Fibs, Yiddish and Crosbys: tidbits from PBS’s press tour

By Barry Garron and Dru Sefton

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — They don’t make the front page, but the comments and observations of panelists during PBS’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour are often surprising and revealing.

PBS’s two-day segment, which concluded here Wednesday night, included a rare confession from Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a takedown of Jenny McCarthy, whose opposition to vaccines has made her the bane of public-health officials. Here are some highlights.

“Kind of a fib”
Henry Louis Gates Jr.

As host of Finding Your Roots, Gates fudges the time commitment to get celebs to sign on. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose, PBS)

Gates, executive producer and host of Finding Your Roots 2, says celebrities rarely turn him down when he asks them to join him on a televised exploration of their ancestries. The trick, he said, is that he “fibs.”

The host said he has told celebrities such as actors Courtney Vance and Khandi Alexander and rapper Nas that he just needs an hour or two of their time. “If you tell them how long it takes” — up to four hours in some cases — “nobody would ever do it.”

But no one has quit as the hours have added up, Gates said. “What we’re revealing, it’s about them. And what’s your favorite subject? Your favorite subject is yourself, right?”

“You don’t want Meryl Streep”

This fall, a Nova episode will examine the science of vaccines, including the debunked claim that they cause autism. A leading proponent of this discredited school of thought is Jenny McCarthy, a former co-host on ABC’s The View.

Responding to a question, Alison Singer, president of the Autism Foundation and an expert featured on the program, said, “I think Jenny McCarthy has done a lot of harm and continues to do a lot of harm. I think she continues to put children at risk by failing to acknowledge what the data clearly say. . . . She continues to get a lot of air time for these ideas that are putting children in harm’s way.”

On the other hand, said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious-disease specialist, McCarthy, a former Playboy playmate, has some credibility issues. “In some ways, it’s not so bad that it’s her,” he said. “I mean, you don’t want Meryl Streep, right? You want somebody who — I mean, I don’t think she’s seen as having a tremendous amount of gravitas.”

Beane

Beane bowdlerized his play, “The Nance,” to get it to pass muster for broadcast on PBS. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose, PBS)

“As a WASP, I just love Yiddish”

This fall, the 40th-anniversary season of Live From Lincoln Center is the play “The Nance,” starring Nathan Lane as an aging, flamboyantly gay burlesque comedian. Lane and playwright Douglas Carter Beane acknowledged that a few changes had to be made to accommodate the broadcast television’s stricter limits on saucy material. Some onstage nudity had to be shot so as not to offend viewers, Lane said, and language had to be revised.

“The character Ephraim, who is the man who runs the backstage of the theater, swears a lot,” Beane said. “But he’s also Jewish. So I just got to change all the swear words to Yiddish and that was actually a lot more fun for me. As a WASP, I just love Yiddish.”

“This angry guy . . . trying to sell books”

The new season of American Masters includes an episode about Bing Crosby, who had more hit singles than any other recorded musician. The film, “Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” produced by Robert Trachtenberg, was made with the full cooperation of Crosby’s widow, Kathryn, and his three surviving children, all of whom were on the panel at the press tour

One Crosby son, Gary, who died in 1995, wrote a book in which he famously depicted his father as a cruel disciplinarian. Panelists, however, disputed that description and said that Bing, who died in 1977, was loving and engaged.

Corporal punishment was common in those days, Trachtenberg said, and in his book, Gary Crosby dealt mostly with his own demons, including alcoholism. Daughter Mary said she had met her stepbrother for lunch after his book was published.

“You’ve got this angry guy who, you know, was trying to sell books, who took it and ran,” she said.

“They couldn’t get elected dogcatcher”
Ward

A candidate with disabilities like FDR’s probably wouldn’t be elected in our media-saturated time, Ward said. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose, PBS)

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, a 14-hour documentary from Ken Burns, is the centerpiece of PBS programming this fall. Burns pointed out that both Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as Abraham Lincoln, suffered at times with serious bouts of depression.

“The sad thing might be to consider, in this culture, where we’re constantly tweeting and observing and watching, the fact that Theodore and Franklin and Abraham Lincoln . . . sort of couldn’t get elected dogcatcher today. And it’s sad.”

That wasn’t the only reason they would be unelectable, added collaborator and writer Geoffrey C. Ward. “TR was very eccentric, and Franklin Roosevelt was helpless, physically helpless,” Ward said. “I’m quite convinced in the modern world in which everything is fair game and you’re supposed to know what everybody is saying to everybody every day in the White House, I think TV cameras would compete with each other to see who could get the most helpless footage of FDR.

“It’s sad to think that all these years after the only handicapped president we’ve ever had, I doubt very much you’ll ever have another for that reason.”

“From Cavett to Jon Stewart”

“Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” airing Aug. 8, will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon. In the early 1970s, when daily revelations about Watergate-related crimes alarmed and dazed viewers, Cavett built a reputation as a witty and erudite talk-show host. The special includes clips from his show and features interviews with some  Nixon associates who were later convicted of Watergate crimes.

Does anyone on television today follow in Cavett’s footsteps?

“I think in some ways the genealogy goes from Cavett to Jon Stewart,” said Timothy Naftali, a Watergate historian. “There is a twinkle in [Stewart’s] eye still, but he’s not always serious and there’s irony. Irony is something the Nixon White House had trouble with.”

When Nixon ran for vice president, thousands of buttons proclaimed “I Like Ike,” referring to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the ticket.” Nixon’s campaign, referring to his wife, played off that with a button that said “Pat likes Dick.” “An organization that would create a button like that has trouble with irony,” Naftali said.

And in other PBS news from the Summer Press Tour:

American Experience premieres a four-hour documentary over two nights in fall 2015 telling the story of the life of showman Walt Disney. The film uses rare archival footage from the Disney vaults as well as interviews with artists who worked on animated classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

• Veterans Day, Nov. 11, brings a documentary following U.S. Navy frogmen as they become part of the elite Navy SEALs and telling the history of the unit that dates to World War II. The two-hour program, from fleisherfilm in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Oregon Public Broadcasting, is part of PBS’s military tribute project, Stories of Service.

• The “Think Wednesday” lineup gets a new show next year, The Brain with Dr. David Eagleman (w.t.). Six one-hour episodes “reveal the human story by blending scientific truth with innovative visual effects and compelling personal stories,” according to PBS. Neuroscientist Eagleman is a best-selling author and Guggenheim Fellow.

Call the Midwife returns for a fourth season March 29, 2015. Season 3 of the scripted drama drew about 3.6 million viewers, PBS said, a 20 percent rise over Season 1.

• Singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth debuts as host of the PBS Arts Fall Festival Sept. 26, the premiere of its fourth season. The 11 weekly shows include Live from Lincoln Center’s “‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ In Concert With the New York Philharmonic” and, from Great Performances, “Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek Live!”

• The women’s history collaboration with AOL, Makers: Women Who Make America, continues with six new one-hour broadcast documentaries. They’ll air Tuesdays Sept. 30 through Nov. 4 and focus on women in comedy, Hollywood, space, business, politics and war. Films also will stream on PBS.org and Makers.com.

  • YouHaveADirtyMind

    Re: “Pat likes Dick,” hold your snickers.

    Please remember that the 1950s were different times.

    Jack Benny’s radio and teevee program featured Jack as the leader of a Boy Scout-like group known as the “Beverly Hills Beavers” and the word “boner,” meaning doing something stupid or boneheaded, as in “I pulled a real boner,” appeared in comic books aimed at children and adolescents.

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