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05.22.11

'Killer Producer' Chris Licht's New Life

A year ago, MSNBC “killer producer” Chris Licht nearly died of a sudden brain hemorrhage. He talks to Lloyd Grove about how the harrowing experience changed his outlook on life, and helped nudge him toward a new job at CBS News.

It has been barely a year since Chris Licht, the self-described “killer producer” of MSNBC’s Morning Joe,  suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that nearly killed him at the tender age of 38. The experience, at once terrifying and edifying, shortcut the acquisition of insights from what might otherwise have required decades of psychotherapy. It taught this married father of two to savor friends and family instead of careerist claptrap; deterred him from blowing his top over trivial pursuits; and made him, by his own account, a much nicer person.

“Look, I’m not like this Zen guy who’s like, ‘Hey, what’s up, tell me how you feel,’ ” Licht says in a mock hippy-dippy voice. “That’s not what it means. I’m just as intense. It’s more that, just because the videotape didn’t make slot doesn’t make the person [who screwed up] a horrible human being. You know what I mean? You just don’t clutter your brain with things that don’t matter or worry about things that are out of your control.”
 

Licht has chronicled his psychic makeover in a short, spellbinding book, What I Learned When I Almost Died: How a Maniac TV Producer Put Down His BlackBerry and Started to Live His Life. Written with the collaboration of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Twomey, the story starts on April 28, 2010, when Licht, riding to his Washington hotel in a chauffered Cadillac Escalade after another frenzied morning in the control room, heard his brain go “pop.”
    

What follows is a sometimes harrowing narrative involving the emergency room doctors at George Washington University hospital, who nearly sent Licht away with some pointers on reducing stress but without a CAT scan; Morning Joe stars Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, who burned up the phone lines to medical experts and Licht’s wife, Jenny, a control-room producer on CNN’s AC 360, and his parents in Connecticut; and Vice President Joe Biden, who took Brzezinski’s desperate phone call for help and then found a top neurosurgeon for Licht and personally pressed him into service. Biden famously survived surgery for two brain aneurysms in 1988, after his presidential campaign imploded in accusations of plagiarism.

“You saved my life,” Licht told the veep last year, when the two met at a media party at the vice president’s  residence.

I ask Licht how he’d respond to inevitable criticism from conservatives—many of whom already believe that MSNBC is in the tank for the Democrats and the Obama administration—that this episode only offers further evidence of political bias.

“I think anyone who watches our show knows that’s ridiculous,” Licht says. “We’re pretty hard on the White House.”

Licht says his don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff transformation was largely responsible for his willingness to leave the safe harbor of Morning Joe to take a strange new job as a program development executive at CBS News.

As for the vice president, “He would have done it if it was a Fox News producer,” Licht insists. “That’s just the way he is. He’s a good guy.”

Licht also disputes the notion that he got special treatment, unavailable to mere mortals without powerful connections, after Biden personally phoned renowned neurosurgeon Vivek Deshmukh and asked him to take the case.
   

“I did not get any different level of care,” he says, “but what I got was more attention. And when you’re in that situation in a strange city, to get that sort of personalized attention made a huge difference.” 
   

Licht says that absent Biden involvement, “I probably would have had the same doctor, the same everything…It’s the difference between waiting in line to go through security and being in the First Class line. It doesn’t make the experience any different. Everbody goes through the exact same thing. It’s just less of a pain in the ass.”

Speaking of which, Licht owns up in his book to occasionally being a “jerk” (his wife’s first impression when they met as fellow NBC News producers, years before they started dating) at various moments in his career.

“Yeah, I would say that there were bursts of unpleasantness,” he admits. “I don’t think I’m a baseline unpleasant person. Look, I equate it to a basketball coach—someone like Bob Huggins [head coach of West Virginia University’s Mountaineers] who you see on the sidelines and they’re working the refs and they’re yelling at their players. Some people thrive on that. And some people are like, ‘Why are you fucking yelling at me?’

“But it was never like ‘You suck!’ or anything like that. It was more like, ‘Where was that tape? Why did we do this?’ During three hours of television every morning, the control room is very, very animated and intense. But then, afterward, it’s much more mellow. I didn’t really take into account people’s feelings sometimes.”

Licht is a new man—and claims he’s not at all bothered that his doctors never did pinpoint the cause of his brain hemorrhage, which happened without warning, when he was in otherwise perfect health. He says he’s not worried about a recurrence.

“It’s irrelevant,” he says, noting that the odds of such a thing are statistically small. “You put it behind you. It’s just not worth thinking about so I don’t waste time.”

Licht hopes readers benefit from his crucible.

“Everything I’ve learned I want them to learn without having to go through what I did,” he tells me. “I think a large portion of that is being able to—what’s the word I’m looking for?—streamline your brain. To really only include the stuff that matters and not clutter it with things that really, in the end, don’t matter.”

Licht says his don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff transformation was largely responsible for his willingness to leave the safe harbor of Morning Joe, the agenda-setting political show he helped launch four years ago after a decade at NBC News,  to take a strange new job as a program development executive at CBS News. He starts there early next month, with a mandate to help remake the long-troubled CBS Early Show among other problem children of the news division. As he recounts in the book, on his return to work after his recovery, Licht told MSNBC President Phil Griffin, “I want to do bigger things.”

“I think what happened with my experience is you change,” Licht says. “There’s no such thing as a five-year plan with people who go through this—at least in my case. You think you’ll be around in five years and then suddenly you don’t know. And when there’s an opportunity, you’re more likely  to take a chance.”

Licht continues: “Big decisions like this don’t come along all the time. It’s everyday small decisions like, it’s really a pain to get lunch with someone—I get up at four in the morning and I’m tired—but now I really have made a point of dragging myself to do things, because I really don’t want to turn down any experience. I had a chance to go see a football game in Boston—big drive, short turnaround—but it was a chance to hang out with my Dad and I might not have done it two years ago. You’re just more an active participant in life and this [the new job] definitely falls under that umbrella. It’s leaving the best job in TV, but I feel like now is the time to take those risks because the downside isn’t that bad. Because I’ll still be alive with a great family.”

Friday was his last day at MSNBC, and a teary Licht, on camera in the control room, struggled not lose his composure as Joe and Mika bid him a fond farewell with a video covering his adventures on the show.

“That tape was really emotional for me,” Licht says, adding that he managed to keep from bawling “largely because I didn’t have to talk. I think if I had to talk, I would have lost it.”

After the show, the Morning Joe crew repaired to P.J. Clarke’s on the Upper West Side for a surprise goodbye party featuring pre-noon alcohol consumption. “Just a few glasses of champagne,” Licht says. “I don’t think anyone got drunk. It was just really nice.”

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.