Archive for the ‘New York Post’ Category

In Post-Convention Week, Trump’s In Two Blogs

August 5, 2016
This week's TV blogs -- from Colbert to Trump to Ailes and back to Trump. Read 'em all, below.

This week’s TV blogs — from Colbert to Trump to Ailes and back to Trump. Read ’em all, below.


NEW YORK, Aug. 5, 2016 — It was a week without political conventions on TV.  As a result, the TV blog returned to normal, covering a variety of topics drawn from the diverse world of TV. And yet, Donald Trump still managed to become the topic of two of them. Read all five of my MediaPost TV blogs from the past week with these links:

Monday, Aug. 1: Stephen Colbert In Search Of Self

Tuesday, Aug. 2: Rubbernecking At A Trainwreck: The Donald Brags About His Ratings

Wednesday, Aug. 3: On TLC, A Kiss Is Still A Kiss, As Summertime Goes By

Thursday, Aug. 4: After Ailes, The Show Goes On At Fox News Channel

Friday, Aug. 5: The Greatest Donald Trump Story Ever Told

Contact Adam Buckman:

Read Adam Buckman’s book: “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” … Read a sample on his Amazon book page HERE … Then order it today!

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Hey, Now! A Treasury Of Garry Shandling Stories

March 28, 2016
Garry Shandling was proud of this headline and review of "The Larry Sanders Show" in The New York Post TV section. This picture ran in The Post on May 30, 1998.

Garry Shandling was proud of this headline and review of “The Larry Sanders Show” by Michele Greppi in The New York Post TV section. This picture ran in The Post on May 30, 1998. Photo by Lawrence Schwartzwald



NEW YORK, March 28, 2016 — I did not know Garry Shandling at all, but he figured into a couple of personal stories.

One was an interview I conducted with him over the phone some time in the 1990s when he was about to host the annual CableACE Awards. “ACE” meant “Award for Cable Excellence.” This was the cable industry’s answer to the Emmys back in the era when the Emmys used to shun TV shows made for cable.

My interview with Shandling does not survive – neither the audiotape nor the published story. For me, what was noteworthy about the story was that it enabled my long-deceased grandfather to earn a byline in TV Guide. The reason for this was because I had taken on this assignment as some sort of a writing test for a job at TV Guide at a time when I was working as the TV editor for the New York Post and didn’t want The Post to know I was applying for a job elsewhere.

So the TV Guide editor allowed me to pick a pseudonym for the byline and I chose the name of my maternal grandfather, Daniel Cooperman, who had been a lifelong pharmacist and, to my knowledge, never read TV Guide. He was a great guy and I was glad to get him a byline in what was at that time one of the highest-circulating magazines on Earth.

As for the interview with Shandling, I cannot re-create any of our conversation, but I remember that it was a terrible interview. On the phone from L.A., he was dour and combative, and gave the impression that he would have preferred to be doing just about anything else at that moment except be interviewed.

For me, it was the first of several such interviews with comedians in those days that eventually made me swear off interviewing comedians altogether – a self-imposed ban that I honored for nearly 10 years. I concluded from this handful of interviews that comedians – the people who make us laugh – are, generally speaking, unhappy people. Either they see interviews as opportunities to exercise their uncontrollable compulsion for spouting wisecracks, or if they are not in the mood for that, they just give answers that reveal they couldn’t care less about being interviewed. P.S. I didn’t get the TV Guide job.

I was nevertheless an admirer of Garry Shandling’s work, and I was well-aware of the attention that was being paid to “The Larry Sanders Show,” his HBO series about late-night TV. So some time in 1993, one of our TV reporters at The Post, Michele Greppi, interviewed Shandling about the show, and I put the story on the day’s list of stories we planned on publishing in the TV section the next day. And off I went to the morning editorial meeting in the editor-in-chief’s office.

On this particular day, we had a visitor who I had never encountered before at a morning news meeting – The Post’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. This was back in the days when HBO was not nearly the juggernaut it eventually became, and its audience (i.e. subscribership) paled in comparison to the major broadcast networks. Moreover, cable TV itself was still relatively new to vast swaths of the New York metropolitan area. Indeed, in the Queens neighborhood where I then lived, we didn’t get cable TV until something like 1989.

Mr. Murdoch said little or nothing while other editors recited their news lists. But perhaps because he was interested generally in TV, he decided to weigh in on mine. In his Australian accent, he questioned the value of slotting a story about this HBO series into the next day’s paper because, in his view, the show’s audience, and HBO’s distribution, was too miniscule to justify taking up space with it.

Somehow I came up with an answer. Recovering from the initial shock of being addressed by Rupert Murdoch, I told him that I understood his concerns. But I assured him that stories about HBO were relatively rare in the Post TV section – in proportion, I surmised, to the channel’s relatively small audience at the time.

I also added that as TV editor, I liked to pay particular attention to TV shows that were about television, and “The Larry Sanders Show” — which was about a fictional late-night show — was certainly a stellar example of this, and on that basis alone, would hopefully be of interest to readers of our TV section. Mr. Murdoch seemed OK with this explanation and the story stayed.

In the early summer of 1992, I attended a taping of the then-new “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” at NBC Studios in Burbank. Shandling was one of the guests that day. In those days, Leno was still trying to find his footing on the show and in a conversation he and I had backstage after the show, he fretted that he hadn’t been funny. Incredibly, I found myself in the unexpected position of having to assure Jay Leno that he had been funny, and that he shouldn’t worry about it.

As far as I can remember, I did not meet Shandling, but my impression after the show was that he got the best of Leno during their segments together, and I even formed the impression that Shandling was working hard to do so. I don’t truthfully recall if Leno was funny or not, but Shandling was.

On a Friday afternoon in May 1998, a Post photographer was trolling for celebrities on Madison Avenue when he ran into Garry Shandling at an outdoor café having lunch with Jeff Bewkes, then the chairman and CEO of HBO. Shandling was in the midst of reading the Post’s TV section, which that day ran a five-star review by Michele Greppi of the final-season premiere of “The Larry Sanders Show.”

The photographer, Lawrence Schwartzwald, asked Shandling to hold up the TV page, which featured a banner headline that read, “One last ‘Hey, now!’ for ‘Larry Sanders’.”

Garry, who was apparently more cooperative that day than he had been when I interviewed him some years before, gladly complied. This photo of Garry Shandling, smiling and apparently self-satisfied by the coverage that day, appeared in the next day’s TV section, Saturday, May 30, 1998.  In fact, I put it there.

Shandling, who died last Thursday at age 66, left a very long and valuable legacy on TV as a “Carson” show guest and frequent guest host, as the star of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” in the early years of the Fox network. and then as the star and creative force behind “The Larry Sanders Show” on HBO.

For a time, Garry Shandling was omnipresent on TV, which explains why he recurs in these unrelated and, truth be told, beside-the-point stories from my own career on the TV beat. Hey, now.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Read Adam Buckman’s book: “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” … Read a sample on his Amazon book page HERE … Then order it today!

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David Bowie, ‘Heroes’ and a Newspaper Rebellion

January 11, 2016

Heroes David BowieBy ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Jan. 11, 2016 — In March 1993, I was present at a newspaper insurrection.

It probably still stands as the most notorious staff uprising in modern newspaper history.

And in the chaos of the turmoil’s climactic week, I found I couldn’t shake David Bowie’s song “Heroes” from my head – a phenomenon described today as an “earworm.”

As the drama of that week enveloped us all, I felt like I was in the company of heroes – these New York Post editors and reporters who felt obligated to fight back against uncaring, belligerent owners even though the odds of victory were very long.

The “heroes” label was not my creation. We were being lauded in other media that week for the brash stance we had taken, which reached its apogee on Tuesday, March 16, 1993. That was the day we published an edition made up almost entirely of stories and editorials blasting our then-owners, a New York parking lot magnate and notorious eccentric named Abe Hirschfeld, and a publisher from Harlem named Wilbert Tatum.

930316NYPost-cvrThe cover of that day’s edition was an enlargement of the picture of Alexander Hamilton, the Post’s founder in 1801, that used to be placed every day in one of the upper corners of the paper’s front pages. This time, he took up the entire page, with a dramatic teardrop placed just under the corner of his right eye.

I first laid eyes on this front page on a staircase as it was being delivered to the composing room on Monday evening.  Other than an elevator that was so slow no one could be bothered to wait for it just to travel to the floor above, this staircase in the old Post building at 210 South Street was the only other route between the fourth and fifth floors, and it was heavily traveled by editors going back and forth between the Post’s newsroom and the composing room, where printers pasted up the pages. As TV editor at the Post in those days, I used to go up and down these stairs about 20 times a night for close to five years.

On this particular evening, I ran into one of the Post’s editors about mid-flight – Tommy Ko – who held a rolled-up object in one hand that I took to be surreptitious, since this wasn’t the way Tommy had traditionally transported pages upstairs.

So I called him on it. I asked him what it was, and may have even guessed it was the front page for the next day’s edition. Citing a need for secrecy, he was reluctant to show it to me.

For the better part of an entire day, all of us had been engaged in putting together an entire issue of the paper blasting our owners.  The Post newsroom was on the fourth floor, just two floors below the executive offices on the sixth — which meant we were undertaking this rebellion virtually under the very noses of our owners.  Now it was close to press time and they were still clueless, and would remain so until the edition was published and on the street.

On the staircase, I pressed Tommy to unroll the page and I saw it for the first time. It was a glorious thing to behold and I was excited and anxious about the impact it would have when it hit newsstands late that evening and the next morning.

Among other things, this edition had a story on page three with the headline “WHO IS THIS NUT?” in something like 120-point type over a picture of Hirschfeld. There was also a story on the page about an incident at a Miami airport some time previously in which Hirschfeld was filmed by a local TV station in the act of spitting on a reporter. The spitting picture, a screen grab, was my one and only contribution to this edition of the Post. I had secured it from a source at CBS, which owned the Miami station whose news crew had filmed it.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ Dylan Thomas advised, and reporters and editors of The New York Post have taken the poet at his word,” said the New York Times in an editorial published the next day, on March 17. “Hemorrhaging red ink and on the brink of extinction, The Post hit the streets yesterday with a pungent, brassy issue that illustrated just what the city would lose if the paper shuts down. …

“Only The New York Post would publish an issue skewering its own boss. … In irreverence lies The Post’s charm, and a serious point: Money may be able to buy a newspaper’s real estate, computers and presses, but its soul belongs to the people who report, write and edit [it].”

In the midst of the tumult, David Bowie’s “Heroes” lodged in my brain, with its lyrics, “We can beat them, just for one day. We can be heroes, just for one day …” In my head, I was romanticizing the experience we were all having, perhaps as a counterpoint to the seriousness of the situation. We were all in danger of losing our jobs — and a whole lot more too — if the Post went down the tubes, which was where it seemed headed.

At around midday on one of the days of that week, I called a local radio station and requested that they play “Heroes” and dedicate it to the heroes of The New York Post. The station was WXRK, the one known as “K-Rock,” at 92.3 FM, because I knew someone who worked there.

Pete Fornatale played the song and my dedication, which I never heard since I didn’t possess a radio at the office. Many years later, after I had long forgotten it, Pete confirmed in a conversation that he played it that day. He remembered it, even if I did not.

Pete died in 2012. David Bowie died today in the wee hours of the morning. He left a catalogue of unforgettable hit songs and thousands, if not millions, of people each with their own memories.

P.S. The Post survived.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Read Adam Buckman’s book: “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” … Read a sample on his Amazon book page HERE … Then order it today!

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Complicated man: Remembering Morton Downey

July 30, 2015
FORGET HIM NOT: Morton Downey Jr. played the role of the angry man on his 1980s talk show, but it was difficult to tell if the image he created was just an act or the real Mort. (Photo: CNN)

FORGET HIM NOT: Morton Downey Jr. played the role of the angry man on his 1980s talk show, but it was difficult to tell if the image he created was just an act or the real Mort. (Photo: CNN)


‘He was the most vexing TV personality I ever knew’ – book excerpt, below, from JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television by Adam Buckman


"Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie" comes to CNN Aug. 20.

“Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” comes to CNN Aug. 20.

NEW YORK, July 30, 2015 — A documentary called “Evocateur” evokes memories of a brief time — a little less than two years in the 1980s, as a matter of fact — in which one man turned the TV business on its head and, as it turned out, a portion of the popular culture too.

He was Morton Downey Jr., who is the subject of the documentary subtitled “The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.”  It was completed in 2012 and makes its TV debut on CNN on Thursday, Aug. 20, at 9 p.m. Eastern.  The film was produced and directed by Seth Kramer, Danny Miller and Jeremy Newberger of Ironbound Films.

The documentary tells the story of Downey’s meteoric rise and fall, framing his emergence as a lightning rod for controversy within the context of his times.  As the documentary notes, the combative, confrontational style he pioneered on his locally produced TV talk show has become de rigueur on TV today.  But back then, Downey was ahead of his time.

As a journalist on the TV beat both at the beginning of Downey’s TV career in 1987 and at the end of his life in 2001, I have my own stories to tell about a man who was unlike anyone else I ever encountered in the TV business.  Here is the story of Morton Downey Jr. and me, excerpted from my book, “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television”:


Part V

Click on the pic to visit my Amazon book page.

Click on the pic to visit my Amazon book page.

Books, TV shows, public appearances, charitable works – these were the kinds of promotable projects for which celebrities or their representatives would get in touch with journalists to arrange interviews.

Read “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman: Order your copy today — right HERE!

One celebrity topped them all, however, when he called me up to promote something no one else ever tried to get me to publicize: His death.

He was Morton Downey Jr., perhaps the most vexing personality I ever came across in the television business.  I first met him in fall 1987 or early 1988, when he was rocketing to fame as the loud-mouthed host of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” – the most talked-about TV show of its era.

Starting locally as a nightly show in New York City in fall 1987, it went national in May 1988, but then never found the wide audience its syndicators hoped it would.  Advertisers judged the show to be too vitriolic and controversial and they stayed away too.  As a result, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” declined and fell as quickly as it ascended.  After just one year in national syndication, it was cancelled in early summer 1989.  Though the show lasted less than two years, it turned Downey – who was 54 when the show premiered – into the most notorious TV personality in America, however briefly.

May 9, 1988: "The Morton Downey Jr. Show" goes national. (Source: Author's collection)

May 1988: “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” goes national.

He accomplished this by positioning himself as an attack dog for the right – verbally assaulting (and occasionally physically assaulting) his more-liberal guests.  Wildly waving the cigarettes that he became famous for chain-smoking on the air, he would get close enough to his guests to blow smoke in their faces.  He railed against liberals and called them “pablum-pukers” – a label that became something of a catchphrase for him.  His show was incendiary and so was he.  And although he foreshadowed the contentious, partisan television talk-show hosts of today, back in ’87 he was the only one.

Downey had come from radio, where partisan, opinionated talk personalities were all the rage.  He migrated to television courtesy of WWOR/Ch. 9 in New York, an independent station that was desperate for ratings during prime-time hours because it was not then affiliated with any network.  So the station produced the Downey show in its own studios in Secaucus, N.J., and made headlines almost from the start.  In my first story on Downey in November 1987, one unnamed TV executive described the show as “a cross between Ted Koppel and professional wrestling.”  The show took viewer phone calls, and members of the studio audience were invited to stand at a podium at the foot of one of the aisles and participate also – when they weren’t leaping from their seats and screaming.  “The shouting contributes to the chaotic texture of the show,” I wrote.  “In fact, sometimes the program seems out of control,” I continued, demonstrating a talent for understatement.

Morton Downey Jr. on the set of his talk show.

Morton Downey Jr. on the set of his talk show.

By writing about it, I had also demonstrated my fascination with the show and with Downey himself, and it wasn’t long before I was invited to join him for lunch at 21 on West 52nd Street.  He couldn’t have been more charming, which was understandable because he was evidently intent on wooing a reporter to help support his show and promote it into national syndication.  He was entertaining, ebullient company – nothing like the persona he adopted for his TV show.  I formed the impression that the yelling and posturing he affected on TV was an act.  Maybe he really believed the things he said on the show or maybe he didn’t, but like so many other TV and radio personalities who feign anger and spew vitriol on TV and radio, he was not that same opinionated, high-decibel guy in person.  Whatever or whoever Morton Downey Jr. really was, that lunch was the beginning of a relationship – not quite a friendship, but something – that would last until his death in 2001, the very death he called me to promote.

From our table at 21, in this former speakeasy’s intimate wood-paneled dining room, Mort pointed to a banquette nearby where he said his mother was sitting when she went into labor on the night he was born in 1932.  Was the story true?  With Mort, you never could tell.  It was certainly possible that back on that December evening in ’32, his mother was gaily enjoying drinks, or at least supper, at 21.  She was a dancer and a movie actress named Barbara Bennett, and her two sisters – Mort’s aunts – were movie stars, Constance and Joan Bennett.  His father, Morton Downey, was a debonair singer and radio star of the 1930s.  Morton Downey Jr.’s career would be a lot less glamorous, but a lot more infamous.

And his career continued for a time after the cancellation of that first notorious talk show.  It was near the end of that show’s run in 1989 that Mort began forming the habit of calling me up.  In one such call, in June 1989, he phoned to deny that his show was on the verge of being cancelled, even though reports in the TV trade press were insisting that the show would soon be gone.  “My obituary has been written before,” he told me then.  “I’ve had seven lives, but I still have two more.”

Days later, the announcement came: “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” was dead.

But not Mort – at least not yet.

July 31, 1989: New projects in the works

July 31, 1989: New projects in the works

Just a few weeks later, he held a news conference to lay out his future plans, which included a sitcom pilot and a series of daily radio commentaries.  And thus began a nearly 12-year run of future-project announcements from Morton Downey Jr.

Not that some of them weren’t true – at least initially.  In the years following the end of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” Mort had two shows on CNBC, with the first one – titled “Showdown” – premiering in December 1989, just months after the syndicated show breathed its last.  “TV is a crazy business,” he told me when “Showdown” premiered.  “A few months ago, they said I was dead.  Well, I’ve been dead more times than W.C. Fields,” he said – a Fields reference I didn’t understand at the time, and still don’t.

The CNBC shows came and went.  Then came a series of local radio jobs – in Washington, Dallas and Cleveland.  They were short-lived.  And then it appeared that Mort himself would be short-lived too.  After years of chain-smoking, he had lung cancer.  He told me the news in another one of his surprise phone calls, which had continued in the years following his TV heyday.  The phone would ring and there would be Mort when I least expected him, calling from California where he now lived to tell me about new plans and projects – an upcoming guest shot on a talk show, a new radio gig, a TV talk show, a new Web site.  Whether his plans were real or imagined, I loved to hear him talk, though I rarely wrote the items he asked for.

Then came the call in July 1996 when Mort told me in a hoarse voice that he was about to enter a California hospital for surgery to remove part of a lung.  “Say a prayer,” Mort said solemnly.  “I’m scared stiff.”

July 12, 1996: "Prayers for Mort"

July 12, 1996: “Prayers for Mort”

From the way he described his illness and this operation, I wouldn’t have been too surprised to learn over the weekend that he had died on the operating table.  Whatever the outcome would be, I didn’t hesitate to write a story for him.  This kind of story was a tabloid staple – a story about a prominent personality on his or her deathbed, with a limited, but time-tested selection of possible headlines: “Prayers for Mort,” “Mort’s brave last days,” “Mort’s agony,” and the classic “Mort’s plea: Let me die!”

I went with “Prayers for Mort” for a five-inch story on Mort’s pre-surgery agony, and then followed up with an update the next day reporting that Mort survived the procedure and was listed in stable condition.  Apparently, even while recovering in intensive-care, Mort was thinking up new publicity schemes.  Just days after his surgery, he suddenly turned up on “Larry King Live” on CNN to announce that he was about to launch a new TV talk show.  He also volunteered to come to the assistance of troubled actor Robert Downey Jr., who had been arrested twice in recent weeks on drug-related charges, even though Mort was not related to the actor and it was doubtful they had ever met.

Mort’s proposal to counsel this actor with a similar name was absurd.  It was also irresistible, and I leapt at the opportunity to write a story about it, if only to compose a headline like the one the story wound up carrying: “Mort to troubled movie actor: ‘Let’s talk Downey to Downey!’ ”

July 19, 1996: "Let's talk Downey to Downey!" (Source: Author's collection)

July 19, 1996: “Let’s talk Downey to Downey!”

Morton Downey Jr. was nothing if not brash.  Here he was recovering from surgery in which a third of his right lung was removed and he was attempting to reap publicity from the notoriety of an actor who he didn’t even know, simply because the two of them had the same last name.  “If I can help him, I want to do that,” Mort told Larry King emphatically. “We Downeys have to stick together!”

Mort’s announcement that he was about to launch a new TV talk show was even more difficult to swallow than the idea that Robert Downey Jr. would welcome Mort’s intervention in his struggle against drug addiction.  Mort said he was offered this new show the night before his surgery.  “[The producers] called to say, ‘We’ve given you a two-year contract’,” Mort told King, “which said, ‘We believe you will be alive two years from now’.”

It was vintage Mort – claiming that some unnamed producers would agree to invest millions in a new talk show for a man who has lung cancer.  Under the circumstances, it is doubtful such a contract ever existed, though anything is possible.  As it happened, a new Morton Downey Jr. talk show never did materialize and his career as a talk show host – on TV or radio – was over.

He still surfaced on other people’s talk shows, though.  In January 2000, he showed up again on “Larry King Live,” looking very ill and reporting that his weight had plummeted recently to 112 pounds, though it was then back up to 148 pounds because he was eating a quart of ice cream a day.  And he continued to call me to update me on his latest health crises and hospital stays, and also to report on the usual raft of new projects in the works, the majority of which were pure blarney, though sometimes he would surprise me by actually telling me something that was true.  I didn’t believe it when he claimed in a phone call some time in 2000 that Fox was developing a made-for-TV movie about his life.  To my amazement, this claim turned out to be true, as I learned later when a Fox executive confirmed it for me.  (Unfortunately, as happens with so many of these projects, the movie was never produced.)

But by January 2001, Mort was running out of projects to promote, and he was running out of time.  He was succumbing to cancer and he had only one thing left he felt he could publicize, and that was his impending demise.  He called me to mention it on Jan. 5, 2001 – a Friday.

Not surprisingly, he sounded terrible.  His voice was hoarse and raspy.  He’d just spent five weeks in the hospital – Cedars Sinai – and the doctors had sent him home, but not before informing him his condition was “irreversible.”

“How grateful I am for the things you did for me while we were here,” he said from his home in Northridge.  “And, uh, I just [wanted to] let you know that I had one hell of a great time and I loved you for all you’ve done.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.  I had never before received a phone call from a dying man.  Nor did I ever think I had done so much for Morton Downey Jr. that I would be deserving of his thanks when the end was near.  Well, that was at least one purpose of this phone call – to thank me and tell me he loved me.

He had at least two other things on his mind too – one was his death, of course, and the other was Robert Downey Jr. – again.  It turned out the two topics were intertwined.  “I gotta get Robert Downey Jr. to make a couple of comments, and that’s where you could help too,” Mort said, speaking haltingly in order to catch his breath and clear his throat.

“A couple of comments about what, particularly?” I asked skeptically.

“I’m thinking in terms of Robert should say, you know, ‘There’s one other Downey in this whole thing.  His name’s Morton Downey Jr. and I’m sayin’ a prayer for him, you know, I’m sure he said them for me’.”

“It’s an interesting idea.  How does he feel about you?” I asked, playing along even though I knew there would be no way in hell I could contact Robert Downey Jr. and ask him to issue some sort of statement about Morton Downey Jr.

“I think he likes me because when he was on trial, and no one would show up, I’d show up out there.”

“And yet, you’re not related,” I pointed out.

“No, no relation at all,” Mort said breezily.

“You just sort of feel a kinship in a weird way,” I said.

“People think he’s my kid,” insisted Mort, who suddenly began a bout of deep, racking coughs that sounded as if he would pass away right then and there.

“I’m a little taken aback,” I said to him.  “I hope this is just good-bye … for now.”

“Yeah, I hope just for now,” Mort said, apparently shaken and weakened by this coughing fit.  “And if it isn’t, my dear friend, you know that I do love you.”

He then blurted out, “In true reality, I never hated anyone!”  He then began sobbing and was unable to continue talking.  We both hung up and I sat there wondering if that was the last time I would ever get a call from Morton Downey Jr.

It was not.

A few minutes later, the phone rang.  It was Mort again and he had apparently regained his composure.  In a stronger voice than he possessed a few minutes previously, he laid out the primary reason why he called me that day.  “What I’m doing now, to be honest, is just ridiculously stupid, but I gotta do it,” he said apologetically.  “I’m actually promoting my death – you know, right up to the end – to make sure that everything goes well for my family.  I have spent over $300,000 outside of my insurance for private nurses and everything else. …  And if I could get you to lead the way for me, I know there’s people out there that, you know, who would hold a dinner or do something that would make it look like I wasn’t broke and everything else.”

As he struggled to tell me what he wanted, I gradually came to understand that Mort wanted me to somehow write a story about his circumstances that would not leave the impression he was broke (which he insisted he wasn’t), but would nevertheless motivate some well-connected reader – perhaps someone also in the entertainment field – to organize some sort of benefit event for him, presumably before he died.

“If I could get someone to say something … ,” he said, meaning a journalist such as myself who would write something about his situation, or some celebrity, such as Robert Downey Jr., for example, to “say something.”

“Not begging for money,” Mort cautioned.  “I don’t wanna do that.   That’s the worst thing in the world.  Nobody likes a loser.”

I asked him, “Is this about keeping your name alive so that there’s potential for making money off of your name after you’re no longer here?”

“Probably that’s it,” he replied.  “Probably someone who can say he knew the guy [and] the guy was not a pig.”

I assured him that I did not think he was a pig, and I was sure no one else did either.  I told him I’d give the idea some thought, but I knew there was nothing I could or would do to organize some sort of dinner in his honor, much less one that was supposed to raise money for him while not letting on that he needed any.  That was an impossible task.

Mort was tiring and the conversation soon ended.  “I’m having a little difficult time breathing.  Call me at any time,” he said, though I didn’t happen to have his phone number.

“Have a good weekend,” I said to him – my lame attempt to remain upbeat, even though he sounded so sick that I doubted he would survive until Monday.

We said good-bye, and I pondered what he’d said – all this talk about promoting his own death, holding some sort of testimonial dinner, getting Robert Downey Jr. to make some kind of public statement.  When I stopped to think about it, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I concluded that Mort was just disoriented from medication, constant pain, and the overwhelming fatigue that must accumulate when one wages a nearly five-year battle against lung cancer.  What did he really want that day?  With death staring him in the face, it dawned on me that Morton Downey Jr. just wanted to be remembered.

He didn’t die that weekend, but it was the last time I heard from him.  He lasted another 10 weekends, dying on Monday, March 12.  Two days later, I wrote a tribute column detailing our final phone call and attempting to fulfill what I felt was his last request to me.  “I plan on remembering him,” I wrote, “and I’ll miss his phone calls.”

[Excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman. Copyright Adam Buckman 2014 All Rights Reserved.]

Contact Adam Buckman:

Read Adam Buckman’s book: “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” … Read a sample on his Amazon book page HERE … Then order it today!

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The Greatest David Letterman Story Ever Told

May 18, 2015
David Letterman, seen last Friday night (May 15) on his CBS "Late Show." Photo: CBS

David Letterman, seen last Friday night (May 15, 2015) on his CBS “Late Show.” Photo: CBS

SUMMER 1995:



NEW YORK, May 18, 2015 — The memories come flooding back in this final week of David Letterman’s CBS “Late Show,” which has its final broadcast on Wednesday (May 20).

One such memory goes all the way back to 1995, the year Jay Leno overtook Letterman to seize the top spot in the late-night ratings — a position Leno held for the remainder of his run on NBC’s “Tonight Show.”

Here is the story, in full, of how a newspaper TV section covered this particular battle in the late-night wars in the summer of 1995.

The story is excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by yours truly, Adam Buckman. It follows a section about Jerry Seinfeld.

On Oct. 17, 1995, the New York TV section asked its readers: "What do you suggest Dave should do to reverse his show's ratings slide?"

On Oct. 17, 1995, the New York Post TV section asked its readers: “What do you suggest Dave should do to reverse his show’s ratings slide?” Read what happened next, below …


Part III

Click on the pic to visit my Amazon book page.

Click on the pic to visit my Amazon book page.

If the Post’s “Seinfeld” poll had anything to do with sapping Seinfeld’s confidence in himself and his show, then this whole “poll” episode emerges as another instance in which a public figure attached much too much importance to some silly feature in an impish tabloid.

Read “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman: Order your copy today — right HERE!

Or maybe I was always the one who habitually underestimated the significance of these things.  Not that I lacked pride in my work, but I always assumed that a newspaper, purchased for loose change and read cover to cover in the time it takes to travel a half-dozen stops on the subway, was ultimately forgotten within a few hours, if not minutes.

And yet, celebrities and their handlers felt differently.  Such was the case in 1995 when David Letterman’s executive producer arranged a summit meeting with the Post’s editors to discuss the TV section’s near-constant abuse of Dave.  One of the final straws for the producer, Robert Morton – known as Morty – was, yes, another ornery Flash-Fax Poll, this one published on Oct. 17, 1995.

It was a watershed year for Letterman and late-night television, for it was the year Jay Leno caught up to Letterman in the ratings and then surpassed him, reestablishing NBC’s “Tonight Show” as the time period’s dominant show for the next 14 seasons.

To put it mildly, we were rooting for Jay.  Why?  Well, I’d like to say it was because the struggles of an underdog always make for great newspaper stories, and it was no less true in 1995 as Leno doggedly pursued Letterman in the ratings.  But our decidedly negative focus on Letterman that year could more accurately be described as a vengeful response to the apparently low regard in which Letterman and his representatives held the New York Post’s TV section.

Their attitude was made crystal clear one week in May as Letterman prepared to take his show to London, England, for a week of special telecasts from the British capital.  The shows were due to start on Monday, May 15, and Letterman was suddenly all over the place conducting interviews with newspapers and magazines to promote the trip, including our principal competitors, the New York Daily News and The New York Times.  But Letterman and his press reps made no time for a phoner with the Post.  Indeed, we didn’t learn the normally press shy late-night host was agreeing to be interviewed that week until we read an interview in the Daily News.

The reasons for our exclusion have faded from memory if, in fact, I ever learned them.  Sometimes, the Post TV section was left off the list of media in line for celebrity interviews simply because, well, we were part of the Post.  And maybe Letterman’s people were miffed at some offense committed elsewhere in the paper that had nothing to do with us.  Maybe it was an item on the paper’s hard-hitting gossip page, Page Six, that had offended Letterman, as happened sometimes with celebrities sought by the TV section.  Or maybe the paper had been among those that had come down hard on Letterman after he hosted the Oscars in March and was lambasted by critics for his performance.

Whatever the reason, in the absence of a Letterman interview to publish that week, we were still faced with finding a way to climb aboard the Letterman bandwagon, since, interview or no interview, I felt an obligation to note the show’s trip to London somewhere in the TV section because this particular stunt happened to be unusual enough to qualify as big news.

With no interview, it seemed to me that there was only one other angle available to explore, and that was the state of Letterman’s ratings on the eve of this overseas trip undertaken smack in the middle of the May ratings sweep.  Fortunately, there was a legitimate ratings story brewing that spring.  Letterman had dominated late-night television ever since he launched his new “Late Show” on CBS in August 1993.  But by May 1995, Jay Leno, who had taken over for Johnny Carson on NBC’s “Tonight Show” on May 25, 1992, was gaining on Letterman.

That was the state of late-night when I weighed in on the closeness of the competition in a column published on Friday, May 12, 1995, when Letterman and his producers were already in London preparing for the following week.

I was editor of the TV section at the time and rarely wrote columns.  But I recall taking on this assignment myself in order to relieve any of the department’s staff writers from bearing the brunt of any complaints that might arise over the negative tone of the coverage I was planning.  Besides, I was enraged by Letterman and his people passing us over for an interview, as if the Post, with a circulation somewhere around 450,000 copies everyday, was not important enough to include among all the other papers which were lining up to help Letterman publicize his London telecasts.

Diving Dave -page-001 ASo I conspired to hit them right between the eyes with a column headlined “Diving Dave’s decline” in 90-point type and taking up nearly an entire page.   The column characterized Letterman as “cocky” and his style of comedy as “twisted” and “sick.”  A caption under a photo of Letterman hosting the Oscars called him a “late-night loser.”   And Leno, who nine times out of 10 had been customarily depicted in the pages of the Post’s TV section with that grotesque “spit-take” photo from the Associated Press, was newly elevated in status.  Gone was the spit-take picture; in its place was a photo of a confident Jay Leno at the wheel of one of his classic cars.  Leno was no longer a late-night loser; he was now, according to the column, “NBC’s brash, never-say-die challenger.”

“The cocky king of late-night is about to be toppled from his throne,” read the column’s lead sentence.  The piece then laid out the relevant ratings data, demonstrating how Letterman’s numbers had fallen during the past year while Leno’s had climbed, until by mid-May 1995, Leno was trailing Letterman by just one-tenth of a ratings point.

“If the trend continues,” the column boldly predicted, “Leno will surpass Letterman soon.”

However, even after painstakingly detailing the case for Leno’s probable ascension to the top of the late-night ratings, I still had about 10 column inches to fill.  So I hammered Letterman.  What did I have to lose?  We had no relationship with Letterman and his press office, anyway.  What difference did it make whether they were offended by a column in the Post?

So, I let fly.  “This year, Letterman has had one failure after another,” I opined.  “He and his producers chose Tom Snyder to host the show following Letterman’s ‘Late Show,’ billing Snyder as ‘the consummate broadcaster’ who would win his time period against NBC’s ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’ as decisively as Letterman used to beat Leno.

“But guess what,” I pointed out, “More than five months after his debut, Snyder has made no headway against O’Brien.”

“Then,” I continued, laying it on thick, “Letterman hosted the Oscars, where his twisted, sick humor was unanimously panned by critics.”

I even complained about Letterman’s trip to England, implying that it was impractical, if not unpatriotic.  “Now,” I scoffed, “at a time when Letterman desperately needs to win new fans here at home, he’s going to England for a week of shows.”

One of the lessons I learned early on at the Post: If you are going to burn bridges or people, do it in style.  Use big headlines, choose large pictures, apply blunt verbiage.

The column evidently hit home because it wasn’t long on that Friday before I received a phone call from London.  It was Letterman’s publicist.  And she tore into me.   She took issue with every aspect of the column – from the name-calling (“late-night loser,” “cocky king”), for which I didn’t really blame her, to the litany of ratings data, which, truth be told, were unassailable, though she tried mightily to assail them.  I remember that I happened to have my tape recorder hooked up to my phone when she called and I recorded the entire diatribe.  Some time later, I taped over it, possibly because it was so vicious I wished never to hear it again.

It was one of those instances when I would begin to doubt my own judgment.  I wondered: Had I gone too far?  In analyzing the ratings data, had I treated the subject fairly in building a case for my prediction that Letterman was on track to fall behind Leno within a few months?  Couldn’t I have written that caption under Letterman’s photo without the three-word, bold-face starter in all caps: “LATE-NIGHT LOSER”?

I contemplated these questions all the way until Monday morning.  That’s when I picked up The New York Times and saw an interview with Letterman in a story that analyzed his ratings and pointed out, in a manner similar to the way I had on Friday, that Leno was breathing down Letterman’s neck.  I wondered if the Times reporter received an angry phone call from London, though I knew the likely answer to that was no.

It was always the same old story – other papers, such as the Times, handled their story subjects with kid gloves, while we at the Post handled them with boxing gloves.  So we got screamed at, while our competitors got the interviews we coveted.

For consolation at such times, I would conjure a lesson imparted by a former editor at an earlier job, in 1986, after I had just gotten off the phone with an irate spokeswoman from a New York radio station.  She was reacting to a story I wrote about the death of the station’s traffic reporter, who was killed when the station’s helicopter crashed into the Hudson River.  The spokeswoman was angered by the story’s suggestion that the station had possibly behaved negligently in leasing the helicopter from a company with a checkered safety record.  Naturally, she took issue with that suggestion and berated me for it.  Afterwards, this editor told me, “The louder they yell, the more accurate your story probably was.”  His aphorism has proven true virtually every time a story subject or his or her representative has called up to scream at me.

However, that is where the teachings of this particular editor began and ended.  He didn’t say anything about taking revenge or escalating the hostilities.  No, I came up with that strategy all on my own, for that was the summer we beat up David Letterman.

You could argue the story was legitimate, at least in its most basic form, which was the account of Letterman’s continuing slide in the ratings and Leno’s rise.  And Leno might have eventually passed Letterman under normal circumstances, but Leno was aided by happenstance in the form of a movie star suddenly derailed by scandal.  It was Hugh Grant, who was arrested in Hollywood on June 27 when vice cops nabbed him in his parked car while he availed himself of the services of a transvestite prostitute. He was previously scheduled to appear on Leno’s “Tonight Show” about two weeks later, on July 10, and he kept the date.  The show – in which Leno began his interview with the question, “What the hell were you thinking?” – became the most talked-about show in Leno’s entire tenure as “Tonight Show” host and it won for him the boost he needed to close the gap.  In August, he moved ahead of Letterman in the ratings and stayed there for good.

It’s doubtful our negative coverage of Letterman that summer helped move the ratings needle for Leno.  Despite the Post’s circulation and its ability, at least occasionally, to influence opinion, I always believed that the paper and, by extension, its back-of-the-paper television section, was no match for the TV networks, which all maintained well-populated p.r. departments whose job it was to offset any negative publicity that came their way.  Moreover, the audience for network television – numbering in the tens of millions – was far larger than the Post’s readership, and the networks had millions of promotional dollars at their disposal and their own airtime on which to spend it.

Still, the press clung to the ratings story that summer, but none more zealously than the Post.  Week after week, when the Nielsen ratings for the previous week were released – which traditionally happened every Thursday – we ballyhooed Leno’s rise and in the process seized every opportunity we could to kick Letterman to the curb.

We would gratuitously bombard him with headlines, captions and belittling phrases.  “JAY CLOBBERS DAVE” read one headline on an otherwise routine ratings story that ordinarily would not carry a headline weighing in at about 90 points and composed in all-caps.  “DAVE’S OUT AT HOME” was the headline on another story about how Leno was even beating Letterman in the ratings in New York, hometown of Letterman’s “Late Show,” on the local stations owned by the networks, WNBC and WCBS.  We labeled Letterman a “strikeout king” and took pains to proclaim, “David Letterman’s reign as New York’s late-night comedy king is over.”

In one story brilliantly contrived by one of our TV reporters, Josef Adalian, we took Letterman to task for smoking cigars on his show.  The story included statements from public health officials decrying Letterman’s smoking habit and admonishing him for setting a poor example for youth.

Jay rerun king (1)-page-001 ABy September, we were even focusing on the ratings race during weeks when Leno and Letterman were on vacation and their shows were in reruns – something we never would have covered previously.  In one over-sized headline published on Sept. 1, we declared: “Jay’s the king of late-night reruns,” accompanied by a subhead: “Leno notches another win while Dave vacations,” implying that Letterman, who was taking a two-week vacation to Leno’s one week off, was loafing while his harder-working rival steadily built an ever-increasing lead.  “Letterman’s two-week vacation continues,” the story noted, “while Leno has been hard at work this week.”  By this time, Leno had beaten Letterman in four of the preceding seven weeks.  My prediction of May 12 had come true.  The story of Leno’s rise and diving Dave’s decline should have been coming to a close.  But I didn’t let up.

By Oct. 17, it was time for a “Flash-Fax Poll.”  This one was headlined: “Dave’s dilemma,” and featured a headshot of a grinning, confident Jay Leno on the left side and on the right, a headshot of Letterman grimacing.  “With David Letterman’s ratings declining, the Post wants to know how you feel about him,” said the poll’s text.  “What do you suggest Dave should do to reverse his show’s ratings slide?”  The poll attracted more than 200 responses and it undoubtedly played a role in what happened next, at least indirectly, as Letterman’s executive producer decided he had had enough of the Post TV section ragging on his show.

For Robert Morton, the straw that broke the camel’s back was not specifically the poll, or one of our overblown headlines, or our contrivances about Letterman’s personal habits such as cigar-smoking, though these were all contributing factors.  No, the final straw turned out to be a tiny photo caption.  In a short story about Leno, published around the same time as the fax poll, I wrote a caption under a benign headshot of Leno that took direct aim at Letterman, even though this was a rare story about Leno that had nothing at all to do with Letterman and the late-night ratings race.   The caption, wholly unrelated to the contents of the story, read: “JAY LENO: Kicking Letterman’s butt.”

Soon thereafter came a phone call from Morty, who was shrewd enough to recognize that the caption was irrelevant to the story in which it appeared and, it seemed to him, represented a gratuitous and unfair shot at Letterman.  He was right, of course, yet I doubt if I admitted it at the time.  To his credit, Morty didn’t yell or scream.  Instead, he invited me to negotiate a détente.  There was only one problem.  Morty wanted me to come to his office in the Ed Sullivan Theater building at Broadway and 53rd Street to talk about it.  Feeling contrary, I refused and told him, somewhat arrogantly in retrospect, that if he wanted to talk to me, I’m easy to find.  All he had to do was come down to the Post at 1211 Sixth Avenue and I would meet with him there.  I didn’t tell him this, but I felt that if I went to him, he would benefit from a kind of home-field advantage and I imagined that, in those surroundings, I would feel as if I was being put on the defensive.

A short while later, I received a call from Ken Chandler.  Morty had gone over my head.  He had called Chandler and told the editor of the Post of my refusal to meet with him and my counter-invitation to hold our peace talks at the Post.  Chandler went a step farther.  He arranged an appointment for Morty to come down, accompanied by the Letterman show’s outside public-relations representative, Ken Lerer, to meet with a group of Post editors, including me.  The meeting was held on Oct. 23.  That same day, before it was convened and the conference room was empty, I took the last shot in our war against David Letterman, though I never told a soul about this final act.

This meeting was to be held in a conference room I knew well.  It was where the editors of the Post met twice daily to discuss the day’s lineup of stories.   As a participant in those meetings, the characteristics of the room were well-known to me, particularly the operations of the room’s stock of rolling office chairs and the way you could adjust their heights by turning them upside down and spinning the wheel carriage – one direction to lower the seat and the other direction to raise it.  So, a short time before Morton and Lerer were to arrive for our summit meeting, I went to the conference room and turned over each of its chairs, raising every seat except one.  Later, when I escorted Morty into the room, where more than a half-dozen Post editors were also gathering, I led him straight to the lowest chair in the room, and that’s where he sat for the duration of the half-hour meeting, his seat about six or eight inches lower than everybody else’s.

Why did I do it?  If memory serves, I likely resented Morty going to my boss, the editor of the Post, to arrange this meeting after I refused Morty’s invitation to meet with him in his office, though, looking back, I can hardly blame Morty for doing so.  If that was the reason, basically to get even with him, then it would be more than fair to characterize this chair trick as immature and spiteful.  You might even say I acted like a jerk and you would be right.

The meeting turned the tide.  Morty’s short chair notwithstanding, the gathering was cordial.  Morty articulated his view, which he stated often in those days, that the reason for Letterman’s decline in the ratings had nothing to do with the quality of Letterman’s “Late Show.”  Instead, Morty averred, Letterman’s ratings problems were due to the low ratings of the shows that aired before his – CBS’s prime-time programs and the similarly low-rated 11 p.m. newscasts on most of the CBS affiliates.

His take on the situation, in which he blamed Letterman’s lead-ins for the “Late Show’s” low ratings, was debatable. But under the circumstances, I reasoned that this meeting was not the place to debate it.  When the meeting was over, we parted on friendly terms and, as a parting gift, I handed Morty a stack of 200 responses to our Letterman fax poll for him to peruse at his leisure if he so desired.  And he promised that the Post TV department’s access to his show would improve.  He even held out the possibility of an interview with Letterman in a few weeks, since the show was planning another out-of-town trip, this time to produce a week of shows originating from Los Angeles.

So, after all the months of conflict, our war with Letterman’s “Late Show,” a war that began all the way back in May, was over.  I even got to interview Letterman on the phone in early November about his L.A. trip and the interview was so low-key and benign (not to mention almost completely lacking in news value) that I almost forgot what in the world we had been fighting about.

Letterman 3For his part, Letterman repeated Morty’s mantra about the decline of CBS’s prime-time shows.  “Well, we’re getting clobbered,” Letterman admitted, “and we’re trying as hard as we can.  I just honestly don’t know if there’s much – beyond trying to make it a decent show every night – that we can do about this situation.  I mean, when we started [in 1993], CBS was, I think, usually No. 1 and now they’re usually No. 4.  So we’ve had a network crumble out from under us.”

I never spoke to Letterman again.  But I did briefly become the talk of the town when The New Yorker magazine got wind of the summit meeting we had held at the Post and turned it into a story for its Talk of the Town section.  “Severe consequences await those who cross the Post – just ask David Letterman,” read the story’s lead sentence, published on Nov. 11, 1995.  The piece then took a mere column and a half of New Yorker magazine space to chronicle our months-long battle with the Letterman show.  “Will we stop beating them over the head every week on the issue of ratings?” I’m quoted as asking, rhetorically, in the story’s final paragraph.  “Probably,” I evidently told the reporter, “because the story is getting old.  Now, if Dave comes back, we’ll run with that.  It would be another great story, and, frankly, that’s all I care about.”

Yeah, right.

THE TALK OF THE TOWN: The New Yorker, Nov. 13, 1995, "The Other Peace Talks."

THE TALK OF THE TOWN: The New Yorker, Nov. 13, 1995, “The Other Peace Talks.”

[Excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman. Copyright Adam Buckman 2014 All Rights Reserved.]

Contact Adam Buckman:

Read Adam Buckman’s book: “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” … Read a sample on his Amazon book page HERE … Then order it today!

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