I Built My World Around You: Olbermann Makes MAD’s “20 Dumbest” at #7

What really happened between political commentator Keith Olbermann and former employer MSNBC? Like any good back-room story, we’ll never know the full details. We heard the MSNBC’s official confirmation of Olbermann leaving Countdown and leaving the network in a tersely worded press release that intimated the parting was mutual. But the real story here, as MAD Editor John Ficarra reminds me during our interview, is not how Olbermann exited, but how he almost singlehandedly dismantled his own relevance.

“Well I think Olbermann is an interesting guy”, John says as our conversation finally wends its way back to the PopMatters exclusive preview of MAD’s “20 Dumbest, 2011”. “He certainly is a smart guy, he’s a terrific writer. But he read his own press clips”, there’s a hesitant pause, and then John dives in, “He certainly self-destructed if you look at his history. It seems that wherever he works he winds up burning bridges behind him.”

John references the full scope of Olbermann’s career, beginning all the way back on ESPN, where football analysis was the order of the day. What happened after ESPN was astounding. Olbermann built himself into a political commentator. By the time he joined MSNBC, he had refined himself as credible political alternative to conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly. Olbermann was liberal and he was vocal and every bit as impassioned as his opponents on the right. MSNBC showed their support by building their schedule around Olbermann. He, arguably, got the lion’s share of the network’s attention economy, easily becoming the most recognizable commentator on the network. It was a period of flourishing and of mutual growth. We could convince ourselves, just for that moment, that whatever had happened at ESPN was a blip. And we were seeing Olbermann, finally, for what he truly was. This period however, would not last.

John continues, “And I think he was interesting in that he gave voice when he first came on MSNBC to a progressive left wing of the electorate that nobody was speaking to and taking up their cause in forceful ways in the way that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and [Glenn] Beck were doing and I think he suddenly just got too full of himself. And it’s something we always worry about MAD, especially when we do this ’20’. At the end of the day we are still a humor magazine, while we do do politics and satire, we like to make people laugh. I mean that’s our number one mission, when you pick up a copy of MAD are you laughing? And I think he just sorta exploded himself, or imploded himself, and he’s marginalized himself. I used to watch his show, and my cable company doesn’t carry Current TV, so I haven’t seen one of his rants now in quite a while”.

Current TV is the cable network owned in part by Al Gore, that Olbermann moved to and is now key news division architect at. In the copy for #7 on the “20 Dumbest”, writer Desmond Devlin picks up Olbermann marginalizing himself in an uncannily incisive way. “Now seen on something called Current TV, Olbermann remains a powerful political voice for those left of Che Guevara with a high quality satellite dish”. In a single turn of phrase, Devlin identifies not only how effectively Olbermann has marginalized himself, but also comments on how a culture of wealth-obsession has driven broad-ranging political commentary from the mainstream.

But when it comes to Olbermann, as MAD alludes to, he is perhaps himself more to blame for his marginalization than any cultural vectors. Is there a sense of betrayal, I ask John. There certainly was a sense of seeing the true Olbermann for the first time, when things were going well with MSNBC. More than that even, there was a sense of promise. Not just in Olbermann himself, but in the idea that liberal politics could have as staunch a defender as the defenders conservatives have produced in recent years.

There’s a long pause before John answers. “I think it’s a sense of dumbness. I think he had…”, John’s clearly grappling with the full implications of what Olbermann meant, and why his leaving MSNBC is more than a personal blow. “He was the face of MSNBC”, John continues, “And MSNBC was growing in the ratings and MSNBC was getting quite the following. And I think for him to have, to have just self-destructed… They never really said what happened behind the scenes and they made it seem as if it was a mutual parting of the ways. But you got to wonder. MSNBC gave up their number one eight o’clock show. They let him walk away. So there had to be quite a bit of blood on the walls for them to do that”.

Does John think that the trouble traces back to campaign contributions debacle that dates back to November ’10? Olbermann had made three donations to Democrat campaigns in 2010. This violated MSNBC regulations that required anchors to receive written permission before making such donations. The incident ended with Olbermann being temporarily suspended from air in November 2010.

“I doubt it. That may have been a straw on the camel’s back. But you get the feeling that there’s a lot more stuff going on with him. And again, if you just look at his work history. I mean he was at FOX and FOX said they’d never hire him back. And then he was some place else too before he came to MSNBC. And I guess he started at ESPN, right? And there was burning of the bridges there. I think at some point, management just says, ‘Enough, just go’. Although if you’re at Penn State, that’s not necessarily the case”.

That parting gibe references an earlier part of our conversation (the Sandusky incident and Penn State cover-up) and rounds out the part of the interview focused on Olbermann. As with everything I’ve found during my conversation with John, this truly is as MAD’s tagline reads, “humor in a jugular vein”.

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John Ficarra is Executive Editor of MAD and DC Comics’ Senior Vice President, MAD Magazine. A two-part feature detailing my full interview with him appears in the next “Iconographies”.

MAD #513, “20 Dumbest People, Events and Things 2011 (The Year We Ran Out of Money)” hits newsstands December 20.

Download your PopMatters exclusive preview of MAD’s “20 Dumbest, 2011 #7: Olbermann implodes on MSNBC”.