I don't usually reck articles in the Daily Beast but for some reason I still get the organ's mail updates and this evening one caught my eye. "Tucker Carlson Couldn't Debate The Anti-Trump Organizer He Wanted, So This Actor Stepped In," is the rather unwieldy headline, and that, too, is the story in a nutshell, although, what the heck, you might as well read the whole thing as it is relatively short (not shorter than the headline) and kind of entertaining.
Are you surprised? Of course you are not surprised. I am not surprised either. Not to put too fine a point on it but Mr. Carlson strikes me as the kind of guy who'd sell his mother and/or his stepmother for a new chin, and only hasn't as of yet because no one has stepped up to make the exchange. (I cannot stress enough, however, that this is merely my personal impression of the man and could well be wrong. Just to be clear.) But the story did remind me of a thing that happened to me on Fox News many years ago, a thing that point to a potential pattern of if not deception at least hokey-pokey.
The year was 2004, and it was around February, just as it is as I write this, and the movie on everybody's mind and lips was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. It did not screen for "long lead" critics, which I was at the time, at the monthly magazine Premiere, but given that it was very zeitgeisty my editor Tom Roston brought me into a screening he was going to, at the now defunct Broadway Screening Room in the Brill Building, a facility that Walter Matthau would characterize as "veray nassszzz." Tom and I were actually seated in front of a BUNCH of Fox News people. Brian Kilmeade sat directly behind me, awestruck. I could have killed Roston, because during the movie's Last Supper scene there was a shot of someone taking what looked like a contemporary flatbread out of an oven, and Roston whispered to me "I didn't know they had Cosi shops in ancient Israel" and I started giggling and I thought Kilmeade would have me arrested. Anyway, I was kind of flummoxed by the movie, and somewhere, somehow, I was put on the record as referring to the kids who torment Judas after he betrays Christ as "Jim Henson's Satan Babies" and, apropos of the bit where the raven or crow plucks out one of the crucified thieves' eye, wondering if the film's source material was The Gospel According to Tony Iommi.
So some time after this I get a call from the media planner at our parent company, dear old Hachette. It seems that the Fox News program "Your World With Neil Cavuto" wants me to go on some afternoon very soon and discuss the box office prospects for Mel Gibson's film in Asia, where it's due to open soon. (It's already made all the money in the world in America.) I'm a little bemused by this, since as a box office analyst I'm a pretty good third baseman for the Yankees, but I've been told to say yes to these pitches and the answer to the question seems pretty simple: fewer Christians in Asian than in the West means maybe not so great box office over there. So, I go.
I gotta tell you people: Neil Cavuto has the most exquisite manners of anyone I have ever met in television ever. Aside from looking super-crisp in those suit jackets and shirts and ties (contrast him with O'Reilly some time; he makes Bill look like one of those poor encyclopedia hawkers in the Maysles Brothers' Salesman), he's just terribly nice and kind. He even sent me a THANK YOU NOTE after the whole semi-debacle. So they've got this setup where even though I'm in the same studio as Neil, I'm not going to be in the frame with him; it's a three camera setup, one for Neil, one for me, and one for the third guest who nobody had told me about. Who's this third guest, I ask one of the people with clipboard bustling around me. "Oh, it's Larry Thompson, veteran film producer, who'll be chiming in from L.A." Okay, I shrug. And soon it's show time. It starts off genially enough, with Neil talking about how Mel's movie is a box-office behemoth that has silenced the doubters, or something, and saying it's soon to open in Asia. Cut to me, I talk about how it CERTAINLY IS a SPECTACULAR and UNEXPECTED SUCCESS but we might not want to expect too much from the Asian market because filmgoers in Japan, Korea, and China aren't too big on the Jesus and maybe China doesn't want much to do with the movie at all. Then Neil is like, for another perspective we go to Hollywood, where veteran film producer Larry Thompson, blah blah blah. I see Larry Thompson in my monitor and he's kinda sweaty and leaning to one side and he looks like a guy who just walked away from an auto accident that didn't cause any grievous physical harm to anyone but DID wake him up behind the wheel, placing him in a disoriented state. And Larry starts laying into me, saying how can this critic who called Mel Gibson's wonderful movie "Satanic" sit here and try to disparage the wonderful message that it's bringing to Christians the world over.
Well you could have knocked me over with a feather, or something. I tried to come back with a protest about how I wasn't interested in applying my personal opinion of the movie, which was indeed less than glowing, to my impartial box office analysis. But Larry just kept yelling and in mere second I did that thing that the fancy media trainer that Hachette had paid good money to instruct me and a colleague on how to Be Good On The Teevee told me and a colleague never ever ever to do, besides say "I think," which was ROLL YOUR EYES.
It ended, and I went back to my office and I looked up Larry Thompson on the IMDB and found out that he produced a picture I rather admired, Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion, but also, and more recently, television biopics of both Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Lucille Ball and Sonny and Cher. Things have picked up for him since, what with the David Hasselhoff Roast and the motivational speaking gigs I guess. Weirdly, despite my then-spectacular ability to hold a grudge, I did not get overly hung up about the whole thing. I was initially too stunned, because I thought it was such a dopey stunt to pull—bring in this snarky schmuck who hadn't paid proper obeisance to Mel Gibson's vision and give him a little shit on the pretext of Asian box office? Really. And then of course the thank-you note arrived and my recollection of Neil's manner made everything okay again. Reading about Carlson's much more egregious stunt this evening made me wonder just where the line is drawn, at Fox or anywhere else for that matter. The way opposing "teams" on TV news debates are thrown together makes for much more fraught mixing these days than it used to, as witness Charles Blow's "don't touch me" reaction to being patted condescendingly by a Trump person on CNN the other night. How soon before fistfights, staged or otherwise? Hmmm. (I clearly have no legitimate kicker for this anecdote, my apologies.)