainer.)

As for Milch, his track record with HBO is fascinating: First, there was “Deadwood,” everyone’s favorite Western series and the one that changed forever our perceptions of how the Old West should be portrayed from here on out.  Well, that series got cancelled suddenly before Milch had planned to end it, and fans howled in protest.  HBO promised some future “Deadwood” TV movies, but no one believed that, and indeed, they never happened.

Then there was Milch’s one-season series about a dysfunctional family of southern California surfers and their interactions with a godlike alien – “John From Cincinnati.”    For most people, that show was even less accessible than “Luck.”  (But again, like with all Milch shows, opinions vary widely.  I happened to love “John From Cincinnati” and consider it to be one of the finest TV shows ever produced.  Go figure.)

He then tried his hand at another cop show (he’d long been associated with “NYPD Blue” on ABC) called “Last of the Ninth” (referring to the Ninth Precinct of the NYPD).  He produced a pilot for HBO, but the network declined.  Then they said yes to “Luck” and that show bit the dust because of dead animals.

Will HBO take up any new business with Milch after all of this?  Well, it’s not his fault the horses died, but on this question, as with all Milch questions, there are two camps: Those who love him hope HBO will try again with him.  Those who can’t stand his shows won’t mourn the passing of “Luck.”

If you’ve been following “Luck” up to this point, I suggest you carry it through to the end, even though the March 25 finale does not serve as a series ender.  Truth is, you only really have to expend two more hours with this star-crossed show.  And then it’s good-bye and good luck to “Luck.”

“Luck” airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO (for two more weeks, alas).

Contact Adam Buckman:

In HBO’s ‘Game Change,’ Palin’s a blithering idiot

March 10, 2012

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change.” (Photo: HBO)


NEW YORK, March 10, 2012 — Let’s try and set the record straight on this HBO Sarah Palin movie called “Game Change,” which you’ve no doubt been reading about lately.

TV critics are hailing the movie, in which Julianne Moore plays Palin, in much the same way that they reacted to a previous HBO movie about another presidential campaign — the 2008 made-for-TV movie called “Recount” about the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000.  Both movies were written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach.  Then, as now, the critics are enthusiastic about “Game Change” and, in particular, Moore’s performance.

Of course, any TV movie that purports to portray Sarah Palin will come to TV laden with controversy.  And that rule of thumb certainly applies to “Game Change,” which premieres on HBO on Saturday night (March 10) at 9/8c.

As with any TV dramatization adapted from real events (or, as in this case, a non-fiction book about real events), your enjoyment of “Game Change” might depend on whether or not you accept its portrayal of Sarah Palin.  And this movie’s depiction of Palin is downright brutal.

It’s the Sarah Palin of summer and fall 2008, when she skyrocketed to instant fame as John McCain’s surprise pick to join his ticket as the Republican candidate for vice president.  The movie focuses primarily on three characters — McCain (played by Ed Harris), Palin, and McCain campaign advisor Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson with his usual intensity).

In the movie, which I watched the other day on a preview DVD provided by HBO, Harris puts his own usual intensity on hold to portray McCain as an F-word spewing candidate who seems to prefer that his staff do most of the heavy lifting in the management of his own presidential campaign.

Harris doesn’t really try for out-and-out mimickry in his portrayal of McCain, but that wasn’t the case with Moore.  She nails Palin in all the crucial areas — her voice, her body language, her hair, makeup and wardrobe.  Moore’s portrayal of Palin is the great performance of this movie, and the primary reason to watch it in the first place.  She’s almost certain to be nominated for an Emmy and she’ll probably win it.

Her transformation into Palin was so complete that I couldn’t help but think of Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”  That was a richer role, but the two challenges were essentially the same: How to become another person so completely that you forget about the actress.  Among many great moments in “Game Change,” one of our favorites was when Moore, costumed as Palin, watched Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” playing Palin.  It is a great moment in television.

Having said all that, the portrayal is savage.  This movie posits that Palin the candidate was an uneducated, inarticulate, head-strong egomaniac who knew next to nothing about history, geography, international relations or domestic affairs.  Moreover, according to the movie, when the pressures of running for national office mounted, she caved emotionally.  Basically, the movie depicts Palin as a blithering idiot who couldn’t take the heat.

Is the portrayal true?  Well, it is based on a book – “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin — and it’s the kind of book you assume is factual.

The book was about the Democratic and Republican campaigns that ended with Barack Obama’s victory — and all the people involved in the many dramas that took place that year.  And yet, the movie focuses only on the Palin/McCain drama.

“That book had several movies in it,” says executive producer Gary Goetzman in a video HBO produced to promote the movie.  “So we picked a piece of the book to make this movie.”   You can interpret that statement in any of two ways (or possibly more): (1) For the sake of producing a tightly focused two-hour telemovie, the producers had to pick one of the book’s many stories and restrict the movie to telling that tale, or (2) the producers have it in for Palin.  I suspect there’s more to item (1) than item (2) here, but just the same, both interpretations are probably valid.

Sarah Palin herself has said recently that she hasn’t seen the movie and doesn’t plan on watching it (though I expect she won’t be able to resist giving it at least a wee peek Saturday night, assuming she subscribes to HBO).

Love it or hate it, this movie is too fascinating to dismiss, or miss.

Remember when . . . Sarah Palin became a reality TV star on TLC?  I loved writing about “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” so much that I made 18 columns out of it.  Relive the experience HERE, with all 18 of those columns collected in one special place — only on

Contact Adam Buckman:

Billy Crystal ‘blackface’ controversy is baloney

February 28, 2012

Billy Crystal (left) and Sammy Davis Jr.


NEW YORK, Feb. 28, 2012 — Billy Crystal is being criticized for appearing in costume as Sammy Davis Jr. in the elaborate pre-produced bit that opened the Oscar telecast Sunday night on ABC.

What are the critics complaining about?  His face — specifically, the dark makeup Billy used to complete his impersonation of Sammy.

In the aftermath of the Oscars, the makeup is producing accusations that Billy was doing a racist, “blackface” impersonation of the late, legendary entertainer, who was African-American (and also Jewish).

The Hollywood Reporter has a rundown — here — of the “controversy” and the handful of critics whose Tweets appear to have ignited this mini-firestorm.

For example, a blog identified as “Feministing” declared, “Blackface is not okay, ever.”  And from this thin gruel are “controversies” made these days.

My own opinion is that this “firestorm” doesn’t hold water, but more on that in a moment.

First, the background: Billy turned up in costume as Sammy Davis in the portion of that opening bit that spoofed the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris.”  “Sammy” appeared in a vintage limousine with Justin Bieber (the real one).

The choice was apparently made to include Billy’s “Sammy” character simply because it’s a character he was famous for doing on “Saturday Night Live” when he was a cast member in 1984-85.  Back then, as now, the characterization required dark makeup.  (It’s also worth noting that Billy impersonated Muhammad Ali and Prince on “SNL”; in fact, it was his impression of Ali that made him famous as a young comedian in the 1970s.)

In the wake of Sunday’s “Sammy” appearance on the Oscar show, these “critics” have dealt Billy the “blackface” card.  “Blackface” refers to a practice with roots in 19th-century forms of popular entertainment in which white stage performers blackened their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish to portray African-Americans in ways that often weren’t exactly flattering (and if that’s an understatement, then unlike the Twitterers, I admit right up front I’m not an expert on this subject, though there are plenty of places to learn about it in books and on the Internet).

The “blackface” practice probably reached its zenith when Al Jolson, considered by many to be one of the most electrifying entertainers who ever lived, donned the dark makeup in the early decades of the 20th century to sing songs such as “Mammy,” which certainly wouldn’t fly today.

Cut to the present day: And now, Billy Crystal is being accused of racist “blackfacing” as if he’s been caught barnstorming the country in a minstrel show.

I happen to think this mini-controversy is baloney for several reasons.  For one thing, Billy Crystal has never demonstrated any sort of bias against African-Americans or anyone else, as far I can recall.  In addition, when it comes to Sammy Davis Jr. in particular, he seems to have adored the man — as I learned earlier this month when Billy talked at length about Sammy on Showtime’s “Inside Comedy,” the show on which David Steinberg interviews top comedians about their craft.

Billy told an incredibly affectionate story about Sammy from the days when Billy opened for Sammy in Lake Tahoe (and probably other places).  You could tell that Billy had nothing but love and respect for Sammy.  Certainly, how Sammy felt about Billy’s impersonation of him on “SNL” remains an open question (one biography of Sammy that I own – “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.” by Wil Haygood – doesn’t report on Sammy’s reaction but speculates that he may have felt forced to accept it because of his own history of doing impersonations; Davis died in 1990).

The last thing I’ll say about this is: I think the people criticizing Billy for “blackfacing” are being awfully selective here.  I’m pretty sure Fred Armisen has to tint his face a bit to play Barack Obama on “SNL” (and, in a recent sketch, Prince), but we haven’t seen any “blackface” accusations thrown his way.

In addition, Robert Downey Jr. was criticized by some for applying dark-face makeup for the 2008 movie “Tropic Thunder.”  But that “controversy” died down and was soon forgotten.

My prediction: The same thing will happen with this Crystal controversy too.

Contact Adam Buckman:

And the winner is: Reliable Billy Crystal

February 26, 2012

Billy Crystal at the Oscars Sunday.


NEW YORK, Feb. 26, 2012 — There’s something to be said for reliability.  And that’s what Billy Crystal brought to the Oscars Sunday night when he hosted the show for the ninth time.

What’s so great about reliability as opposed to, say, unpredictability?  The main thing is this: In the hours and days after the telecast, few will complain about the host this year — even those who don’t particularly care for Billy Crystal.  A year ago, the majority of the post-Oscar talk was all about how Anne Hathaway and James Franco flopped (especially him).  And in other years, “unpredictable” hosts such as David Letterman and Chris Rock were panned too.

But with Billy Crystal, you get a guy who takes on one of the hardest jobs in show business and then makes it look easy.  He’s a consummate entertainer — he sings (not perfectly, but good enough for a comic), he dances (sort of) and he knows how to get off jokes and one-liners that are neither too soft nor too sharp.  Instead, Billy tends to bowl ’em right down the middle, which is what this telecast demands and, seemingly, only he can deliver.

And deliver he did for a ninth time, starting with one of his trademark, pre-produced bits — an epic retrospective that opened the show, in which Billy turned up in scenes from all nine of the Best Picture nominees.  The most memorable moment in this bit: When George Clooney kissed him tenderly on the lips in a spoof scene from “The Descendants.”

After his grand entrance, which also included an elaborate song-and-dance routine in which Billy sang lyrics poking fun at all the nominated movies, he appeared at various times throughout the evening, got off a joke or two and then made himself scarce.  That’s also a talent he possesses: Knowing when to get on and off stage before the audience tires of him.

I loved his constant jabs at the theater the telecast was coming from — the former Kodak Theatre that no longer carries the name because the revered company is bankrupt.  I counted at least three references to Kodak’s plight when Billy renamed the venue “the Chapter 11 Theater,” “the Your Name Here Theater” and “the Flomax Theater.”

And I loved the way this veteran comic delivered his jokes.  “So, tonight enjoy yourselves,” he said near the beginning of the show, “because nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues!”

Later, he introduced presenter Christian Bale this way: “A dark knight, an American psycho, a charismatic crack addict [referring to some of Bale’s best-known roles] . . .   You’ll get to choose one on super Tuesday!”

And after a soaring performance by Cirque du Soleil (which really was mind-blowing), Billy said, “Wow, I pulled a hamstring just watching that!  Now it’s a party!  We got puppets, acrobats, we’re a pony away from being a bar mitzvah!”

As for the non-Billy moments, my favorite was the pre-produced bit with the 1939 “focus group” that critiqued “The Wizard of Oz.”  That bit’s participants included Bob Balaban, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge and Catherine O’Hara — the tightknit group of comic actors from Guest’s movies such as “A Mighty Wind,” “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman.”  That was a great surprise.

In the moments before the telecast began, ABC’s Robin Roberts caught up with Natalie Portman on the way into the theater.  And Portman, last year’s Best Actress winner for “Black Swan,” probably spoke for many of us when she told Roberts she was looking forward to the Oscar show because Billy Crystal had returned.

“We’re in good hands,” Portman said.  And she was right.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Here comes the judge: Howard Stern on ‘AGT’

December 15, 2011

Howard Stern on NBC? Yes, it’s happening.


NEW YORK, Dec. 15, 2011 — NBC finally made it official Thursday morning: Howard Stern’s been hired as the third judge on “America’s Got Talent,” replacing the departed Piers Morgan.  Stern will be seen on the show starting next summer.

There are likely many people who are scratching their heads over this hire, people who don’t see how on earth Howard Stern, the notorious radio personality whose conversations with guests on his Sirius XM radio show are often X-rated, will now be seen on one of our biggest TV networks in a show that, if nothing else, is suitable for the whole family.

Sure, on the face of it, he doesn’t seem compatible with this show at all.  But, in fact, he’s a great choice.  Here’s why and how it happened:

1) Stern’s adaptable: One thing many people other than his most ardent fans fail to realize — Howard Stern is a very gifted broadcaster.  Whether you enjoy the subject matter of his conversations on the radio or not, he is still one of the best there is at talking, which, believe it or not, is a skill that only a few have.  And among his skills is this: Putting the potty talk on hold when it’s necessary to do so — on late-night shows, for example, and also when he used to voice commercials for sponsors of his radio show; those commercials were second-to-none.  On “AGT,” Stern will clean up his act accordingly because, while I know this is difficult for many to believe, the guy is a consummate professional.  Yes, it’s true.

2) NBC needed him: How badly?  Enough to move heaven and earth — and the show from L.A. to New York — to get him.  And it will be worth it too — Stern will not only be very entertaining week after week, but the man is an electro-magnet for media attention.  His utterings on the show will be widely covered, at least initially, and “AGT” will reap the benefits in publicity.  In fact, with Stern on board, there’s little reason, other than timing, why this show shouldn’t air during the regular season on NBC, instead of the summer.  It would certainly do better than “The Sing-Off” or “The Biggest Loser,” competition shows that NBC had on its fall lineup this season that performed terribly in the ratings.

3) Stern “needed” this gig: Not in the sense that one “needs” a job in order to make money to support his family.  Stern’s rich enough to never have to work, but I suspect that an offer like this was irresistible to Stern, if it could be arranged.  Ever since he left terrestrial radio for Sirius, Stern has not been nearly the center of attention he once was in the heyday of his national morning show on old-fashioned broadcast radio.  With this “AGT” gig, he gets an opportunity for exposure in what is probably the most mainstream environment of his career — a G-rated talent show on one of our major TV networks.  Plus, he gets to feel relevant again, a media personality who still has the clout to get a network to roll out the red carpet for him, even though his history on television is mixed at best, and at worst, dismal.

Howard Stern on “America’s Got Talent”?  Our prediction: “AGT” is now poised to become the most talked-about TV show of 2012.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Inside the origins of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

December 7, 2011

Downtrodden Charlie Brown searches for the true meaning of Christmas in the revered holiday special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Photo: ABC).



NEW YORK, Dec. 7, 2011 — It went on to become the most popular and beloved of all of TV’s Christmas specials, but when CBS executives first laid eyes on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965, they didn’t care for it.

“They just didn’t like the show when I brought it to them” for the first time, recalled one of the show’s producers, Lee Mendelson, 78, in a recent phone interview from California.  Mendelson was executive producer of the special, along with “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, who died in 2000, and the late Bill Melendez.

“They just didn’t, for whatever reason, like the show,” he said.   “The first thing they said was, ‘Well, it’s going to go on next week.  There’s nothing we can do about it,’ but I remember them saying it will probably be the first and last Charlie Brown show.  . . .  They thought it was too slow, they didn’t like the jazz music so much on a Christmas show – in other words, these were all creative things that they didn’t like.”

In fact, Mendelson and Melendez thought they’d “missed the boat” too.  It was their first network special with Schulz and his Peanuts characters and it was shaping up to be their last.  “When we finished the show, Bill and I were very discouraged,” Mendelson said.  “In fact, Bill thought we had really missed the boat [and] I remember one of the animators stood up in the back and said, ‘You guys are crazy.  This is gonna run for a hundred years!’  We thought he was crazy.”

Mendelson also shed light on a popular misconception about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – namely, that the CBS execs objected to the special’s Christian content.  “They had no problem with the [show’s] religious aspects,” Mendelson said.

In the show’s famous “biblical verse” scene – unique in the annals of holiday TV specials – an anguished Charlie Brown vents his frustration over the commercialism that has overtaken the holiday.  “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” he asks.

Linus then strides to center stage and asks that the lights be dimmed.  He then recites the Bible passage – from the gospel according to Luke, verses 8-14.  “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night,” he says.  “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them . . .  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  . . . ”

If anyone had reservations about the Bible verses, it was Mendelson and Melendez, but not Schulz because it was Schulz’s idea.  Recalled Mendelson, “I remember when we were drawing up the show, Schulz said, ‘We’re going to have [Linus] read from the Bible.’  And Bill and I looked at each other and Bill said, ‘You know, I don’t think animated characters have probably ever read from the Bible.  And I remember Schulz’s response.  He said, ‘Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?’ ”

Despite everyone’s reservations about the special, it was a smash – watched by about half the country (on Dec. 9, 1965).  Among other things, the jazz music – by the Vince Guaraldi Trio – that the CBS execs disliked became world famous.  And it was far from the last Peanuts special produced by the triumvirate of Schulz, Mendelson and Melendez.  They made dozens of others in a collaboration that lasted about 30 years.

This year, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is airing on network TV for its 47th consecutive holiday season.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Joan Rivers’ own tragic history on ‘The Simpsons’

December 5, 2011

Krusty the Clown and agent Annie Dubinsky (Joan Rivers) in last Sunday’s episode of “The Simpsons” on Fox (Photos: Fox)


NEW YORK, Dec. 5, 2011 — “The Simpsons” crammed a ton of TV history into that new episode seen this past Sunday night on Fox — not only spoofing Ralph Kramden and “The Honeymooners” and other iconic shows — but also featuring a storyline for guest-star Joan Rivers that cut close to the bone.

It was a story about a top comedy talent headlining a network TV show and the show’s headstrong producer, with whom the comedian has a close personal relationship.  In the episode, the producer — played by Rivers — threw her weight around so much on the set that network execs ordered the comedian, Krusty the Clown, to fire her, or else they would.

The story, no doubt devised with Rivers’ approval and possibly with her input, mirrored her own personal history — with Fox, no less — back in 1987.  That’s when she starred in a late-night show on the then-fledgling network — “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” — while her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, acted as executive producer.  When Fox execs ordered her to fire Edgar, she refused and they were both canned.  Three months later, he committed suicide — the worst tragedy of Rivers’ life.

And yet, there she was on “The Simpsons” spoofing her own tragic history — something only a comedian of her stature and experience would attempt.

In the episode, Krusty’s kids show got cancelled because he was so sadly behind the times (even referring in a meeting with network executives to “Percy Dovetonsils,” a character not seen on TV since the late Ernie Kovacs played him in the 1950s).  So Krusty linked up with Annie Dubinsky (Rivers), who was once his agent and girlfriend in the 1960s until he dumped her.  This past Sunday, she engineered his comeback after the cancellation.  But then, he had to fire her.

The whole episode dealt with the history of television, starting out with a Simpson family outing to the Springfield Museum of Television, which was closing and holding a memorabilia fire sale because no one apparently cared anymore about the early history of TV.  And, as Homer lamented, you don’t need to visit a museum anymore to see clips of old shows when you have the Internet.

At the museum, the family encountered an exhibit devoted to an old — and fictional — black-and-white show from the ’50s called “Fatso Flanagan,” which bore more than a resemblance to the old “Honeymooners.”  Homer and Marge even mimicked the famed “Baby, you’re the greatest!” scenes from “The Honeymooners” as Homer described how almost every comedy ever made for TV was based somehow on “The Honeymooners.”

It was an incredibly rich episode, and one that ought to put to rest, at least for now, rumblings from some critics lately that “The Simpsons” ought to be put out to pasture.  All we can say to that is this: Not yet, Fox — not yet.

Contact Adam Buckman:

‘Entourage’ series finale: A Hollywood ending

September 12, 2011

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’: Adrian Grenier in “Entourage” (Photo: HBO)


NEW YORK, Sept. 12, 2011 — That was a dirty trick – ending the final episode of “Entourage” with “Going to California,” Led Zeppelin’s iconic song about the lure and promise of southern Cal.

The song framed a finish full of elaborate happy endings for the show’s principal characters – four of whom were once boys from New York who followed their dreams to California and, by the looks of it Sunday night on HBO, attained them.

The Led Zeppelin song came as they were gathered in an airplane hangar preparing to take two separate private jets on trips abroad – and at least three of the five were embarking on new lives representing a newfound maturity that was not much in evidence in this fun-loving, free-wheeling show’s previous seasons and episodes.

Why was the Zeppelin song a dirty trick?  Because it happens to be a beautiful song, and thus elevated a series that was never long on sentiment to something with meaning – at least for its final moments.

Of course, the neat tying up of all the show’s loose ends in one 35-minute final episode was as much of a fantasy as the way the show’s various storylines were wrapped up for each of the characters:

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier): After one 24-hour date with the new love of his life – the journalist Sophia Lear (Alice Eve) – Vince declared they would marry that very evening in Paris, bought a ring for more than a million dollars and lined up a private jet to whisk everyone abroad.

Eric “E” Murphy (Kevin Connolly): Thanks to Vince’s largesse – not to mention his charismatic powers of persuasion – Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) agreed to meet E at the airport for their own private jet flight anywhere in the world.  With Sloan already pregnant with their child, we’re left to assume they will live happily ever after.

Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven): Ari did the unthinkable: He threw over his job as co-owner of the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood – the occupation that always seemed as vital to his survival as the blood coursing through his veins – in order to reconcile with Mrs. Ari (Perrey Reeves).  With the help of a young trio of Italian opera singers, the gambit worked and Mr. and Mrs. Ari joined the group for the trip to Paris.

Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon): There were no marriages or new loves for these two – their happy endings were sealed a week earlier, with Drama getting the TV-movie role of his dreams and Turtle becoming a multimillionaire thanks to Vince’s safe-keeping of Turtle’s investment in the tequila company.

Lloyd (Rex Lee): We were glad to see that a consideration of Lloyd’s future was included in the “Entourage” finale.  He was a great character and, in the end, when he fretted about what he would do at the agency without Ari to guide him, Ari told him, rightfully, that he possesses all the tools now to go in there and make his mark in the firm – and not as an Ari clone either, but as his own man.

“Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams . . . ”  “Going to California”?  Why not?  I wrote back when “Entourage” began in 2004 that, at its heart, it was a series about California – specifically, southern California (by which we mean L.A. and Hollywood) – about the fantasy and the reality of the place, and how the two are sometimes difficult to distinguish.

As for the series finale, whether you buy into the neat and tidy happy endings that creator Doug Ellin and his team conjured for the episode, as a time capsule of life in La La Land in the years 2004-2011, “Entourage” got it right.  And we’ll miss it.

Contact Adam Buckman:

‘Rescue Me’ finale: Leary series goes out on top

September 8, 2011

R.I.P. Lt. Lou Shea: John Scurti in “Rescue Me” — his character was eulogized, hilariously, on the series finale Wednesday (Photo: FX)


NEW YORK, Sept. 8, 2011 — Tommy Gavin didn’t die.  Instead, it was Lou, his best friend and perhaps the most likable of all the characters on “Rescue Me.”

A tragedy to end the firefighters’ series run?  Yes, but not completely.  Though Lou’s death was certainly tragic, leaving all of his surviving colleagues to question their futures in the New York City Fire Department, most of the one-hour series finale seen on FX Wednesday night played like a comedy.

That happened to be this show’s signature: Premiering in July 2004 and ending its run this week as the nation prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “Rescue Me” at its heart was a drama about one New York firefighter’s reaction to the loss of 343 FDNY brethren in the collapse of the Twin Towers that day in 2001.  That’s a weighty subject, to be sure, but since that firefighter, Tommy, was played by comedian Denis Leary (who also co-created, co-wrote and co-produced the series), much of the series was given over to Leary’s dark sense of humor.

Such was the case in the finale Wednesday night titled “Ashes.”  The ashes in the title were all that remained of sweet Lou (played to perfection for all seven seasons by John Scurti) after he was killed a week earlier in a warehouse fire (the location recognizable to all who ride the New York subway system’s elevated No. 7 train through Long Island City in Queens).  The collapse of that building left the survival of any of the firefighters in question leading into the finale.

And as the final episode began, it seemed as if at least five of them had succumbed.  But no — it was a dream conjured by Gavin, a dream in which Lou was seen eulogizing the five men with a rousing speech about the nature of firefighting — a grand piece of screen-writing, by the way, as was much of this final episode.

Certainly, it had been speculated that Tommy himself would be among the dead — a novel and striking way to end a series: Having the all-important main character, who’d been seen in virtually every scene of the show for seven years, get killed off.

But it was Lou who died, and his sendoff was a masterpiece, particularly in the choreography of the sequence in which two windows in Tommy’s SUV were opened simultaneously — because Tommy ordered Franco and Black Shawn to toss out their chewing gum — and the sudden cross-ventilation caused Lou’s ashes to suddenly explode out of their box, covering driver, passengers and the entire interior of the vehicle with his earthly remains.

Then, in a perfectly balanced combination of sentiment and black comedy, Tommy poignantly read a letter left to him by Lou (in case of Lou’s death), and then tossed his “ashes” — actually a box of Betty Crocker cake mix that Lou’s brethren bought at the 11th hour to stand in for his ashes — over a cliff and into the sea (it looked like Long Island Sound).

Other scenes were laden with comedy too, such as the scene where Tommy, contemplating life as an FDNY retiree, battles with a group of parents at a politically correct playground (filmed in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City, about half a block from the World Trade Center site) over the sharing of kids’ toys in the sandbox.  Forget about “Rescue Me” — that was like a scene out of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” only better.

In the end, Tommy didn’t retire, but nor did he assume Lou’s lieutenant’s role, which was his right as senior firefighter in the house.  Instead, he let the promotion go to the gung-ho Franco.

As the episode came to a close, Franco and Tommy were seen exhorting a group of new FDNY recruits on the meaning of belonging to a select group of people of run toward and into burning buildings when everyone else is running out and away from them.

In the show’s touching last scene, Tommy was seen behind the wheel of his SUV having a jovial conversation with an old friend seated in the passenger seat — the ghost of Lou.

This episode was one of the best-written episodes of any single TV show seen in years.  Our hope for Leary and his team is that they get recognized for it.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Katie in the afternoon: You be the judge

June 11, 2011

Katie Couric’s coming to daytime but no one knows how she’ll do (Photo: Disney/ABC)


NEW YORK, June 11, 2011 — A lot of people want to know lately: How will Katie Couric do on daytime TV?

My answer?  I have no idea.  It’s not because I’m at a loss for words or can’t quite generate an opinion.  I’ve never had those problems.  Just on the face of it, I think that generally speaking, the odds don’t favor her making a big splash with a daytime talk show.  There are just too many variables afflicting daytime television these days to state with certainty that she’s a slamdunk to emerge with a hit talk show on her hands.

Not that it’s impossible, but this is a time of day that is seriously in flux nowadays as far as television is concerned.  Based on everything that’s going on now in daytime, this new Katie Couric talk show is a huge gamble that could go either way.

Here are the factors at play, in no particular order, as Couric prepares to enter the daytime arena about 15 months from now:

1) What exactly is daytime television?  One thing it’s not: A place where any former network news anchor has ever set up shop and succeeded.  A personality with Couric’s news background might be expected to attract newsmakers as guests, for conversations about stories or subjects in the news.  The problem with that: No one’s ever attempted that in a syndicated afternoon talk show.

2) The cable news channels own that kind of news/talk on weekday afternoons.  They’ve owned it ever since the 1990s, when the O.J. Simpson trials, the Clinton impeachment, and stories such as the Elian Gonzalez saga and the 2000 presidential election recount riveted viewers in afternoons.  Broadcast networks began to notice: These “real-life” soap operas were stealing their audiences.

3) So maybe there’s an opportunity for Couric, a newsperson, to siphon off some of the audience for news/talk in the afternoon.  Maybe, but is that audience really big enough to sustain her show?  That’s doubtful.  It should be noted that Anderson Cooper is poised to do the same thing — start an afternoon talk show.  So it’s clear some people in the TV business think the afternoon is ripe for this kind of thing.

4) But is the afternoon audience ripe for it, whoever they are?  Sure, everybody’s focusing on Oprah Winfrey leaving daytime, and then, theoretically, leaving an opportunity for someone like Couric to come in and grab the “serious” afternoon TV viewer.  But are there really enough of them?  Take a look at daytime TV — Oprah was an exception.  Most of the shows on daytime are low-rent judge shows and talk shows like “Maury” and “Jerry Springer” (and yes, Ellen Degeneres holds on somehow, with ratings are that pretty low, but apparently just enough to keep her show profitable).  Will the audience for all these other shows suddenly flock to Katie Couric?  Probably not.

5) Katie’s no Oprah.  And that’s the crux of the matter.  Even Oprah’s audience was in decline, and she’s Oprah.  That’s probably why she decided to leave daytime syndication and stake her future on cable TV.  Judge Judy was beating her in the ratings and she knew it.  The question is: Do people like Katie Couric?  Once upon a time she was America’s sweetheart at “The Today Show.”  Then, something happened — I don’t know what it was, but nowadays she doesn’t seem as beloved as she once was.  In fact, that’s an understatement.  In some quarters, Couric is so polarizing a personality that she’s on par with Sarah Palin in the kinds of reactions she draws from readers of blog posts like this one.

6) Daytime is so unpredictable these days that even the traditional soap operas — the long-time backbone of daytime TV — are on life-support.  Under the circumstances, it’s just too chaotic to figure out whether Katie Couric can come along and plant her flag on this shaky ground.  Fact is, she’s a very capable broadcaster, but the savior of daytime TV?  Who came up with that idea?

Contact Adam Buckman:

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