The Light from the TV Shows: God Bless the TCA Press Tour

If you’ve been a regular Bullz-Eye reader for awhile now, then you may be aware that, twice a year, I take a jaunt from my home turf in Chesapeake, VA, to southern California in order to attend the Television Critics Association press tour, which takes place in January and July. I arrived here in Pasadena yesterday, which means the proceedings have only just gotten underway, but based on my previous experiences, there’s every reason to believe that this tour will prove to be just as amusing, fascinating, and consistently entertaining as it has been every other time I’ve been here.

My original plan for this week’s column was to discuss which of the panels and events I’m most interested in attending, but then it occurred to me that it probably wouldn’t look a whole lot different from my list of the 12 new series I’m most looking forward to seeing in 2012. Instead, I thought I’d look back at some of my favorite TCA tour experiences since joining the organization in 2007. I can’t imagine any other organization which could provide a writer based in Virginia with the opportunity to mingle with everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Mike Tyson, giving me once-in-a-lifetime experiences twice a freaking year.

With that, I present you with some highlights from past tours…

Summer 2007

Most enjoyable panel: The “Family Guy” live read-through of their 100th episode. Watching Seth MacFarlane (right) bounce back and forth between his voices for Peter, Stewie and Brian is mind-blowing.

Best panelist rants: James Woods.

When one of the reporters bemoaned the panel (Woods, co-star Jeri Ryan and producer/creator Ian Biederman) for not giving them anything that made for good copy, Woods stepped up to bat. “OK, well, I honestly hate these motherfuckers, but I’m getting paid so, you know, what am I going to do. That fucking Jeri Ryan bitch. She shows up in a fucking Borg suit and says, “Hey, remember me when I was hot?” One more fucking time and I’m done!” At this point, he finally gave in to laughter, saying, “OK, I think we’re done now.”

In the last moments of the panel, Woods tackled the issue of his character’s questionable moral decision in the season finale, when he knowingly sent a man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit because he knew that he was guilty of other crimes. As it happens, Woods didn’t really agree with Biederman’s decision to have Sebastian Stark do what he did. “I don’t believe in vigilante justice,” he said. Then, after a moment, added, “Except if I were pissed off about something. Then I would believe in it. I mean, you know, I get lousy customer support, I want to get involved in a workplace killing.”

At this point, Woods began to mime speaking into a phone. “‘Where in India are you, motherfucker? Where exactly in Sumatra are you, you fucker?’”

Pause for a heartbeat.

“Oh, boy, that wasn’t politically correct,” said Woods. “I wouldn’t want to see that get out.”

Right. That would explain why he then proceeded to make the international hand signal for jacking off, and also why he tried to give the publicists at CBS a heart attack with his next words:

“Hey, Isaiah Washington’s back. So that’s good.” With a wicked grin, Woods continued. “Let’s have some controversy. I’m so tempted. I’m so tempted to say it, but I’m not…”

The reporters, of course, were egging him on, even as Biederman was nervously suggesting, “Let’s wait ’til Season 4, can we?”

In the end, Woods demurred. “I’m sure we could do it and kid around and have a good time,” he said, “but, no, somebody would take it the wrong way. All the CBS people back there, they’re shitting themselves right now.”

And with that, “Shark” publicist Barbara Abseck got the biggest laugh of the panel: “Sooooooo…this concludes our session.”

Coolest person I never actually got to meet: Craig Ferguson. And now you’re wondering, “So if you never actually met him, how do you know he’s cool?” Because when the TCA held its bi-annual business meeting during the course of the press tour, at its conclusion, it was announced Ferguson – who’d previously served as host of the TCA Awards – had ordered us 10 pizzas from his favorite Chicago-style pizza place in Los Angeles. In a later discussion with Katie Barker, the publicist for “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” I discovered that Ferguson had been on the east coast, was sorry that he was unable to attend the CBS all-star party, and, having heard all the discussions about the food being thrown at us journalists, thought that sending the pizzas was, in Katie’s words, “a good way to say, ‘Sorry I missed the event, but I’m thinking about all of you.’” Come on now: that’s cool.

Most surreal moment of any panel or party: Doing a shot with Judd Hirsch (“Numb3rs”) at the CBS party.

Summer 2008

Most enjoyable panel by a cable network: “Attack of the Show,” G4. Despite being a self-proclaimed geek, I’ve never really watched this series, but hosts Kevin Pereira and Olivia Munn kept the crowd in stitches. Munn also got a few gasps during the proceedings, most notably when someone kiddingly asked when the romantic tension on the show would result in consummation. “Well, he already put it in my ass, which is technically not doing it yet,” Munn replied.

Coolest moment of the tour for me: Meeting Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” while clutching a Krusty the Klown under my arm. Remind me to show you the picture sometime.

Coolest moment of the tour for my wife: Talking to Tom Hanks after the TCA Awards. The organizers of the event somehow managed to quietly sneak him to his table without letting it slip that he was in attendance, but rather than play the Hollywood big shot card and vanish the second the ceremony ended, Tom was cool enough to stick around for a bit and chat. We’d had a close encounter with him in Richmond at the premiere of “John Adams,” but although I’d shaken his hand at that time, my wife had hovered behind me. This time, however, she wasn’t going to miss her opportunity. She came up to him afterwards, and when she gently touched his arm to get his attention, she explained about how she’d been there in Richmond but had been too in awe to say anything, and that she couldn’t let this chance pass without at least being able to say “hello.” At this, Tom smiled at her, put his hand on hers, and said in the sweetest manner possible, “Well, hello.” They talked for a few minutes about that evening in Richmond (he recalled the “fun” of the power outage that had occurred immediately before the program was to begin) before Tom was called away, but he left my wife with a memory that she’ll have forever.

Most awesome visit to the set of a cable show: “Mad Men,” AMC. You just can’t believe how intricately they’ve recreated the 1960s on the sets for this series. Creator Matthew Weiner took us all around the offices of Sterling Cooper, allowed us to stroll through Don Draper’s digs, and gave us a look at the costume department that works so hard to make everyone look perfect for the era in which they’re playing. The most awesome part, however, was having Jon Hamm, January Jones, and John Slattery stroll onto the Sterling Cooper set in full character attire. Wow. Just…wow.

Most desperately needed moment of excitement on a panel: In the final panel of the entire tour, in a room filled with critics who were already imagining hopping on a plane and heading home, there was only one man who could snap their attention back to the stage: Ian McShane. Having not yet seen the pilot for McShane’s new NBC series, “Kings,” we were all a little uncertain about what to expect, but one poor writer made the mistake of responding to the producers’ attempted explanation of by saying, “Okay, now you’re not making any sense at all.” Oh, dear: McShane didn’t like the sound of that one bit. He exploded on the writer, growling back a tirade which ultimately found him asking, “What do you expect, it all spelled out for you?” Thankfully, the tension eased up a bit as the writer attempted to backpedal his way out of harm’s way, but everyone remained on the edge of their seats for the duration of the panel, just in case the next annoying question might find McShane leaping off the stage and throttling someone to death. It didn’t happen, of course, but I think we all felt like it could’ve…and by that point in the tour, some of us secretly wished that it would.

Winter 2009

Most enjoyable panel by a cable network: “Rescue Me,” FX.

I’ve been a big Denis Leary fan ever since No Cure for Cancer, so I knew the guy was inevitably going to go off on a profanity-filled rant before the end of the panel. What I didn’t expect, however, was that Peter Tolan – who co-created the show with Leary – would start the proceedings by telling Leary to watch his mouth, adding, “If you were going to say ‘cunt,’ don’t.”

From there, the two of them seemingly battled each other in an attempt to offer up the most memorable line. Leary complained about his salary. (“I had a crazy idea of getting paid, like, $250,000 an episode. They put limits on that, let me tell you. That’s Kiefer Sutherland money right there.”) Then Tolan claimed that he was at fault for the show’s fourth-season slump, blaming it on a drug problem and that “I was heavy into a kazillion hookers that year.” Then Leary bitched about how Michael J. Fox was going to guest on “Rescue Me” and get the Emmy that Leary himself has yet to earn. (“Five fucking episodes, he comes in. God damn, $700 million from ‘Spin City.’ He never asked me to do the show. He’s going to walk away with the fucking Emmy. That son of a bitch.”) Then Tolan started mocking Hugh Laurie’s American accent by talking about how he could do a British accent. (“Aye, pip, pip, mate, aye! ‘Allo, Mary Poppins!”) And…well, as you can see, there was really no contest: this may well have been the greatest panel ever.

Least intimidating person to talk to (and I mean that in the best possible way):

Male: Tom Kenney (“Sit Down, Shut Up,” Fox). He was hanging out at the bar during the Fox party, so I struck up a conversation with him about his life in the world of animation. When he described himself as the equivalent of a session drummer, I said, “So, basically, you’re the Hal Blaine of voiceover work.” His response was to lean into my recorder, embrace me, and say, “You can’t hear it, but I’m hugging Will Harris right now because he knows who Hal Blaine is.” By conversation’s end, he had recorded a message for my 3-year-old daughter in his best SpongeBob Squarepants voice. Good times with a great guy.

Female: Tracey Ullman (“Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union,” Showtime). She was so pleasant from the moment that I approached her, and when I risked bringing up her music from the ’80s, she at least claimed to be amused by asking about it. First, we bonded over our mutual love of the late Kirsty MacColl, and then she proceeded to reveal that her son recently put one of her songs on his iPod when loading up for a road trip…and she responded by accusing him of taking the piss. (He assured her that he really did like the song.) Geez, I guess I’ll have to start watching her Showtime series now, huh?

Cheapest thrill of the tour: It’s a tie between shaking Ozzy Osbourne’s hand (even though I know full well he had forgotten it the moment our hands unclasped) and asking Drew Barrymore a question in the press scrum and, as a result, finding myself close enough to her to see that she has a pierced tongue.

Coolest moment of the tour: Sir Ian McKellen scaring the living hell out of a PBS publicist.

I managed to score a 25-minute one-on-one interview with McKellen in his hotel suite, with the publicist keeping a discrete distance in the background, but as we talked about his appearance on “The Simpsons” and the supposed theatrical curse of speaking the name “Macbeth” aloud, he said, “I’ve suffered no ill effects thus far,” then gasped and clutched his side. The poor woman turned pale, and when he realized her reaction to his actions, he had to assure her, “No, no, I’m only joking…”

Most awesome visit to the set of a network show: “The Big Bang Theory.” Just getting to look around the set of Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment was geek bliss. I mean, they’ve got an actual Green Lantern power battery there, for God’s sake. How awesome is that?

Summer 2009

Most Enthralling Panel by a Cable Network: “P.O.V. – Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” PBS.

As someone who has spent the majority of his journalistic career as a music critic (and, even before that, spent a decent chunk of time as a record store clerk), I was easily as excited about this panel as anything else on the schedule. I mean, c’mon, Patti Smith? She’s a legend…and the audience treated her as such: the questions were well-considered, and in turn, Patti’s answers were well-constructed, informative, and entertaining. Despite my excitement, I had somehow developed an expectation that she might be reserved and, indeed, perhaps a bit prickly with her responses, but she was smiling and laughing and enjoying herself. When she broke out her guitar at the end of the Q&A and proceeded to favor us with a couple of songs, I dare say I wasn’t the only one who was completely mesmerized. After Patti’s performance, we absconded to a PBS-sponsored cocktail party, where writer Marc Allan – a veteran attendee of the TCA Tour – said that this might’ve been the single best panel he’s ever attended. I don’t know if time has tempered the immediacy of his reaction, but the more I think about it, the more I think he could well be right.

Most Enjoyable Panel by a Broadcast Network: “Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live, Hell’s Kitchen & Kitchen Nightmares,” Fox.

By the time Fox took the stage for their various panels, we were well past the halfway point of the tour, and most of us had begun to hit that invisible wall which makes us start to zone out of the proceedings and just start wishing we were back home. Fortunately, Chef Ramsay decided that he wanted to add a bit of interactivity to the proceedings, and given that he was there to talk up his latest series, “Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live,” it made complete sense. As such, he invited the audience of critics to follow a recipe and whip up the topping for their own serving of Baked Alaska. It would be fair to say that I did not do spectacularly (one look at mine, and he sadly sighed, “Oh, mate…), but it was a lot of fun nonetheless.

Best anecdote that I heard from someone who I wasn’t even interviewing at the time: Megyn Price.

When I walked up to Drew Carey so that I could revisit an earlier discussion with him about his favorite bad movies (in 2007, he assured me that “Boat Trip” was so bad that it was actually a must-see), Price – of CBS’s “Rules of Engagement” – proceeded to tell a story about how she used to make a point of going to see certain shows on Broadway simply because they looked like they’d be horrible.

“David Cross and I decided that we were going to go to ‘Footloose,’ because we were, like, ‘It’s gonna be so bad that it’s gonna be fun!’ So we’re sitting in the theater, and we decided at intermission that we were just gonna do shots. We were, like, ‘It’s gonna get better, because now we’re all drunk!’ So we go back in and we sit down, and these boys in front of us, who were, like, fifteen and were clearly there under duress from their mother, turn around and say to David, ‘Hey, you’re in ‘Mr. Show.’ We thought you were cool.’ And he was so bummed for the longest time! He was, like, ‘No, no, if you’ll just let me explain…! I’m here ironically!’”

Person Who Necessitated the Institution of a Three-Strikes-And-You’re-Out Rule: Hayden Panetierre.

To put this in proper context, you must understand that, in almost twenty years of doing interviews, I don’t even have anyone who’s earned two strikes, but Hayden went three for three at the NBC parties I’ve attended over the course of my trio of summer press tours.

In 2007, I managed to ask her precisely one question, which she answered lazily before wandering away. In 2008, I waited patiently for an interview as she finished a casual conversation, and although both she and her publicist clearly saw me, they both turned and walked in the opposite direction when the conversation was over. I unintentionally but audibly said, “Oh, no, you didn’t,” at which point her publicist attempted to pacify me by assuring me that she had to go to the ladies room and would be back. (She wouldn’t be.) This year, I decided I’d give it one more shot.

As I was steeling myself for her impending indifference, a colleague came up and said, “Do you want to double-team her?” Just as we were heading her way, another critic beat us to the punch by calling Hayden’s name…and I saw Hayden’s eyes roll as far back as she could muster, then turned and offered about the most fake smile imaginable, in no way hiding the “I don’t want to be here, let alone answer your questions” look in her eyes. My colleague and I approached nonetheless, and we watched as several other writings entered the newly-created scrum. After the fourth or fifth time Hayden reacted to a new tape recorder as if someone was thrusting a knife at her, I finally just said, “Screw this” (albeit under my breath), and bailed out, but I got the impression that the scrum broke up not long afterward, anyway. C’mon, Hayden, if you don’t want to be at the party, don’t come to the party…and if you have to be at the party, then at least pretend to be civil, would you? We’re not paparazzi. We’re TV critics.

Winter 2010

Best question asked during a cable network panel: The panel in question was for Animal Planet’s “Fatal Attractions,” a three-part miniseries which explores why some people are driven to bring dangerous, wild creatures like chimpanzees, big cats, and venomous reptiles right into their homes. The trailer for the program was decidedly disconcerting to just about everyone, I think, but it was Jonathan Storm of the Philadelphia Inquirer – the man who once kicked off a “Kardashians” panel by asking, “Who are you and why should we care about you?” – who got the mike first, and, boy, did he let his feelings show. “Where does this end?” he asked. “Here you have crazy people who take dangerous animals into their homes, and you’re going to present and tell their interesting stories…? Is there a point at which the behavior of the people that you are glorifying in these reality shows becomes so ridiculous that you will refuse to put it on, or is it simply a question of keeping your digital channel and making a little bit of money off of it?” Marjorie Kaplan, the President and General Manager of Animal Planet, looked like she’d had the wind knocked out of her, responding at first only with a flustered “My goodness!” She quickly recovered, however, arguing that “we are not trying to present outrageous things; we are telling stories that happen in the world.” Methinks, however, that Jonathan remained unconvinced.

Best anecdote(s) during a panel: Louis C.K.

His new FX sitcom, “Louie,” offers a look into the stand-up comedian’s life as a divorced dad, showing both his interactions with his kids and his attempts to reenter the world of dating. During the course of the panel, he proceeded to tell a worst-case scenario situation from each side, and they were both pretty awesome.

On the topic of his worst date, Louis hemmed and hawed at first, explaining that pretty much all of his dates have been pretty bad. “Dating is horrible,” he said. “It’s awful. I don’t get it. It’s just…you’re standing there, going, ‘Hi, do you want to have sex and later wish you hadn’t?’ It’s horrible. And it’s awkward at 42 because I don’t have the body or the drive. I don’t have sex drive. I have sex sit-in-the-car-and-hope-somebody-gets-in. And I’m amongst young people, because most people my age aren’t dating unless there’s something wrong with them…like me.”

Finally, however, he conceded that maybe one of dates did kind of stand out. “I went out with a woman once,” he said, “and I flew her to New York City. I was living in Boston. I said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to tell you where we’re going,’ and I had this romantic image that we would get on the shuttle and go to New York and go to Tavern on the Green and then fly back, but it was just a debacle. The flights were delayed – y’know, security problems – and we got to New York really late, sat in a cab in Queens for about two hours, and Tavern on the Green…you can’t just walk in there. I’m an idiot. We got turned away. And I stand outside Tavern on the Green with her, going, ‘“I’m sorry, I guess I didn’t plan this well,’ and a pigeon shat directly on top of my head. Just a huge amount of shit. White pigeon shit. With black streaks.

“That one,” he admitted, “was pretty bad.”

Insofar as his kids were concerned, Louis focused on a moment with his daughter, and although you’ll soon see that the subject matter was, in general, about as unfunny as it gets, I couldn’t help but laugh, because as the father of a 4-year-old daughter, I’ve had to battle back from similar bouts of speechlessness in order to come up with a halfway intelligent answer to a very serious subject.

“I was on the subway with my daughter,” he said, “and she said to me that her friend in school told her that his grandparents were put in an oven during a war. And, I mean, this is the kind of high wire act parenting is, because you don’t get warned that you’re going to have this conversation. I’m just holding onto a strap, and she says (this), and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ And she says, ‘Daddy, does that happen? Do people put each other in ovens?’ And what do you say, because you can’t just go, ‘No, your friend’s a liar.’ And you also can’t go, ‘Oh, yeah. That was Hitler, and just,” you know. And you also can’t just go, ‘Yeah, that happens sometimes. You never know. Sometimes somebody will grab you and shove you in an oven.’ So she’s standing there, waiting, and you have to come up with the thing. And what I ended up saying was…like, to me, with my daughter, it’s always the truth. I try to tell her the truth. And so I told her the truth, which was, ‘I don’t know what to say to you about this right now.’ I said, ‘I’m not sure you should know about it. If you really want to know, I’ll tell you.’ I was just buying time while my brain was working behind me. But she said, ‘Yeah, don’t tell me yet.’ She’s smart, but she doesn’t need to know about Hitler yet. She was six years old when this happened. How do you take a kid from Santa Claus to the evil of Hitler and Stalin and all that shit? I don’t know.”

I don’t know, either, of course, but I know that Louis should be very proud of his daughter: not every little girl would allow their father to retain his dignity in such a manner, let alone give him a story that he can use during the TCA tour.

Best opening line from any interview that I did during the tour: Jonathan Demme. I opened by telling him that I was a huge fan of his Robyn Hitchcock concert film, “Storefront Hitchcock.” His reply: “I love you very much.”

Best one-on-one interview: Patrick Stewart. And, believe me, no one else even comes close.

We were originally only supposed to chat for ten minutes, but when his publicist came back to check on us at the 10-minute mark, we’d talked solely about Shakespeare, so I asked if I could ask him a couple of questions about his work in comedy. The next thing I knew, I’d virtually doubled my interview time and was left reeling from the fact that not only he was telling me about how much he enjoyed the “Phil McCracken, Scottish Therapist” sketch he’d done on “Saturday Night Live,” he’d actually launched into the character for a line or two.

It’s a testament to Stewart’s career that it wasn’t until I stood up to leave that I finally managed to mention “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Turns out we both have the same favorite episode: “The Inner Light.” You know, I knew there was a reason I liked that guy…

Best cocktail party by a broadcast network: CBS. I might’ve been indifferent to the “Survivor” function, but CBS really came through for me by kicking off the first night of the tour with “Drinks with the DiNozzos,” an “NCIS”-themed cocktail soiree which served to spotlight the then-upcoming 150th episode of the series.

The pluralization of Michael Weatherly’s character’s last name was due to the appearance of the man who played Tony’s father in the episode: Robert Wagner. As someone who grew up worshiping at the altar of “Hart to Hart,” just being able to meet RJ – it’s totally cool to call him that, btw – was enough of a thrill for me, but as ever, it was wonderful to once again see my photo buddy, Pauley Perrette, who remains one of the sweetest people I’ve met during the course of my TCA tour experiences. I also had the opportunity to speak with Cote de Pablo (Ziva) for a few minutes, as well as to ask executive producer Shane Brennan about the challenges of making southern California look like the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, but the best bit definitely came when I was chatting with Wagner and Weatherly together.

When I told Weatherly that I hailed from Norfolk, he said, “I might’ve told you this one before, Will, but…hey, RJ, I’ve got a joke for you.” He then launched into a joke which, rather than relate in full, I’ll just tell you that the punchline was, indeed, “Norfolk, Virginia,” with the second half of “Norfolk” pronounced with a decidedly obscene inflection. We all had a good laugh, I turned off my recorder, and as the conversation closed, Wagner and Weatherly decided to work out their golf plans for the next day.

“Now,” said Wagner, “you should go home to your wife.”

“What are you going to do, RJ?” asked Weatherly…and RJ, with a perfectly deadpan expression, told him rather explicitly what he was planning to go do. Immediately after doing so, however, he adopted a horrified look, and I watched his eyes move from Weatherly down to my recorder.

“Oh, no, don’t worry,” I said. “I turned that off back at ‘Norfolk, Virginia.'”

RJ roared with laughter and clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re a good man,” he said, then strolled off to, I can only presume, do exactly what he’d said he was going to do, the lucky bastard.

The If-You-Don’t-Want-To-Be-Here-Then-Why-Don’t-You-Get-The-Hell-Out-Already? Award: Jerry Seinfeld. After offering up an entertaining performance during the panel for NBC’s new reality show, “The Marriage Ref,” on which he’s serving as an executive producer, Jerry decided to take up residence in a little alcove within the area serving as the location of the network’s all-star party. Sounds great, except for one thing: he apparently decided from the get-go that he wasn’t going to be doing any interviews.

When I first spotted him, nestled in his little hideaway, he was having a bit of wine with Chevy Chase, but when Chevy departed to fulfill his own publicity duties, I approached the gentleman hovering on the fringes of Jerry’s private area and, as there were no other writers nearby at the moment, politely asked if I could just ask Jerry two questions. The gentleman said, “I don’t think so, but just a moment.” He leaned over and talked momentarily to a woman who I cannot definitively identify (but who others seemed to think was Seinfeld’s missus), then returned to me and said, “No, I’m afraid not. He’s very tired.”

Really, Jerry? Sorry, but at the risk of maintaining the status quo and never getting an interview, I really feel as though I have to ask: why did you bother to attend the party in the first place? It’s not as though it was held as a social event. It was a working function for the television critics to chat with the cast and producers of NBC-Universal’s new series. If you wanted to have drinks with Chevy, then the least you could’ve done was go somewhere where your presence wasn’t serving solely to taunt the critics with the possibility of an interview that they were never gonna get.

Hear me and hear me well: the day will come…oh, yes, mark my words, Seinfeld…your day of reckoning is coming, when an evil wind will blow through your little play world and wipe that smug smile off your face, and I’ll be there in all my glory, watching, watching as it all comes crumbling down!

By the way, I totally stole that last bit from the “Seinfeld” finale, but, oddly enough, I think the sentiment works just fine here, too.

Summer 2010

Most unintentionally off-color moment from a broadcast network panel: During the “$#*! My Dad Says” panel, executive producer Max Mutchnick had a moment of uncertainty about the proper verb to describe the process of sending out a message through Twitter and accidentally referred to “Dad” creator Justin Halpern’s “beautiful Twat.” Realizing his slip of the tongue, Mutchnick stammered, “I don’t know how you say it,” but not before William Shatner shook his head with mock dismay, saying, “That’s twisted.”

Coolest anecdote(s) from a press scrum: Actually, it was less a scrum than an impromptu roundtable, but after PBS’s “Pioneers of Television” panel, my esteemed peer Marc Allan invited me to grab a chair and join the conversation he was having with Martin Landau, and others soon had their recorders out as well. It was Marc, however, who asked the two big-money questions.

First, Marc asked Landau if he had ever had the opportunity to meet Bela Lugosi, who he portrayed (and won an Oscar for doing so) in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.”

“No, I never met Lugosi,” replied Landau. “But I met Karloff…and had tea with him! I was doing some post-synching on a television show, and we both left our respective studios at the same time and met in the hall. At the time, Jack Nicholson was actually my student. Jack studied with me for three years, and Jack had just finished a picture for Roger Corman with Karloff. Jack wasn’t very good in it. He was much too contemporary. But, anyway, I saw Karloff in the hall, and we greeted each other. I said, ‘You just worked with a friend of mine.’ And he said, ‘And who might that be?’ And I said, ‘Jack Nicholson.’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes. Poor boy. Where are going now?’ I said, ‘Home.’ He said, ‘Would you like some tea?’ I said ‘yes,’ and we went to the commissary and had tea and little sandwiches, and I got to spend a little time with him.”

Then, as if psychic, Allan asked Landau about the one project I’d been chomping at the bit to hear his recollections about: “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.”

“I had a good time doing that!” said Landau, offering surprising enthusiasm as he reminisced about working with “Chick Hearn and a bunch of robots, noting that it was the last time he’d worked with ex-wife Barbara Bain, who’d been his co-star on “Mission: Impossible” and “Space: 1999.” “People say that it was the worst moment in my career,” he said, with a laugh, “but I actually had fun on that show. The first day I was on it, though, was the day that Reagan was shot, so when we got to the set, everyone was…well, you know. So I told about three or four jokes and loosened everyone up, and from that point on, we had a good time.”

Really, I could go on about the conversation for several more paragraphs, since the next topic of conversation was how he was offered the role of Mr. Spock on “Star Trek” before Leonard Nimoy. Suffice it to say that I hope to get a one-on-one with Mr. Landau one of these days…but if it never happens, sitting in on this one was still pretty damned cool.

Favorite one-on-one interview at a TCA function: Tom Selleck. I’d been trying to confirm or deny the possibility of talking to Tom about his new CBS series, “Blue Bloods,” but it was all very sketchy about how long he’d be at the CBS evening event. I therefore set up camp near the front door of the function, waiting for him to arrival. When he did, I followed behind him and his publicist, and once they reached their table, his publicist turned, saw my nametag and recognized my name, and waved me over to him. Tom smiled at me beneath his mustache and said, “No one will sit with me. Will you sit with me?” So I sat with him…and he was just as nice a guy as you’d want him to be.

Most unpleasant reminder that, no matter how much you’ve enjoyed someone’s work on television, they still see you as a journalist and therefore don’t really want to talk to you if they can help it: Chandler was always my favorite Friend, I really liked “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” and unlike some of my peers, I laughed pretty hard at the pilot for “Mr. Sunshine,” but I can’t say that I’m as thrilled with Matthew Perry as I used to be.

I tried to be as polite as possible while waiting to chat with Perry during the ABC party, but on two separate occasions, although he clearly knew I was loitering in his vicinity for that purpose (the recorder in my hand was, to my way of thinking, kind of a dead giveaway), he pointedly opted to continue conversations with co-stars and friends rather than acknowledge me. One of my peers stopped by during my lengthy loiter and told me that I had the patience of a saint to wait the guy out, but in the end, even Francis of Assisi would’ve given up on Perry: once he finished the conversation, he turned to try and leave without turning toward me. Before I could stop him, though, the writer standing next to me snared him, then kindly gestured in my direction and said, “I was waiting for you, but he’s been waiting even longer.” Perry endured questions from both of us for a few minutes, but then he said, “I’m going to walk away now.” And he did.

I know the guy’s dealt with plenty of these TCA parties during the years that he was part of the NBC family, but given that he’s not only the male lead in “Mr. Sunshine” but also the creator and one of the show’s writers, I really expected him to be more enthused about the chance to promote the series.

I should add, though, that my wife – simply by speaking the truth – ended up kind of getting the last laugh on Perry. At the Sony party, she was talking to Megyn Price (“Rules of Engagement”) when Perry came up and started talking to Pryce. My wife waited politely for Perry to finish, but when he did, he turned to my wife and, with a decidedly dejected look on his face, said, “I suppose you want to interview me.” She looked right back at him and said, “Oh, God, no!”

Admittedly, all she meant was that she was just a guest at the party and therefore wasn’t doing interviews with anyone, but I am assured that the look on Perry’s face was priceless nonetheless.

Winter 2011

Greatest Moment of Complete Honesty During the Tour: When I approached Jack McBrayer (“30 Rock”) to ask him a question, he agreed, but then he looked down at my recorder and said, “Oh, my! You’re not going to record this, are you? I’d rather you didn’t.” At this point, he performed a perfect mock aside, holding a hand to his mouth and whispering, “I’m a little bit tipsy!” So I turned off my recorder. Kudos to you, Mr. McBrayer. Would that more actors had that blend of good humor and common sense.

Most intimidating roundtable interview: Tommy Lee Jones, “The Sunset Limited” (HBO)

Everyone warned me. They said, “He’s not a good interview, he hates doing press, and if you’re not planning to bring your A-game, then you might as well not come at all.” But, dammit, it’s Tommy Lee Jones. How do you turn down the chance to sit in the presence of that guy? Better yet, I’d watched and really enjoyed his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s play, “The Sunset Limited,” which he’d directed for HBO and starred in as well, along with Samuel L. Jackson. Sure, I was intimidated, but I’d done my research, I had my questions, and I was ready to roll.

As it turns out, Mr. Jones was everything I’d been promised and more, but while I had gotten out without having any of my questions insulted or dismissed, my original perception of the experience was heavily colored by one of my fellow journalists being informed at one point, “You know, I’ve already said that. I’ve already answered that question.” Listening back to the recording, though, I actually did better than I’d recalled: of the three writers who were there, I was the first to get a halfway decent answer out of him, and if I never really hit any out of the park, at least none of my questions resulted in a full-fledged swing and a miss. Still, if there’s such a thing as a badge of courage for TV critics, I feel as though one should be sent my way post-haste.

Least successful one-on-one interview: Mike Tyson, “Taking on Tyson” (Animal Planet)

When he swaggered into the evening event which was held by the OWN Network but encompassed all members of the Discovery Channel family, I thought, “Okay, I work for a guys’ website: I have to talk to Mike Tyson.” I approached him and asked him a question revolving around how he’s suddenly a media presence again, first with “The Hangover” and now with this new series. Before he could answer, one of his “handlers” ran up and said, “Hey, Mike, I found ya some food!” At this, Tyson grabbed himself something to eat and walked away, my question unanswered.

Later in the evening, it had become de rigueur to go up to Tyson and ask if he’d be willing to let you take your picture with him. I restrained myself at first, but then I finally decided, “Well, maybe I’ll just try again with my question, then someone can take a picture of me while I’m talking to him.” So I approached him once more and said, “Hey, Mike, can I ask you a quick question about the new show?” He glanced at me…and said, “Nah.” No less than 10 seconds later, he was taking more photos with people. That’s what I get for trying to work.


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