Chafing Brokaw Holds His Breath on Big Elections

The calendar said Election 2002, but across the television dial, Nov. 4 felt more like Turn Back the Clock Night. NBC’s Tom Brokaw wore a gray suit that could have fit snugly on David Brinkley, and pleaded with his audience to be patient for national poll results. CBS’s Dan Rather leaned forward in his Buzz Aldrin haircut and poked at what looked like a Sputnik-era U.S. map with a fat yellow pencil. On ABC, Peter Jennings talked old war horses like the economy and social security. And everyone everywhere was waiting on the news about hand ballots for that hot new Senatorial upstart from Minnesota, Walter Mondale.

Biggest midterm election in ages, and network TV was partying like it was…1976.

This scruffy old caution, of course, was the forced penance of 2000, when the networks shot a little too casually from the hip, called Florida for Al Gore, called it for George W. Bush, then wait – oh my – took it all back and pledged to reform a flawed vote-calling system that may have prompted (in no particular order) a Presidential meltdown, a Supreme Court clash,an angry electorate, and a Jeff Greenfield book. There was to be no repeat of that disaster, the network executives pledged, and if the competition beat them with the Senate race results from Missouri, or was the first to correctly guess the tilt of the new Washington D.C. power balance, well, they’d take it in stride – and scream at the associate producers behind closed doors.

The night’s news cycle began, as it always does now, on the peppy cable networks, where TV’s Monster Trucks acted like someone had spilled rock salt in their gas tanks. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was playing it safe? Brit Hume and the gang on the Fox News Channel bit their tongues, too, wanting to get it right. CNN’s New York arrivistes – Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn – flew into the network’s Atlanta honeycomb and played nice with everyone. There would be…no…repeat. The infamous Voter News Service? When MSNBC’s Lester Holt turned to Mr. Matthews around 9:30 P.M and said, “Chris, we can say that based on information provided by Voter News Service…” it felt like a “secret word” scene from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: you expected the furniture to scream ” Aaarrrrgh !”

VNS, it seemed, was the big loser of the night, and there was Mr. Greenfield popping up on CNN in the early evening to report that 2000′s chief whipping boy had been whipped again. “A few minutes ago, Voter News Service – the consortium of news organizations, networks and a couple news gathering groups – told everyone they are not satisfied with the accuracy of the exit poll analysis and will not be in a position to be providing exit polls for the national voter trends or for state races,” Mr. Greenfield said. “Let me say that again…”

So: down with VNS – and up with indecision! Not even at 10 P.M., when ABC, CBS and NBC finally went live. Not long ago, when the broadcast networks went on the air and took over for their cable counterparts, it was simply to shut off the lights – Mariano Rivera strutting to the mound for a quick 1-2-3. But 2000 changed all that forever. Now the networks were prepping for the late rounds. The Minnesota, Louisiana, Colorado, Arkansas, and South Dakota Senate races were all awfully tough to call. Tim Russert had that dirty old washboard out again, and he wiped it lovingly like like Aladdin and promised a loooooong night.

They were waiting on Walter, mostly. The creaky ex-Vice President and Minnesota substitute was the one bona fide national saga of this year’s national race, and it was only appropriate it looked like it would be a wee hour drama. Mr. Mondale’s return – in the place of Senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash barely a week and a half before – was a human as well as an intensely political story. It also brought a badly-needed focus to the midterm election, which had spent most of the fall buried in a stunning avalanche of other news – Iraq, the Middle East, the Maryland sniper, the gassed Chechen rebels in Moscow.

So: who was up? Who was down? No one wanted to crow, really. The Republicans looked good early – with Liddy Dole in North Carolina and Jim Talent in Missouri – but on Fox News, Brit Hume looked down from those schoolmarm’s glasses at 9:35 and played it fair…and balanced! “So far, no change in the Senate, really, anywhere,” Mr. Hume said. Even Fred Barnes, Bill Kristol and Morton Kondracke bit their tongues, generally. Even the slogans were careful: Fox’s was “You Decide 2002″ (zzz); CNN’s was “America Votes 2002″ (zzzzzz) and MSNBC, the home of Nachman, opted for “Decision 2002.”

Leave it to Rush Limbaugh to get a little jiggy with it. The radio mouth took a prized seat at the NBC News desk next to Mr. Brokaw and Mr. Russert – yes this was the network, not MSNBC -shook his head and did a little early grave dance on the Democrats. “They were really unable to capitalize,” Mr. Limbaugh said, restraining his usual giddyness, but still a little pleased. “This has to be, for Republicans, a good night.”

It sure began to look that way soon afterward. Mr. Limbaugh vowed to stay on NBC News “as long as neccessary,” but as Nov. 5 approached, Mr. Brokaw looked near-ready to call it a night. Around 11:30 he turned to Mr. Russert and in a sonorous tone said that Rush was right: the night, and the Senate, appeared to be going toward the Republicans. Mr. Russert looked up from his marker musings and said it sure looked that way. But no one wanted to lock it down and declare it. That may have been good television, but tonight, it was trouble.

Thursday, Nov. 7

If you didn’t see it, Warren Zevon’s appearance on the Oct. 30 Late Show with David Letterman was pretty remarkable TV. It was everything that television today usually isn’t: dignified, subtly humorous and resistant to melodrama. And still it managed to break your heart.

Mr. Zevon, the veteran troubadour behind such rock anthems as “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and he was Mr. Letterman’s sole guest that evening, sitting on the couch for a brief interview and performing three songs. From the moment he walked out to Paul Schaffer and the band playing “Sleep When I Die,” it was clear that the smartly cynical lyricist, who had a long history with the show-Mr. Zevon’s been a guest on Mr. Letterman’s programs 13 times, first in 1982, singing “Excitable Boy” on NBC’s Late Night , and later served as a regular substitute for Mr. Schaffer-hadn’t lost any of his dark comedic sense. He began by telling Mr. Letterman that his diagnosis meant “you better get your dry cleaning done on special,” and later, when asked how he now savored life, offered that cancer reminded him to “enjoy every sandwich.”

Mr. Zevon’s appearance had been in the works since early September, when he told the Late Show staff of his diagnosis. A source close to the show said that Mr. Letterman inquired if Mr. Zevon would be interested in coming on the show, and Mr. Zevon said yes. Mr. Letterman suggested that Mr. Zevon be given more than the usual one-song-and-out that musicians typically do on late-night talk shows, and over the following weeks, representatives of the Late Show and Mr. Zevon traded calls, exchanging ideas and song suggestions. Finally it was agreed that Mr. Zevon would do an interview and perform three songs: “Mutineer,” “Genius” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

Though a relaxed and self-deprecating Mr. Zevon put the staff at ease, it was by no means an easy Late Show to plan, the source said. Mr. Letterman wanted to make sure that Mr. Zevon was comfortable with every element of the program; they also eschewed hyping Mr. Zevon’s appearance with promos and press releases. “Dave was adamant about not wanting to promote this on our end at all,” the source close to the show said.

The morning of the show, Mr. Letterman decided he wouldn’t address Mr. Zevon’s condition in his monologue, but he would pay tribute to the songwriter’s career later during an on-air conversation with Mr. Schaffer. He went over lists of Mr. Zevon’s albums and songs, wanting to make sure that he acknowledged the singer’s musical legacy and didn’t just focus on the illness. He also visited Mr. Zevon in his dressing room before the show began, something the host rarely does. “This wasn’t someone we didn’t know,” the source said of Mr. Zevon. “This was a friend. People here considered him part of the staff.”

Mr. Letterman’s performance was superb, but in the end it was the classy Mr. Zevon who lifted the Late Show up on his own shoulders. The 55-year-old singer appeared in a black pinstripe suit and chatted amicably with Mr. Letterman about his diagnosis and the subsequent fallout on his family and career. Then he performed his songs, and at the end of “Roland,” Mr. Letterman strolled out, wrapped an arm around him and said, “Warren, enjoy every sandwich.”

Later, Mr. Zevon told Mr. Letterman there was something he wanted to give him. In the dressing room that evening, he presented the host with a gray electric guitar, the source said. It was the guitar he always played on Mr. Letterman’s show.

Tonight on The Late Show with David Letterman , a haggard, unshaven Tom Brokaw tells Dave he feels “safe about calling New York for Rockefeller.”

[WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]

Friday Nov. 8

Susie Essman has some mouth on her. As Susie Greene, the wife of manager Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm , she’s taken female cursing to longshoreman levels, pummeling her bumbling, barrel-bodied husband with potty-mouthed invectives like “You fat fuck!”

Now fans of the show feel obliged to curse at Ms. Essman when she’s out in public.

“People stop me on the street and shout ‘Fat fuck!’” Ms. Essman said the other day. “Luckily I’m thin, so I don’t take it personally. But they’ll shout my lines at me-if I’m wearing sunglasses, they’ll say, ‘You four-eyed fuck!’”

Ms. Essman laughed. “I’ve got the catch phrases!”

A longtime New York comic, Ms. Essman got a call from Curb Your Enthusiasm creator and star Larry David after he saw her kill at the Jerry Stiller Friar’s Club Roast on Comedy Central. “He said, ‘Susie, it’s L.D.-do you want to do this part? I have a part that’s perfect for you,’” Ms. Essman recalled.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Essman called the acclaimed Curb “the most fun she’d ever had” at an acting job. Mr. David assembles detailed plots for his show but does not force the actors to hew to a specific script; scenes are improvised and actors riff off each other.

Ms. Essman said Curb was going to spoil her as an actress. “I’ll get some stupid sitcom script with some ridiculous jokes I’m going to have to say, and it’s a completely different feeling,” she said.

On Nov. 8, Ms. Essman is set to appear at the Madison Square Comedy Garden as part of a “Single in the City” ha-ha night. She and other comedians will hop onstage and sit for a couple of quickie Q&A dates with prospective suitors.

Did she have any hopes of meeting someone good? “Not really,” she said. “It’s strictly professional. But you never know.”

Advice to Ms. Essman’s suitors: Don’t use “fat fuck” and expect to walk away with your kneecaps intact.

Tonight on HBO, a repeat of the Nov. 3 Curb . A friend of ours can’t stand it when people refer to Curb Your Enthusiasm as Curb . Curb ! Curb ! [HBO, 32, 11:30 p.m.]

Saturday, Nov. 9

Tonight, this summer’s feel-good auteur, Nia Vardalos, boosts her already big fat Hollywood profile by hosting Saturday Night Live . [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]

Sunday, Nov. 10

Tonight on ESPN’s for-depressed-lunatics-only Sunday Night Football , the predictably-beaching-themselves Miami Dolphins visit the thoroughly schizophrenic New York Jets. [ESPN, 28, 8:30 p.m.]

Monday, Nov. 11

Tonight, Fox has Funniest Game Show Moments 2 . Here’s a suggestion: the time that Fox executive green-lit Greed . [WNYW, 5, 9 p.m.]

Tuesday, Nov. 12

Tonight on the NBC Nightly News , a delirious Tim Russert-in between reading aloud from The Boys on the Bus , drawing sailor tattoos on his face with his green magic marker, and standing on his desk and belting out “Jukebox Hero”-pronounces “Chita Rivera the likely winner in North Carolina.” [WNBC, 4, 6:30 p.m.]