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Keith Olbermann on Why He Left MSNBC - and How He Plans to Get Even

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On your new show, will you continue to do the nonpolitical elements you've done, like reading stories by James Thurber?
Al is a big fan of that.

It was a risky thing to do.
The way it came about is a great story. I read to my father in the hospital, and the thing he enjoyed most was Thurber. He said, "You should do that on the show." I said, "But it's a newscast," and he said, "How often have I ever suggested you do anything?"

He wasn't someone who would do that?
No. He was my public-relations agent and my biggest fan. One time, he said I should color my hair. My dad had a comb-over. I said, "Some of the hair in your comb-over dates to the Eisenhower administration. The last person on earth I want to listen to about fucking hair is you." He laughed. That was the only other time, and I've had a lot of conversations with him about my career and about television.

Were your politics close?
He was much more cynical than I am. The first thing I remember politically is having a baby sitter, because my folks were going next door to eat with the neighbors. And before I went to bed, they were already back in the house, and my dad was in a rage. They had been talking politics, and the neighbors called my father a communist. He said, "That's not communism. We are in America—that's called 'do unto others.'" My father could dismember your argument faster than anybody in the world.

After he went into the last deep sleep—he had no strength left at all and he fell asleep, huge white-cell count, huge infection, 30,000 or something like that—I read Thurber's "The Peacelike Mongoose," which he loved. It's a fable, and it drips with political import. The next day, I got an e-mail from the Thurber Literary Estate, and I went, "Oh, boy..." I figured it was about copyrights. But it turned out that Thurber's daughter Rosie, 85 years old now, watches Countdown every night. Not only that—and this is where you start to believe in forces larger than yourself—she had been approached the week before by a publisher who wanted to include "The Peacelike Mongoose" in an anthology for high school students, on one condition: They wanted to cut the line where someone accuses the peacelike mongoose of being a "mongoose-sexual." Rosie and her daughter went back and forth about it, and then Rosie sits down to watch Countdown, and I read "The Peacelike Mongoose" without any interruption or editing whatsoever. The phone rings, it's her daughter: "I think you just got your answer, Mom."

You and Glenn Beck are both leaving your networks at the same time. What do you think of him as a broadcaster?
Glenn Beck and me, we're in the same boat now. We're both off the Fox reservation. People who think his leaving Fox News was some kind of change in tone caused by the Giffords thing are as wrong about that as they are when they apply it to me. I'm sure that he viewed this entirely as a great business proposition for himself. In Beck's point of view—nobody's gotten this yet, but I know exactly where he's coming from—Beck looked at this and said, "Why am I letting these Fox people take some of my money? I don't need them."

Beck's skill is to listen to a guy like Roger Ailes and then turn his message into a national anthem. It's a skill like juggling chain saws. "All right, great. And when you miss, what happens—you cut yourself in half, don't you?" "Oh, yeah, hadn't thought of that." Bzzz.

Any broadcasters you admire these days?
Within news, no. Most of them can't be themselves because they're terrified of losing their jobs. But David Letterman never gets the credit he deserves. He's not afraid to ask any question. If he turned that into a sit-down format with politicians on Current, he'd be terrific at it—tremendously smart, very responsive, easily catches people in contradictions, and relentless. The other one who is tremendously relevant in terms of his grasp of reality and America is Craig Ferguson. His openings are marvelous, and often brilliantly insightful.

Comedians are the only ones paid to tell the truth in public discourse. Everybody else—politicians, news broadcasters, religious figures—we're all paid to be oracles, when in fact we are like a good public-relations man. A good public-relations man keeps you away from the public, and if you have relations, he keeps that hidden.

So you aspire to the honesty of a comedian?
Now you see why I wanted a venue like the one I'm being given. It's not an exact match. I can't say anything I want; there will be some things I'm sure I'll have to temper. But I can't think of any of them off the top of my head, and when I encounter them, it will be like, "Crap, that was the first one in eight months." That's why I view this as the biggest step-up of my career. The instantaneous reaction to this was, "He's going into the far wilderness." No, it's virgin forest, and I own it, and I'm bringing a house with me. I have the opportunity to rebuild it better and start looking for people to do the next hour and the next hour, the whole operation. We'll make mistakes, but it will be such a great relief to not have to spend all day executive-icizing, and just go out and do what I'm really good at. This is as close as I'll get to a comedian's freedom.

 

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