There's a famous story about Laurence Olivier taking umbrage at being called a genius. "The only actor I ever knew who was a genius was Charles Laughton," Lord Olivier is supposed to have said, in a tone that made it clear that that was plenty. In the new oral history of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, more than one person who worked with Keith Olbermann refers to him as a genius. And as with Olivier on Laughton, the word is milked for its full double-edged connotations. On-air talent who wanted to be Olbermann and tried copying his moves soon learned that they were better off imitating his SportsCenter co-star. Dan Patrick. Patrick provided a solid template for smart, funny sports news anchoring that the tyro could use while finding his own voice; Olbermann was sui generis, and imitatable only at the copycat's own risk.
He was also seen by those in management as someone who couldn't function without casting himself as the noble but probably doomed hero battling nefarious forces determined to water down the quality of the product he was fronting and make him look ridiculous in the process. If this is true, he has not always been entirely without grounds for having believed this. In 1998, when Olbermann walked away from his first news show at MSNBC because he objected to being forced to cover the Monica Lewinsky scandal at the expense of other stories, it was possible to see it as a noble gesture by someone protesting the state of the news media in general. Thirteen years later, it looks a little more like a convulsive tic. In retrospect, the most amazing thing about Olbermann's original Countdown series, which marked his return to MSNBC and his transformation from sports guy smart ass to progressive political media hero, is that he was able to settle in and stay comfortable at the same perch for eight years.
The premiere episode of the new Countdown on Current TV never stops reminding you just how comfortable Olbermann is with just about every facet of his old MSNBC show, which he walked away from last January after blandly announcing on the air that the broadcast he was delivering would be his final one. Not only is the title (and the time slot) the same, but the format is pretty much a straight Xerox of the old one. He's still doing the "Worst Persons" shtick, complete with Dracula organ music. The roundup of wacky items is now called "Time Marches On!" instead of "Oddball", but the music cues are the same, and Keith's Larry King impression has now officially outlasted King's own cable news career. By the time the MSNBC show drew to a close, all these features were relying on the same faces and names being ritualistically invoked again and again, just as the list of august names invited to match wits with Keith had gotten a little dusty. Based on tonight's edition of the Current TV version, whatever Keith has been busying with himself these past five months, it hasn't been seeking out new Facebook friends. Michael Moore, Sarah Palin, John Dean, Little Superstar, "Fixed News", and goofy Japanese robots parade in front of the viewer's face as if Keith's on-air life were flashing before your eyes.
This feels less like the start of something new than an extra leg that got added to a greatest hits farewell tour because the star hadn't had his fill of tearful adulation. The show opens with Olbermann using a segment on the wars in Libya and the Middle East as an excuse to bring on Michael Moore, now an official "Countdown contributor", not to mention an auteur; it ends with the boy with the ice cream face, Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, weighing in on the "GOP Cult." The fact that it's so easy to imagine either guest being attached to the other's topic and saying pretty much the exact same things underlines how cozy it is in Keith's bachelor pad. Basically, they're there to tell Keith how proud they are to be on his show, in response to his telling them how proud he is to have them there. And when one of Keith's usual guests is somehow matched up with a topic on which he might have something unusual and interesting to contribute—such as when John Dean comes on to compare the Teflon shield covering Clarence Thomas to the troubles of Abe Fortas— Keith can't resist leading him around as if the guest were a dog fixated on whichever of his master's hand is holding the pork chop. "The quote I read before," he tells Dean, "that this is a good day for big business—is this a good court for big business?" What's Dean supposed to say to that? "Hell, no, Keith. You've got your head so far up your ass you must be shitting Brylcreem!"
The kind of bosses who so antagonize the Keith Olbermanns of the world inevitably get around to complaining that such men are their own worst enemies. I take no pleasure in saying that the bosses are ever right about anything, but even a stopped clock nails it twice a day, you know? For much of the past decade, Olbermann's MSNBC show was a real corrective to much of what passed for TV news. He wasn't exactly an investigative powerhouse, just one more voice recycling the news images of the day and offering his opinions and attitude, but he was smart, funny, and humane, he knew how to use words, and he was the first to offer certain necessary opinions that were in short supply at the time, at least on a prime time TV news show. But during the last few years, Olbermann's shtick ossified; the patty cake with the guests grew more and more predictable, the serious editorializing became self-congratulatory and hectoring, and the feuds seemed self-generated and hollow, as if hitting idjits with a stick was just his way of staying awake against the odds. At some point, his fans might have entertained the question, what would it be like if Keith Olbermann stayed in the same place for more than five years? The answer, it turned out, wasn't pretty.
The great hope for Olbermann's taking his act across the street to a different network was that it might shake him out of his complacency and get him to try something new; maybe at least try out some new guests, who knows, even join forces with some of the video guerrillas whose documentary work is all over Current TV and provide a forum where viewers might get to see some actual reporting. In his inevitable, blessedly brief "Special Comment", which seemed meant to double as a Charles Foster Kane-style statement of purpose, Olbermann vowed to provide "a newscast of contextualization, that is, to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than its strongest corporation." That doesn't sound half bad on the face of it, but if it just means having Michael and Markos and the boys over to run Fox News clips abd chortle about how awful they are, it's just going to mean extending his rut.
One of the clips shown today was of Jon Stewart being interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News; Olbermann attached great significance to the fact that, while Stewart was seen talking about the partisan party line that the network's news people are expected to stick to, viewers could see a clumsy edit where Stewart's reference to Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammons was excised. Olbermann was so tickled by this that he failed to realize how that clip undercuts his own show. It's impossible to imagine Olbermann interviewing someone who's as at odds with his point of view as Jon Stewart is with Fox News, whether the guest's words got mangled in the editing room or not. Olbermann would probably reply that he's trying to provide a forum for voices that don't have a place on most news shows, but a panel that consisted of H. L. Mencken, I. F. Stone, Richard Pryor, Samuel Johnson, Hunter Thompson, and whoever was hanging around the Agora waiting for Socrates to come back with the pizza could still bore the socks off you if they were trapped inside this kind of non-challenging mutual appreciation society. But if Olbermann could start mixing in voices that make his blood boil instead of helping him get his warm and fuzzy on, he could make a case for his "viewpoint" and at the same time generate some fireworks again. The problem is, Olbermann needs someone to blast him out of his comfort zone, and his deal with Current TV apparently makes him pretty much his own boss. The man who's always made a habit of antagonizing his bosses may be about to learn who his worst enemy really is.
- You know, for all the talk you hear about how Sarah Palin is gorgeous and photogenic, has it ever taken any researcher more than thirty seconds to find a picture of her that's so unflattering that it leaves all previous overexpose unflattering pictures of her in the dust?
- Of all Keith's favorite catch phrases, the one I most wish he'd retire is his referring to Glenn Beck as "Lonesome Rhodes", something he did at least three times in the premiere. The reference is to the character Andy Griffith played in the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd, a small-time, white trash hustler who becomes a big-time snake oil salesman and media manipulator through the new medium of television. This kind of thing can be cutting when it points up something real about the person being mocked, but the whole point of the movie was that the Griffith character was a complete cynic who regarded his audience as idiot sheep waiting to be sheared, and does Olbermann really believe that Glenn Beck is anything but sincere? You don't come out of nowhere to become the biggest thing on cable news and then steadily drag your numbers down by recycling conspiracy theories from the John Birch Society and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and babbling about the Arab Caliphate unless you believe what you're saying.
- Keith: "What was the old joke about Michael Jordan, that if they invented a jockstrap that you wore on your head, he'd do a commercial for it?" No shit? If that's the kind of "joke" that sports fans really tell each other, then Olbermann still hasn't gotten the full credit he deserves for having made sports coverage entertaining.