When witty bastard Keith Olbermann returned to TV at the very end of March with a new MSNBC news show, Countdown With Keith Olbermann, he promised Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes that he wouldn't horse around with the format. With Dan Patrick, Olbermann revolutionized the sports highlight show, SportsCenter (ESPN) in the early '90s by supplementing the clips with their cleverly scripted copy. Olbermann brought similar cheekiness to the news with his first MSNBC show, The Big Show, in 1997.
But with Countdown, he insisted, he would tamp his sense of humor down and play it straight and earnest. "Our charge for the immediate future is to stay out of the way of the news," he told de Moraes. "News is the news. We will not be screwing around with it."
Fortunately, the "immediate future" lasted about one week. As coalition troops began their rout of Baghdad in early April, Olbermann returned to form, blending his shtick into the mix as he's always done.
On April 7, as he rolled tape of an Army Humvee battering down a mahogany door at a Saddam palace, Olbermann gave Countdown his SportsCenter best: "And, ding-dong! Avon calling!" Following Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahhaf's denials that U.S. troops were in Baghdad, Olbermann deadpanned a shot at his former employers at Fox: "Mr. al-Sahhaf added that he thought his assessment of the military situation was 'fair and balanced.' "
The next day, Olbermann trashed Fox News Channel megalomaniac Geraldo Rivera with this vignette, courtesy of St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Dean Staley, who was embedded with the 101st Airborne. [Correction, April 30, 2003: Staley reports for KSTP-TV.] Rivera had just disgraced himself and Fox News by violating the embed pact when he revealed the position and direction of the forward unit he was traveling with. Let's go to the tape:
Last week [the 101st Airborne was] kind of surprised to see a Humvee drive up to their camp in Iraq, and who should pop out—like the guys in the clown car at the circus—but Geraldo Rivera and his crew. Reporter Staley said a handful of the men of the 101st wanted pictures with Rivera or autographs, but most just wanted to shake his hand. Apparently, that was not exactly what it appeared to be. We later found out, Staley says, a few who shook his hand had put those hands in unmentionable places prior.
And then comes the SportsCenter-esque punch line:
Little did those soldiers know they still got the worse end of that handshake.
Other great bits of collected Olbermann Countdown shtick:
Good evening. Well, they wanted Saddam Hussein dead or alive, and now they have gotten him exactly that way—dead or alive. …
When they won't fight, the war tends to be over. …
Tough time … to be French and German—as I am.
We are sorry Saddam Hussein can't come to the war right now; please leave a message after the beep. …
The old Europe meets the "axis of evil"; making matters more intriguing, they're talking Shiite.
When Monica Lewinsky got a job hosting the reality TV show Mr. Personality on Fox earlier this month, Olbermann shaped it into an item to zing Lewinsky, zing Fox, zing Bill Clinton, and zing … Keith Olbermann, who quit The Big Show because he said MSNBC bosses ordered him to chase the Lewinsky story, and that beat gave him the "dry heaves." Follow the bouncing inside baseball:
We used to reward participation in major political scandals with indictment and sometimes imprisonment and at least criticism. Now we reward it with your own TV gig. Heck, President Clinton got his two months ago on 60 Minutes, as if the meaning of life in our society today were just to get your own television show, when we all know that the meaning of life is to get your own television show, then quit because of Monica Lewinsky, and then get it back.
Like the other cable news shows, Olbermann serves the standard Laci Peterson fare, but while everyone else portrays the accused, Scott Peterson, as a monster, Olbermann presents him as a buffoon:
Exhibit A, that alibi. Maybe you often get to go fishing alone 80 miles from home on Christmas Eve with a pregnant wife at home. That would make you the first married man in history to be able to pull that one off. Not likely.
Exhibit B, the other woman. Whether or not you're guilty of murder, you've just been proven guilty of being a lout beyond any reasonable doubt. Say goodbye to any support from married women. …
Exhibit C, the weekend the bodies of your wife and son are found, you sneak in one last round of golf. Oddly enough, you play 30 miles from the Mexican border, and you have 10 grand and your brother's ID in your pocket. …
These selective excerpts might give you the idea that Countdown is a comedy show. Yes, Olbermann indulges his talent for playing to the cheap seats, but this isn't "Weekend Update" from Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. On Countdown,the gags are spice, and the news is the main course. Nor do Olbermann's bits undermine his news credibility the way that Shepard Smith's look-Ma-I'm-a-grinning-loudmouth-alien-with-a-rubber-human-mask histrionics on Fox News Channel obliterate his.
Olbermann segues from rim shot to straight shot with real grace, sharing a knowing grin as he spoons out the hard news. In interviews with the terrorism experts, TV generals, defense lawyers, think tankers, members of Congress, and various professors, Olbermann extracts more newsworthy information than practically anybody else working on television. By speaking in complete, grammatical sentences and thoughtful paragraphs, he seems to coax his interview subjects to do the same. In fact, the only part of the show that wears badly is its "countdown" gimmick, in which individual news stories are ranked for the day as if they're records racing up the Billboard charts. Imagine a Dave Letterman "Top 10" list that isn't funny or stimulating, and you get the idea. (Still, you've got to give Olbermann credit for inviting Mr. Countdown himself, Casey Kasem, onto the show and citing him as the show's inspiration.)
Countdown taps the same current that made SportsCenter so powerful. Both shows imagine a viewer who is not a dunce, who knows the players, who gathers his information from a variety of sources from the day and longs for a clever and concise remix of it—plus late-breaking developments—in the p.m. hours. As for the laughs he provides every night, Olbermann and crew should not be ashamed. If wit is just another form of intelligence, why shouldn't TV anchors display it?
Full disclosure: Slate and Countdown With Keith Olbermann share Microsoft as a corporate master. E-mail read at firstname.lastname@example.org.