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All men in makeup are playing a part,” said Lawrence O’Donnell from beneath a coating of thick, tinted foundation, following a live broadcast of his MSNBC show “The Last Word.”
For O’Donnell — who has worked as everything from a writer, actor and producer to a high-ranking Senate aide — the role he’s playing has just grown exponentially. The wiry, eloquent and occasionally gruff host has stepped into the shoes of the network’s highest-rated commentator, Keith Olbermann, and all the pundits are wondering whether he’s up to the task. Olbermann shocked viewers Friday night with the news that he was leaving his show, “Countdown,” and the network he’d made a strong number two to Fox.
This story first appeared in the January 26, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
MSNBC president Phil Griffin didn’t hesitate to swing O’Donnell into prime time — and naturally feels he chose the right man. Sidestepping questions about his relationship with Olbermann, Griffin told WWD Tuesday: “We’ve built a great bench of talent over the last several years. Lawrence has proven himself at both 10 p.m. and at 8 p.m.” — he filled in for Olbermann during his father’s illness — “and I’m thrilled to have him kicking off prime time. Our vision is unchanged, as is our goal — to beat Fox.”
That’s still a tall order. The left-leaning Olbermann managed to craft the formula MSNBC needed to overtake CNN and become the number-two cable news network behind the conservatively leaning Fox, but even viewership was less than half that of many of Fox’s stars.
So O’Donnell will need all his natural flair for the dramatic to close the gap. And he’s certainly on his Fox rivals’ radar. In November, the fire-breathing Glenn Beck described him as MSNBC’s “new, hot lover boy.”
That was several career steps ago, after O’Donnell dubbed himself a “socialist” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. Beck’s response, which likened the “Last Word” host to a Communist, prompted O’Donnell to devote his program’s entire last segment on Nov. 9 to explaining why he, Beck, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and all Americans are, indeed, socialists.
“I wish I wasn’t saying it for shock value…because this is the only country where you can’t use the word; that word gets to live as a demonization tool,” O’Donnell smirked in a recent interview with WWD, going on to professorially explain that the U.S. government is a mix of socialistic and capitalistic policies. “I owe him [Beck] a thank you. I think his audience is 500 times the size of my audience, and the more he can say it the better.”
He turned to his friend, comedian and illusionist Penn Jillette, who was waiting to catch a late dinner with the anchor, and asked: “You know Glenn. Do I send him flowers? What do I do?”
“You could send him something, and he’d appreciate it,” joked Jillette, who noted that Beck’s television persona ranges from “zero and 100 percent” as a fictionalized character, depending on what views he’s espousing. It’s the same with O’Donnell and every TV personality “with the exception of Stephen Colbert, who plays a part” that bears no relation to his actual personality, he added.
Only a few months before ascending to the prime-time slot, O’Donnell had offered an overly modest self-appraisal. “I barely know what I’m doing. It’s an early experiment,” he said.
O’Donnell’s circuitous, introspective ramblings off the air, while profound, contrast with the often cutting and incisive style of his on-air questioning. And it’s that elegant, well-groomed O’Donnell who masterfully navigated himself to near the top of MSNBC’s ratings by invoking the wrath of the right-wing media sensation Beck.
The notion that an on-air personality is that same person behind closed doors is “nonsense,” because you “know you’re on TV and you’re still trying to speak from your heart, and both of those things are true all the time, and all you do is fail at one or the other, but you’re always doing both,” Jillette said. “It’s like when you’re sitting around talking. How much when you are with your friends are you absolutely telling the truth that moment from your heart, and how much are you f—ing around? That slider just changes all the time, and nobody knows, including you, where it really is because what you pretend to be is what you are, but it never feels that way.”
Engrossed, O’Donnell — clad in a black suit, light blue shirt and charcoal textured silk tie by Dolce & Gabbana, Tod’s loafers and Seize sur Vingt socks — grunted in agreement.
“I can tell you that my horse isn’t higher than [Rush] Limbaugh’s or anybody else’s. I think Rush is a very, very talented entertainer,” O’Donnell said. “Rush stays onstage longer than he’s supposed to” and “gets into things that he regrets.”
“I understand how that happens,” he said. “I don’t think he’s the devil. I understand why people hate him for it. I understand why they hate me. There’s a way to avoid being hated — I can do the f–ing weather.”
Characters, personalities, theatrics — it’s a world O’Donnell knows all too well. Prior to his most recent gig, O’Donnell was a writer and producer of NBC’s “The West Wing,” and he has appeared frequently as an actor on the HBO series “Big Love.” The host also served as chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee under former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for whom he worked from 1989 to 1995. But there are aspects of his résumé that remain fuzzy, like his actual age. Wikipedia lists him as being born in November 1951, which would make him 59 going on 60. Other sources say he graduated from Harvard in 1976 and he’s 55. MSNBC wouldn’t confirm his age.
Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe, said, “Mika [Brzezinski] and I love having Lawrence on ‘Morning Joe’ because he doesn’t allow his political ideology to cloud his analysis and no one else on television knows the inner workings of Washington like Lawrence does. Besides, he’s a hell of a lot of fun.”
“He considers himself to be a novice in what we do…but he’s far from it,” said O’Donnell’s senior executive producer, Izabella Povich. “In cable news, personalities work. We are producing segments around his personality. He’s finding his voice.”
That process may ramp up quickly now that O’Donnell is their prime-time player, but Povich can identify personalities after having worked seven years as executive producer on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”
That said, Povich conceded that the stable of MSNBC anchors — including Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz — are “pretty true” off camera to how they are on camera.
“If you are one thing on TV and another thing in real life, then you don’t have credibility with the viewers,” she said.
But you’d be naïve to think that these already big personalities aren’t inflated just a tad to reel in ratings. And it’s Fox News that masters that bravado better than anybody else.
According to Nielsen ratings for 2010, since his show premiered on Sept. 27, O’Donnell has drawn in an average of 858,000 viewers each night, while Olbermann and Maddow rang in just over one million and 967,000 viewers, respectively.
MSNBC, however, has been no match for Fox, whose top four anchors all turned in over two million viewers apiece last year. For Fox, Nielsen groups various airings of each show together, including rebroadcasts, which typically have lower ratings than their prime-time counterparts. According to Web sites that break down each show by time slot, the network’s big three — O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Beck — amassed 3.2 million, 2.3 million and 2.2 million respective viewers in 2010. Bret Baier was not far behind with 2.1 million viewers. While O’Donnell consistently earned higher ratings than CNN’s Anderson Cooper, whose show logs roughly 665,000 viewers at the 10 p.m. time slot, both programs got crushed daily by Fox’s “On the Record w/ Greta Van Susteren,” which reeled in 1.9 million viewers last year.
“Fox is an ideology. They have a sensibility that goes beyond just what is going on out there — the way they select their stories, the points of view they take, the talking points. We don’t send out a note every day telling people what to say,” said MSNBC’s Griffin.
Late last year, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” criticized MSNBC for being the liberal Fox News.
“We’re not the anti-Fox,” Griffin said. “People like to position us that way but we do something entirely different…our goal is that we’re based in fact.”
Back in his office, an exasperated O’Donnell goes on a tear, calling politicians who come on his show with “nothing to offer up” other than talking points “clowns” and “hopeless stick figures.”
“There isn’t a magician alive who could get them to drop and reveal anything,” he said, his voice building in intensity. “They’re talking all night to not respond to anything that was a question, so I start doing this” — he cupped his hand to his face — “which you might as well know is a performance device I stole from Mr. Penn Jillette.”
Jillette chortled heartily, looking decidedly less bored.
“They give me this deep, dark tan. Now it looks like I’m wearing a glove,” O’Donnell snickered, with his noticeably pale hand still cradling his face. He paused dramatically for effect, waiting almost instinctively for his close-up, like the performer he claims to be. “You’ve shot 90 percent of the scene when you cast it,” he said with certainty. “Once I know who the guests are, I will know if I need makeup.”