Butch Kerry and the Sundance Kid: Dem Duo Hit On Buddy-Flick TV Formula

Wednesday, July 14

On Sunday, July 11, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Senator John Kerry whether he was afraid his scintillating new sidekick, Senator John Edwards, would upstage him on the campaign trail for President of the United States.

“I hope he does,” said Mr. Kerry. “I could care less.”

And why not? John the Younger-beaming, bolt upright-spoke out of turn, laughed too loudly and managed to turn up John the Older’s contrast knob from dour to dour- ish . Mr. Kerry’s grin was still stiff, but now it was more believable. The two gleefully took turns defending each other, with Mr. Edwards hopping mad to deflect questions about Mr. Kerry’s war vote (as it happens, the same as his own), cutting his partner off mid-sentence and insisting, “I want to finish this!”

Mr. Kerry let him go on. Gladly.

“I’ll tell you, if I were Kerry’s campaign people, I would never let ‘em campaign apart,” said Harry Thomason, director of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign film The Man from Hope , as well as the recent documentary, The Hunting of the President . “Because sometimes the sum of the whole is greater than just the two of them together, and this is one of those cases. There’s a buddy movie there.”

Indeed, here was a time-honored TV formula straight out of Hollywood: the cranky veteran adopting the overeager neophyte, and the overeager neophyte reminding the cranky veteran why he’s in the game to begin with. Between them, it was a mano-a-mano tele -frisson that made them both a little more likable. Think of old Jerry Orbach and young Benjamin Bratt, Detectives Lennie Briscoe and Reynaldo Curtis on Law and Order . Or old Chet Huntley and young David Brinkley on The Huntley-Brinkley Report . It’s Butch Kerry and the Sundance Kid .

Giddy up!

“By and large, it’s all reduced to your 21-inch TV screen and whether it’s real life or whether it’s scripted; in the end, it makes no difference to the viewer,” said Mr. Thomason. “They have the same emotional inputs to both categories. If it works in the scripted thing, the same things will work in reality.”

Mr. Edwards’ energy hasn’t so much rubbed off on Mr. Kerry as refracted him, changed his TV nature just by sitting next to him. Watching the two men on CBS revealed exactly how Mr. Edwards’ rambunctious, disruptive, puppy-dog energy framed Mr. Kerry, recast his frosty graveness as warm, paternal gravity, turning his club-footed drag on TV’s sense of momentum into a kind of sensible anchor weight to Mr. Edwards’ kinetic bit-chomping.

“The movie that came instantly to mind was The Searchers , with Jeff Hunter and John Wayne being Edwards and Kerry,” said Peter Bogdanovich, the film critic and legendary director of The Last Picture Show . “I saw the two of them together; it gives Kerry a kind of charm.”

In The Searchers , the 1956 film directed by John Ford, Wayne plays a weathered Civil War vet who sets out to rescue his niece from Indians, accompanied by his half-breed nephew. The vet picks on the nephew, while the nephew warms up the vet, making him more vulnerable.

“Jeff Hunter makes Wayne younger,” said Mr. Bogdanovich. “Because he’s picking on him, it makes both of them likable in a strange way.

“That whole older man–younger man dynamic is one you find in a number of Howard Hawks movies,” Mr. Bogdanovich continued. “Hawks used to talk about them as the sort of love affair between two men. Not that they were gay. You find that whole thing of the authority figure with the younger man in Dr. Kildare , Dr. Gillespie-it goes all the way through. It’s a natural.”

“It would have been totally different if it had been Gephardt,” said Tom Fontana, the creator of HBO’s prison drama Oz , referring to the 63-year-old Missouri Senator who was once a Vice Presidential contender. “They would have seemed like law partners, as opposed to this, which is much more like the junior partner–senior partner thing.”

(“On Oz ,” he added, “there was a father-son thing, but it got ugly. It usually ended up in rape.”)

In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan was the cowboy granddaddy, the father figure with a sense of authority and ease on the ranch and in the Oval Office. Vice President George Bush senior had been an afterthought next to Reagan, not quite a sidekick. And George W. Bush, of course, sought to emulate the protagonist, Reagan, with the shadow dynamic of Vice President Dick Cheney as Ben Cartwright to Mr. Bush’s Little Joe. But Mr. Kerry needed something different, and in choosing a Vice President who very distinctly framed him as taller, older, wiser, stodgier, he alternately made comment on the reverse Bush-Cheney ticket-in which the taller, older, wiser, stodgier half was not only the second in command, but also, for many, the presumed tutor.

“But Cheney’s so much like a kind of mean grandpa,” said Mr. Bogdanovich. “Nobody you’d really want to talk to for more than a second.”

With the wives and children of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards lined up on a grassy lawn for a photo op, Mr. Kerry was framed as a different kind of father figure than distant-dad Reagan-more like Dick Van Patten on Eight Is Enough , with Teresa as Abby, the sassy stepmom.

The same kind of older man–younger man dynamic was established on TV news with The Huntley-Brinkley Report in the 1960’s and 70’s. Chet Huntley, the New York–based anchor, played the older demographic against the Washington, D.C.–based David Brinkley, who subtly genuflected to Mr. Huntley in an appealing way. “What you really like in television, when you have more than one person together,” said Steve Friedman, the former executive producer of NBC’s Today and now a consultant, “is an actor and a reactor. People usually fall into either one. They either initiate the action or react to the action. What you don’t want is two actors, because they’ll kill each other; or two reactors, because nobody will say anything. On Carson, he was the actor and McMahon was the reactor.”

On Today , he said, co-host Katie Couric was once the reactor to Bryant Gumbel’s actor; now, said Mr. Friedman, Ms. Couric is the actor and Matt Lauer is the reactor.

But Reuven Frank, the onetime executive producer of The Huntley-Brinkley Report , said a better analogy came from vaudeville. “You’re describing Martin and Lewis,” he said. In that case, Jerry Lewis, he said, “was always the crazy kid with the stupid, infantile jokes and Martin was-that’s the function of the straight man. He was a kind of recipient. He never had a funny line when they worked together.”

In that way, he said, Mr. Kerry could remain his usual boring, untelegenic self-a man who turns a TV screen from HBO to PBS in nanoseconds. As long as Mr. Edwards was nearby, all nervous energy and charisma, Mr. Kerry’s straight-man act would crackle.

“So long as he’s there and sets up the line,” said Mr. Frank. “And he’s done that by giving him the nomination.”

Tonight, two great tastes that go great together: Law and Order . [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]

thursday, july 15

5 VH1 is rolling out I Love the 90s this week. We started to write a joke about how awful this is, but then we just hung our heads and cried. [VH1, 19, 8 p.m.]

friday, july 16

* On Monday, July 12, the Fox News Channel sent a reporter to cover the press conference for Robert Greenwald’s left-wing documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism . In the thick of the media firefight, you had to wonder why they would give more free publicity to the enemy by flattering him with coverage. After all, was anyone really surprised by the film’s “revelations,” as published in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, July 11, that Fox News is…conservative?

C’mon!

But Fox News loves a good scrap. So Eric Shawn, a 15-year veteran of the Rupert Murdoch empire, showed up to ask some tough questions of Mr. Greenwald and defend the honor of his Aussie masters.

“You don’t want to be a part of the story you cover, but I thought they should be asked the realistic questions,” he said. “If we’re going to report on this, we’re going to do it in a fair way and straight down the line, as we do everything.”

When it was his turn to ask a question, Mr. Shawn introduced himself-to gales of laughter from the audience-and said a quick hello to former Fox News writer Dave Korb, a “whistle-blower” who appears in the film. Mr. Shawn asked Mr. Greenwald how he could claim the movie was an honest portrayal of the facts when it was funded by a left-wing group like MoveOn.org. Mr. Greenwald responded that no one at the organization saw a final cut until it was done.

Mr. Shawn tried to follow up, but the press conference moved on to the CNN reporter.

“They only wanted one question,” said Mr. Shawn, “which is a cheap way to try and stop tougher questions.”

As the Fox News rep in the audience, had he felt like he was sent into the lion’s den?

“Well, it was uncomfortable,” said Mr. Shawn. “There were people with these little DVD’s taping me. And I didn’t know who they were or what they were doing. What was most uncomfortable for me was the fact that they were so wrong on the facts. I know the facts; I’ve been at Fox for 15 years. And it was propaganda. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. He broke the No. 1 rule of fairness and decency.”

Mr. Shawn said the fact that Mr. Greenwald hadn’t included Fox News’ response to his allegations-that the channel delivered Republican talking points, as directed by higher-ups in the news division-pretty much negated the entire project.

“It’s unfair, it’s slanted and it’s a hit job,” he added. “And I haven’t even seen it yet.”

Mr. Shawn said he read a seven-page excerpt from the film handed out at the conference and expected to watch Outfoxed the next day, Tuesday, before he filed a story for Brit Hume’s Special Report at 6 p.m.

Mr. Greenwald’s movie-a low-budget documentary that is only intermittently watchable-reveals Fox News’ internal memos asking producers to, say, avoid the temptation to question the war based on outsize casualties.

“The memo they talk about is the daily view, and I look at it as intellectual discourse on the editorial process,” said Mr. Shawn. “There’s a huge editorial process that goes on in newsrooms, and we talk about stories every day, and what we talk about does not necessarily appear finally on the air.”

Did they give Mr. Shawn a memo directing him to slant his coverage of the Outfoxed press conference? “No, of course not,” he said. Were these former Fox people airing all the cable-news laundry just crazy, or traitors, or what?

“No, it’s a free country,” he said. “They have their own right to interpret their own experiences as they think they are. And I wish them well. But sadly, they’re wrong on their facts-at least from my experience.”

Tonight, on The O’Reilly Factor , Mr. O’Reilly tells it like it is from his experience. Fair and decent, Mr. Skeptical Lefty! [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.]

saturday, july 17

@ Today, don’t miss Cody, Haley, Jenna and Ben-offspring of Frank and Kathy Lee Gifford, CNN’s Paula Zahn, actress Rosanna Scotto and The View co-host Meredith Vieira, respectively-delivering the hard-hitting latest on Kids News .

They’re the Mike, Morley, Lesley and Andy for Gen-AAA-and they’re as cute as a clip-on mike! Starting today, they’re airing on network TV in New York. Here’s a li’l NYTV Flashback from our November 2003 profile:

“Cody said he and his dad watched the news together, mainly the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly.

“‘I think he doesn’t kid anybody,’ observed Cody. ‘He just kind of tells it as it is, which is really good.'”

Yeah! Take that, Robert Greenwald! [WCBS, 2, 1 p.m.]

monday, july 19

Adam McKay, the former head writer of Saturday Night Liv e-and co-writer and director of the Will Ferrell hit Anchorman -is developing a new sketch-comedy for the stage to coincide with the Republican National Convention in September.

It’s called GEORGE W. BUSH IS A MOTHERFUCKER .

Mr. McKay said there is a dearth of political material going on down at the comedy hornet’s nest he helped found, Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

“We were literally joking that if you just did a show called GEORGE W. BUSH IS A MOTHERFUCKER , that in itself would be exciting,” he said. “I don’t know if that will end up being the actual title.”

They might call it Buck Fush instead.

The show will be directed by Jake Fogelnest, a director and teacher at U.C.B. Mr. McKay left SNL for the life of an L.A. screenwriter in 2000.

“So I have lots of ideas for stuff I would have written for the show,” he said.

Mr. McKay also used to write for Michael Moore’s TV show, The Awful Truth . He was crazy about Fahrenheit 9/11 , even if it did suck a few customers away from Anchorman .

“Someone said to me, ‘You know, Michael Moore’s going to take $5 million away from your movie.’ Well, that’s $5 million well spent.”

Tonight, The Funniest Families of Television Comedy: A Museum of Television and Radio Special . It’s got the last TV interview with John Ritter. [WABC, 7, 9:30 p.m.]

tuesday, july 20

Owners of deluxe apartments in the sky, a moment of silence: Actress Isabel Sanford, a.k.a. Weezie (Louise Jefferson on The Jeffersons ), died on Monday, July 12. She was 86.