Every Tuesday, Gene publishes weekly updates to his chats.
- Gene's latest chat
On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything. Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.
Greetings, update readers.
A brief update today on the subject of death, decency, timing and journalism.
I happened to be in a CVS yesterday, which means I was waiting in line for the longest time, which means I was leafing through the pages of The Globe, that sleazy gossip tabloid, which is how I learned that PAUL ANKA BEDDED A TEEN ANNETTE FUNICELLO RIGHT UNDER HER MOM’S NOSE. It’s true! Or we think it might be true – Anka claims that in a new autobiography.
I then got home and saw that Annette, the erstwhile perky Mouseketeer Annette, had just died after a dreadful battle with multiple sclerosis.
To put it mildly, this was very bad timing for The Globe and Mr. Anka. Nobody’s fault, really (so long as you have no problem with tell-all celebrity sex confessions to sell books and newspapers.)
But baaaaaaaad timing.
In related death-and-timing news, my string of killing celebs by writing about them sort-of continued yesterday, with the death of Margaret Thatcher. Time lapse between mention by me and death: one day. This was Sunday’s Barney & Clyde.
But I digress. I was writing about death, and decency, and timing and journalism, all of which came together a few days ago when the great Roger Ebert died. I never was a particular follower or fan of Mr. Ebert’s until I discovered his marvelously prickly / erudite / warmly human Twitter feed and read this terrific profile by Esquire’s Chris Jones in which we see a man of depth and passion fighting cancer and its disabilities – it maimed him and literally took his voice -- with inspiring grace.
After Ebert died, I realized I had an Ebert story to tell. It was the only intersection between him and me, but it was fabulous. The problem was, it didn’t make Roger look great. Here’s where the intersection of timing, death, and journalism kicks in. How soon is too soon? Well, certainly THIS soon is too soon. So I shelved my little Roger Ebert anecdote.
But over the last few days, it kept gnawing at me. It was just too juicy. I’m going to tell it now, for reasons you will understand at the end.
In the 1980s, I edited Tropic, the Sunday magazine of The Miami Herald. We were a wild and outrageous magazine, staffed by a wild and outrageous group of people, including me and Tom Shroder and Dave Barry and Joel Achenbach, all of whom are familiar to Post readers.
One day in 1989, Tropic ran a cover story by Bill Cosford, the Herald’s talented film critic. In it, Cosford largely pilloried his own craft, and among the people he took to task were Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who had patented the too-cute-by-half “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” reviewing conceit. Cosford wrote:
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are film critics so famous that they frequently appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and they are the principal reason why people pay attention to movie critics these days. So that's OK.
They are also the principal reason that people think movie critics are buffoons, which is not so good. Neither man wears a silly mustache or uses rhymes much, and the truth is that they're the best movie reviewers on TV. But they dress badly and allow themselves to be cast as celebrity goofballs. Though each freely trashes their competition, Siskel and Ebert exist only a rung or two up the evolutionary ladder from Rex Reed, the most thoroughly discredited movie reviewer in the Western Hemisphere. Their show has long since stopped being about what makes movies work and what makes them fail in favor of being about their occasional choreographed disputes. For years, the quote blurb, "Two thumbs up!" hung like a gas cloud over movie promotion. As the night follows the day, "Two thumbs up!" was followed, eventually, by "Two big thumbs up!" And recently there appeared the escalation, "Two thumbs WAY up!", which is either a new frontier in praise or an anatomical possibility best left unexplored.
In either case, would YOU shake hands with these guys?
So, pretty tough, and amusing, and right, if uncharitable and cranky.
Not long afterwards, as I have gleefully recalled many times to friends and colleagues, we received a long letter from Mr. Ebert, trashing Cosford and defending his and Mr. Siskel’s oeuvre. It went on forever. It was unbearably pompous. Ebert even bragged about his Pulitzer, which is something no writer should ever do.
As the editor of Tropic, I had to decide what to do with this letter; it was way too long to publish full length, but surely we owed Ebert a response. And his letter kind of spoke for itself, not in a good way.
Then someone – I am pretty sure it was Achenbach – suggested how to handle this. He meant it as a joke. But as with many things during those years at Tropic, things meant as inter-office jokes often wound up in print. The editor of Tropic was its least mature employee, which is not the way it’s supposed to work.
And so we wound up running the letter to the editor at almost full length, so readers could get a good measure of the sheer pomposity of it. And then we appended a “Mr. Cosford replies” italics line. Cosford did not actually come up with this response, Joel had, but Cosford happily and graciously let us do it.
So after Ebert’s long, self-congratulatory letter, this appeared. This is it in its entirety:
“Mr. Cosford replies: Are you the bald one or the fat one?”
Anyway, I decided I could not tell this so soon after Roger’s death. The only reason you are reading this now is that for the first time in 24 years, I actually went back into the archives to find that letter. And there it was. Which is when I discovered that I have been slandering Roger Ebert for decades.
The letter was exactly as I remembered it, except it had not been written by Ebert. It had been written by Siskel. It was SISKEL who referred to Ebert’s Pulitzer, suggesting that Cosford was envious of it. And Siskel’s long dead! Enough time has passed! I can rat him out, here, without penalty.
So! See what we have learned here? We have confirmed the existence of the only God I believe in, the God of Journalism. She has worked her magic to allow me to tell a funny anecdote AND atone for a sin AND apologize to a dead man I deeply admire, AND give well-deserved props to Cosford, who died way too young,suddenly, in 1994.
Is death great, or what?