“As I was saying…” Keith Olbermann began his relaunch of Countdown on Monday night after a five-month absence from cable television.
It’s a famous line from broadcasting history—first used by Jack Paar when he finally returned to The Tonight Show after angrily walking off because the NBC censor wouldn’t let him say “water closet”—but Olbermann can’t help chanting the mantras of his betters, having already appropriated Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night and good luck.”
This time around, the impossibly temperamental but always watchable Olbermann, who left his highly rated program on MSNBC after the inevitable falling out with his bosses, is taking his act to Al Gore’s Current TV, which draws a tiny fraction of the MSNBC audience.
Although nowhere near as graphically sophisticated as the MSNBC version, there’s a lot that’s familiar here—the agitated strains of Beethoven’s Ninth (another of Olbermann’s attempts to place himself in the pantheon of broadcasting legends, since it was the theme music of NBC’s The Huntley-Brinkley Report); his “Special Comment” rant; the “Worst Person in the World”; Olbermann’s resorting to funny voices when reading the quotations of people he disagrees with, and bobbing his head like a bobblehead doll at guests he agrees with; and the comic relief segment of offbeat stories, which bears the clunky title “Time Marches On,” instead of its previous name, “Oddball” (and, needless to say, isn’t punctuated by a recording of Chris Matthews’ barking laugh).
The idea, of course—and the reason Olbermann is receiving a reported $10 million a year, plus an equity stake and total control of Current’s news operation—is to lure eyeballs away from his former employer and goose Current’s viewership to measurable levels.
A 500-pound tuna in a koi pond, he’s at last getting the superstar treatment he must feel he deserves, with the network scheduling wall to wall promos featuring the bespectacled anchorman shooting one of his death glares and folding his arms over his budding belly in a semaphore of seriousness.
The curiosity factor alone will probably achieve the goal of big numbers temporarily, and the new Countdown’s live debut was, despite some technical glitches, solid enough to attract like-minded viewers who share the left-leaning politics of Olbermann and his guests.
Monday’s roster included “Countdown contributors” Michael Moore, the polemical documentary filmmaker, and John Dean, the reformed Nixon White House counsel from the bad old Watergate days, who slathered their host with fulsome flattery (though no more flattering than Olbermann’s self-comparison to Queen Victoria, who apparently—and irrelevantly—also began her reign on a June 20).
The distractingly corpulent Moore—who, let’s face it, looked slightly ridiculous in that bright orange Rutgers baseball cap—was, for mysterious reasons, brought on to discuss the legal nuances of the War Powers Act and President Obama’s attempts to evade them. Dean, who at least has a law degree, talked about Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’ apparent violations of accepted ethical practices.
But Countdown’s inaugural installment was marred by the creepily oleaginous performance of a third contributor, Markos Moulitsas of the liberal website Daily Kos. After Moulitsas got off a series of attack lines against the evil Republicans, Olbermann unilaterally extended his show for three minutes beyond its allotted hour (he has that kind of power now) in order to encourage Moulitsas to trash Olbermann’s former MSNBC rival, Joe Scarborough.
Moulitsas was banned from MSNBC programming in May 2010 after he insinuated, during a Twitter fight with Scarborough, that the former Republican congressman was somehow responsible for the death of his congressional staffer Lori Klausutis in 2001—a fact not mentioned on Countdown—and then refused to apologize for the slander.
“Apparently I made him cry, and he went crying to Phil Griffin, your old boss, and he decided I would not be allowed on MSNBC until I apologized to Joe Scarborough,” Moulitsas told the slyly grinning Olbermann, who was fairly vibrating with pleasure. “I offered to buy him a fainting couch for Christmas, some hankies to wipe away the tears…”
Stay classy, San Diego.