Should you ever find yourself hosting a TV show, remember that the basic tools of the format—cameras, lights, make-up—exist for the sole purpose of turning you into a character, and that said character is, by default, a prick. What no amount of coaching and tech rehearsal will teach you—what you end up discovering only when seeing the first broadcast—is that the person on screen is always someone else. You can’t “be yourself” on TV. Either you invent a character, or somebody invents the character for you, and you find yourself—week in, week out—playing this smarmy other who has your name, your voice, and a face that looks a lot like yours, only smoother and cleaner.
This is television in the primitive sense, as practiced by talk shows and newscasts—TV as a transmitter, with information relayed by video clips, faces, and occasional flashes of text. Inside this type of TV is a sort of theater, and this theater prizes readability: the quality of being easily and quickly interpreted by the viewer, who is really more of a listener.
Writing for teleprompter is a workout, especially if you’re the kind of writer who considers em dashes, parentheses, and semicolons to be invaluable tools. Dependent clauses and homophones are out; the tricks that writers use to engage readers with an idea supposedly don’t work on the listener-viewer. A writer aspires to trap the reader in a text; in broadcast, the goal is to minimize the number of steps the listener-viewer has to take to get from a statement to its putative meaning.
Believe it or not, TV producers talk a lot of theory—mostly semantics and pragmatics—though they couch it in the soft, slippery language of viewer feelings. They learn, though trial and error, what does and doesn’t read on camera: how to gesticulate, how not to smile, how to use body language to focus a point instead of distracting the viewer. The whole business of readability, which treats the show as text, smacks of unwitting academia.
Roger Ebert was very conscious of himself as a performer and a voice, and of the idea that he was transmitting something to his readers and viewers. His mature writing—which became more speech-like after he lost the ability to speak—is laid out like crisp teleprompter copy, so that readers who’d grown up watching him on TV couldn’t help but hear his speaking voice in every review.
In his final years, he would communicate mostly through gestures, learned during his three-decade TV career. He was like a silent comedian. He wore a prosthetic chin on Ebert Presents: At The Movies—the final iteration of the dueling critics format that had made him and Gene Siskel into household names—because that was the character he felt he needed to play: The familiar Ebert, dressed in a natty black suit, still sitting at his desk, typing reviews in his office. It was pure theater; his real office was his living room, where he slumped in a big recliner, his Macbook on a laptop tray.
Watch an episode of Siskel & Ebert, and pay attention to the hosts’ hands, how they grip their knees for emphasis and raise their arms to exaggerate shrugs. Occasionally, they will perform a cutting or sawing motion using a rigid open palm, which signals disagreement or an interjection. These are invented habits, which were honed over the course of the three shows—Opening Soon At A Theater Near You, Sneak Previews, and At The Movies—that preceded the duo’s most famous program.
By the time Siskel & Ebert (initially billed as Siskel & Ebert & The Movies) hit the air in 1986, its hosts had been making TV together for over a decade. The format had been refined. The notoriously snoozy Opening Soon At A Theater Near You had started with Siskel and Ebert sitting in fold-up director’s chair in front of a movie screen, with their notes in their laps—a set-up that recalled prepared remarks given at an emptied-out, post-screening film fest Q&A. By Sneak Previews, their first syndicated show, the notes were completely replaced by teleprompters, and Siskel and Ebert had switched to sitting in movie theater seats—slightly angled, 18 inches apart—to a mock balcony, a kind of belvedere from which they could surveil all of moviedom.
This created a narrative frame for the reviews. They were critics playing moviegoers, who discussed films as they were shown to them; it gave the show its sitcom quality, which became a central part of its appeal, and a major sticking point for its detractors.
In order to sustain the illusion, Siskel and Ebert would turn their heads in the direction of the screen after introducing a clip, as though they were watching it alongside the viewer. A wide shot of the “theater”—with a clip superimposed on screen, and the hosts’ heads in the bottom of the frame—served as an interstice. The color scheme changed over the years, from red to gold to blue, but the basic design elements of the set remained the same. It read as inclusive; the camera always positioned the viewer either in a seat close to the hosts, or in an impossible spot just leaning over the balcony railing.
Then there was the “thumbs up, thumbs down” system, Siskel & Ebert’s big contribution to American media, which reduced the critical function to an easily legible movement of the hand. Producer Thea Flaum—the true architect of the format—first introduced it for Sneak Previews, because she felt that the newspaper-style star system they were using up to that point took too long to read in a viewer’s mind, requiring a half-second of unconscious math. Initially, they gave a yes or no vote; later, it was reduced to something even simpler: a single familiar gesture.
Engineered for simplicity and legibility, the format penetrated the American public imagination, shaping its perception of what it meant to have an opinion about a movie. It spawned knock-offs and spin-offs; for many years, Siskel & Ebert ran concurrently with its stars’ previous shows, Sneak Previews and At The Movies, which carried on with different hosts.
Sure, it was over-simplified; the consumer guide do-or-don’t approach downplayed the middle ground where much of the most interesting film criticism happens. But it also introduced millions of viewers to movies they’d never know about otherwise, and many of those viewers became exposed to an even wider range of films through Ebert’s writing. (From 1986 on, Siskel’s main gig was TV.)
The dueling critics format outlived Siskel, the more natural on-air presence of the two. So why didn’t it outlive Ebert?
In 2008, Ebert and Richard Roeper, who had replaced Gene Siskel, parted ways with Disney-ABC, the producer of their show, which had by this point reverted to the name of the third Siskel & Ebert program, At The Movies. They were replaced by Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons, whose failure to appeal to longtime viewers and to entice new ones has usually been attributed to youth and inexperience. The truth, however, is that the two Bens came into the format with more on-air experience than any hosts before or since. Mankiewicz—who was 41 at the time, but looked younger—had been on TV since the mid-’90s. Lyons was a broadcasting wunderkind who’d grown up around the format; his father, Jeffrey Lyons, co-hosted Sneak Previews from 1982 to 1996.
They were hosts, but they weren’t film critics, which defeated the purpose of the show—to transmit the ideas and debates of the newspaper reviewing tradition using legible, bite-size chunks of TV time. Disney-ABC’s tweaks didn’t help. The thumbs up, a registered trademark, left with Ebert. It was replaced by a non-visual three-way system where every option (“see it,” “skip it,” “rent it”) sounded similar enough to create that unconscious extra step in the listener’s mind—the exact thing Flaum had tried to erase back in the late ’70s.
And then there was the set. The balcony was scrapped in favor of a home theater set-up, which resembled a very boring rich person’s basement rec room. The hosts sat in oversized, angular arm chairs, and spent most of each episode with their backs to the screen. Changing the geometry of the space changed the relationship between the hosts and the camera, the viewers’ proxy; it now occupied an awkward, mid-level crouching position. The narrative frame, which had provided the show with a sense of urgency, was gone. If Siskel & Ebert was a sitcom, then the Bens’ At The Movies was a morning talk show. Eventually, Disney-ABC replaced Lyons and Mankiewicz with Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of The New York Times. They were the right men for the job, but they were given a show whose clumsy design and eroded ratings all but guaranteed cancellation.
In September of 2010, just a little after the Disney-ABC version of At The Movies went off the air for good, Roger Ebert announced that he was reviving the dueling critics format—complete with the “thumbs up, thumbs down” system—on PBS. A short pilot for Roger Ebert Presents: At The Movies (later shortened to Ebert Presents: At The Movies) was shot and shown. There was a sparse mock-up of a balcony set. Christy Lemire, then chief critic for The Associated Press, sat in the front row alongside the peripatetic Elvis Mitchell.
I have no idea why Mitchell left after the pilot. The producers of Ebert Presents told me that it was best I not know, so I’d never have to lie about it. Regardless, in the fall of 2010, it became necessary to find a replacement—and that replacement was me.
The balcony set (ours was in the original Sneak Previews studio, WTTW) is much smaller than it looks, designed around the old principle of forced perspective. Freeze-frame a vintage episode of Siskel & Ebert or Ebert & Roeper, and look closely at the background; you’ll discover either a simple trompe-l’œil effect, or curved walls designed to confuse the eye.
The screen is actually a green screen. Siskel and Ebert’s first shows experimented with projecting clips live on set, but this proved to be time-consuming and technically difficult. (The Disney-ABC reboot’s decision to use live video projection was one of its more baffling design changes.) The wide shot of the screen is recorded separately, since the cameras usually sit in the space where the lower level of the theater (actually a digital matte) is supposed to go. A taping—it takes about 45 minutes to make a 29 minute show—warms up with the hosts doing turns from the screen, which will be banked and used when necessary by the editor.
The director is Don DuPree, a seemingly ageless Southerner with a taste for bespoke shirts and chunky wristwatches; he has been directing these shows since the early ’90s. Despite having overseen hundreds of episodes of Siskel & Ebert and Ebert & Roeper, Don is not a movie buff, which makes him the team’s ultimate authority on what is and isn’t engaging. Crosstalks—the unscripted back-and-forths which are the core of the show—are judged on their ability to pique non-moviegoer Don’s interest. He works from the control room, along with Chaz Ebert, who effectively runs the show.
Everything, in other words, is designed to sustain the narrative frame, and to reinforce the show’s relationship to its viewers—everything except the reality of hosting the show, a fragmented process full of teleprompter reads, booming intercoms, and white-hot lights. One inevitably develops an appreciation for Siskel, Ebert, and Roeper as actors, able to remain in-character despite flubs and technical snafus, and to read the teleprompter and then improvise an argument in the same voice.
I never master these skills, because I am the wrong man for the job. When Ebert Presents: At The Movies goes on the air in January of 2011, I am 24, far and away the youngest host in the format’s history. I have improbably beaten out smarter, more qualified candidates (one of whom will win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism) after several rounds of auditions. I’d like to believe that I’m a strong critic and writer and a capable speaker, but I can’t seem to figure out a way to get ideas into broadcast without coming off as a shill or a dick. Frustrated, I fall back on cliches I’d never use in conversation or writing. Christy Lemire, who has extensive TV experience and a more easygoing writing style, is a natural, and I’m the kid who keeps interrupting her.
I get better over time, but the show is doomed—partly because of me, partly because it’s so hard to fund a PBS show, and partly because the medium of television is changing. In 2011—the year Ebert Presents: At The Movies goes on and off the air—a weekly show about new releases is always a week behind the pop-cultural zeitgeist.
One afternoon in November 2010, in the aisle of a screening room, Roger Ebert passed me a note asking for my phone number. His wife, Chaz, called me that evening, and asked whether I’d come meet them at their house, a Lincoln Park brownstone where the curtains were always drawn, and which seemed significantly bigger on the inside than the outside. I’d never talked to either of them before.
The next morning, I flew out with them to Palm Springs, and breathed desert air for the first time. I met Christy Lemire in the hotel restaurant. She was small, slightly freckled, razor sharp, and intimidating. I liked her immediately. The next morning, I was in a hotel ballroom, doing screen tests along with other critics and bloggers the Eberts had picked out as possible guest segment contributors for their new show. And then I went back to Chicago, expecting to never hear from them again, and thinking of the trip as little more than a good story and much-needed free vacation.
Over the next month-and-a-half, I would get called back again and again. I learned to read from a teleprompter, and to move my hands instead of keeping them in my lap. On New Year’s Eve, a few days after the final round of auditions, Chaz Ebert invited me over to offer the co-hosting position, which I probably shouldn’t have accepted, but did, because the night before my girlfriend and I had decided to get married, and I felt rash and confident. I got married the day before tech rehearsals started, in the basement of the county courthouse; it was lunch-time, and the judge ended the ceremony by opening her desk drawer and taking out a foil-wrapped Chipotle burrito.
The big worry from day one was chemistry. There was a general feeling on the production end that Christy and I got along too well; we spent our downtime making dumb jokes, translating the show into Russian (which Christy had taken in college), and generally dicking around. This made us reluctant to argue, even when we disagreed severely. After we’d gotten over the awkwardness of the first fifteen or so episodes—during which a substantial number of viewers were driven away by my alternately manic and smug presence, the result of nervous over-compensation—and settled into a rhythm, we weren’t producing compelling discussions. We didn’t have the crackle necessary to sustain a dueling critics show.
The producers’ solution was to focus more and more on the guest segments—we did at least one per episode, plus a review from Roger. Needless to say, Christy and I didn’t have any input into their selection; some were very good, some very boring, and some just confounding. (I’m not sure whose idea it was to put a middle-school-age “kid critic” on the show. He was very polite, but neither Christy nor I could introduce him with a straight face.)
I don’t know whether the Eberts ever figured out that Christy and I were conspiring. Having realized that the crosstalks were too blasé, we did something that we were expressly forbidden from doing: We started discussing them beforehand.
The rule of the show was that the hosts were not allowed to know each other’s opinions (or even whether the other critic was giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down) until it came time to tape the episode. Because Christy lived in Los Angeles, and the show was taped in Chicago, we would do two episodes back-to-back, once every two weeks. So, the night before each taping session, Christy and I would meet for a meal or a drink, often near her hotel in the Loop, and share our opinions, like two spies, giving each other time to create stronger arguments and counter-arguments.
Siskel and Ebert had years to master the crosstalk before anyone started paying attention. The show grew slowly, its hosts’ personas developing alongside the format. We had months, so we cheated a little. It made a substantially better and more compelling show, but it was already too late. By the summer of 2011, it became clear that Ebert Presents wouldn’t survive to see 2012.
The theory goes that, in order to hook a TV viewer, they must be convinced that they’re in on the show. You continually summarize and re-cap. The secret to hooking an online reader is to make them think that they’re being left out of some larger phenomenon, and the only way to rectify this is to click right here, right now.
The two media work off social anxiety; TV cools it, and the click cycle stokes it. Searching through my inbox for production emails from the show, I come across a long list of notes sent in by Thea Flaum, Siskel & Ebert’s original producer, about an early episode. She tears into me and Christy—well, mostly me—for peppering our crosstalks with too many specialized references, a “serious viewer turnoff.” Among other things, she points out the fact that we reviewed a documentary about poetry slams without bothering to explain what a poetry slam was.
When I first read that email, it made me angry. (Frankly, I don’t think I could stomach being the dude who explained what a poetry slam was on broadcast TV in 2011.) By the middle of that year, I got it. She was right: Ebert Presents: At The Movies was the kind of show where you would explain what a poetry slam was, just in case some portion of the viewership didn’t know.
This was the format that Flaum had perfected with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and which had dominated the film media cycle for a couple of decades—a format which cooled viewer anxieties, telling them what to see and what not to see, and which created the illusion that, by tuning in, they were privy to the most important discussion possible. The attitude was ingrained into the design of the show, from the narrative frame to the easily legible gestures. I had been cast in the story of the dueling critics.
Stupid as it sounds, I miss it, and, sometimes, when I’m stuck on a review, I imagine myself back on the balcony set, debating the movie with Christy. There was a certain high that came with the crosstalks. I learned over time what kinds of arguments could and couldn’t be squeezed into an edgewise sentence. I came into the show as a detail-oriented critic, but learned with practice to suppress the urge to make extraneous asides, in order to build a stronger case, pro or con. I wish it were still on. “I’d be so much better,” I think. “And more like myself.”
The irony is that it was Siskel & Ebert that doomed Ebert Presents. The dueling critics format sped up the film media cycle, until it couldn’t keep up anymore.