It was a bittersweet afternoon for Jeff Zucker—or it would have been if not for all the zingers aimed at the departing president and chief executive of NBC Universal. Zucker was honored Monday mere weeks after the new owners, Comcast—getting ready to take over from GE in December—gave him a pink slip and sent him packing.
“I haven’t felt so much love since I sat down with [Comcast chief operating officer] Steve Burke a few weeks ago,” Zucker told a crowd of media heavies at the Pierre Hotel after enduring a severe roasting from CBS News anchor Katie Couric, NBC anchor Brian Williams and 30 Rock star Alec Baldwin. That was the meeting, in late September, at which Burke essentially told Zucker to get lost.
The 45-year-old Zucker noted that former Viacom CEO Tom Freston had received the same Frank Stanton Award from the luncheon hosts, the Center for Communication, in 2006—three weeks after Viacom Executive Chairman Sumner Redstone fired him.
“I am grateful to the Center for the chance to build on their unique tradition, established a few years ago, of honoring media executives right after they’ve been shit-canned,” Zucker joked to an audience that included Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, Sony Chairman Sir Howard Stringer, and Universal Studios Chairman Ron Meyer. Also Zucker's mother, Arlene. “Tom Freston was honored here just a few weeks after Sumner Redstone gave him his $80 million golden parachute. $80 million! Apparently he did not work for GE.”
“Brian Williams is here, too. By the way, great John Boehner costume!”
But Couric, who has known Zucker for nearly 20 years, since he took over the Today show at age 26, reassured the audience, “Don’t feel sorry for him. I heard about his deal. He is walking away with Conan O’Brien money.”
The crowd roared at Couric’s not-so-veiled reference to the recent Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien fiasco over which Zucker presided—ending with a huge corporate embarrassment, oodles of bad press (to say nothing of a just-released book by New York Times writer Bill Carter), and O’Brien leaving NBC with around $30 million in severance pay. Another oft-mentioned theme was the poor performance of NBC’s primetime lineup under Zucker’s troubled yet oddly durable reign.
“Jeff is living proof that Jews may control the media, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at it,” Couric added, to more big laughs.
Some other jokes from CBS News’ third-place anchor, at the expense of Zucker and others:
• ”It’s so nice to be with so many people and so many familiar faces from the business. As many of you know, I used to work in television, too.”
• ”When I was asked to do this actually I was really surprised, because usually when my agent calls and tells me I got a gig in a New York hotel, it means I’m gonna be working with Charlie Sheen.”
”There are so many talented media luminaries here today—and Brian Williams is here, too. By the way, great John Boehner costume!”
• ” Juan Williams was supposed to be here, but he had a little trouble with a cab. It wasn’t that a cab wouldn’t stop for a black guy. But when a cab did stop, Juan would look in, see the driver and get really nervous.”
• ”President Obama’s ratings have plummeted. All signs point to a Republican victory. Where else can you fail to balance the budget, launch successful programs and still keep your job? Oh yeah, NBC! Hey Jeff, maybe you should go into politics!” Zucker is occasionally rumored to crave a Senate seat from his native Florida. “After tomorrow’s results maybe you could start a show on CNN. Call it Zucker-Pelosi.”
• ”Alec Baldwin is here today. Alec, I saw your YouTube video in support of gay marriage and I thought it was so wonderful. I don’t want to imply anything about Alec’s sexual orientation, but rumor is this isn’t the first time he’s been inside a Pierre.”
• Noting that Zucker’s nickname at the Today show was Doogie Howser, Couric explained: “He was young, he was smart, and he was always asking me if he could give me a pelvic exam.”
That last one got more than a few groans.
Brian Williams, for his part, mocked the sheer length of Couric’s routine and joked that Zucker was now going to have to reacquaint himself with commercial airlines, taxis and subways. He added: “Some would argue that this lunch has a certain kiss of death about it. In that spirit, I’ve been asked by the organizers to congratulate Katie and Diane [Sawyer, anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight].”
Williams went on: “It’s fitting that my friend Jeff is getting the Frank Stanton Award,” named after the legendary CBS executive. “Jeff has so much in common with Frank—a competitive spirit, strong work ethic and, of course, both were instrumental in turning CBS into a ratings powerhouse.”
When Alec Baldwin got to the stage, he mused: “I can’t believe that Katie Couric and Brian Williams are the funniest people at this lunch.”
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.