Open Mic

November 2010

The Ronni Chasen Tragedy: Why Did It Happen?

Hillary Atkin Posted November 18, 2010 at 12:07 PM

It's still difficult to shake off the shock of seeing the headline "Ronni Chasen Gunned Down in Beverly Hills." Images of mobster Bugsy Siegel as portrayed by Warren Beatty in the film "Bugsy” come to mind when you think of someone being gunned down in Beverly Hills. And it is unthinkable. Unthinkable that there are no leads that are being revealed in the case, a murder that from all indications looks like a hit, but that the heart--and logic--says could have been a senseless case of random violence.

Ronni Chasen was a high-powered publicist, with heavyweight clients including not only A-list talent in film, music and television, but also behind-the-scenes players like Richard Zanuck, Arnold Kopelson and Irwin Winkler who remained loyal to her for decades, practically considering her a member of their family. She specialized in awards campaigns, particularly soundtracks and scores, and was representing acclaimed songwriter Diane Warren for “Burlesque” in her bid this season.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ronni at several industry events and working with her colleagues at Chasen & Company in the past. A publicist of her caliber--and there are not many them left--to be sure rubbed a few feathers the wrong way and made a few enemies over the years, but you can't imagine any so-called enemies actually wanting to murder her in cold blood, her body left slumped over the steering wheel of her new black Mercedes on a quiet residential street.

Even if you did not know her personally, as so many in the industry did, the horror of how she died strikes a dissonant chord because the circumstances were incredibly typical for so many people in this town--going to an event on a weeknight, driving home alone late at night in a late-model luxury vehicle. Aside from an occasional traffic stop, or, God forbid, a DUI, nothing eventful ever happens.

Sunset Boulevard at Whittier is not exactly a high-crime area, populated as it is with manicured, multimillion-dollar homes on the far western edge of Beverly Hills. Thugs don't hang out on the street corners there. People are not out walking the streets after midnight, when this horrific incident occurred.

One neighbor said Beverly Hills police told her the assailant could have been on foot, which makes absolutely no sense. Unless there was an orchestrated plot, in which Chasen was followed from the time she left the W Hotel in Hollywood, where she was attending the "Burlesque" afterparty, working the crowd and in a great mood, according to people who interacted with her at the bash.

It seems highly unlikely that she would not have noticed something amiss, driving all those miles down Sunset Boulevard before she made her turn onto Whittier to head to her home on the Wilshire corridor in Westwood. It's been reported that she called her office and left a voicemail six minutes before she was shot, surely a sign of someone who did not think she was in any danger. She did not call 911.

Yet strange things happen on the streets of Los Angeles. Could she have cut someone off, or have been driving too slowly on a curvy stretch of Sunset known for dragging, and thus setting off a sick, murderous rampage? Police say in the majority of road rage shootings, most of the bullets miss their mark because the vehicles are moving. In this case, there were apparently five shots to her chest, leading to the belief that she was shot at very close range through the passenger window, which was shattered.

One night last summer, I experienced an incident of road rage, driving south on Westwood Boulevard toward Olympic. A vehicle was about to pull out in front of me from a parking space, so I tapped on my horn. A little while later, heading westbound in the left lane on Olympic, I noticed, with blood pressure rising, that someone was tailgating me. So I pulled a swift maneuver across four lanes of traffic to the right-hand curb and sure enough, the car followed right behind me. I turned around and looked, with disbelief, to see who it was--their headlights had been blinding me and I couldn’t see the driver or the type of vehicle until that point. It was a middle-aged woman, a grandmother-type, in a sedan. I took off again, calling 911 with her hot on my tail, and was told to drive to the Santa Monica police station. I was able to lose the woman right before I hit the cop shop, but found it unbelievable that she would follow me for miles in a threatening manner--just because I had honked at her. Crazy. And duly noted that she probably wouldn’t have done it to a guy in a pickup truck, or an Escalade.

Which is why I think it must've been some bizarre situation on the road that led to Ronni's murder. Something that happened on Sunset Boulevard heading westbound in Beverly Hills. I just can't buy into the theory that someone who knew her would have her killed. But any scenario is terrifying, and the end result is tragic. The industry lost one of its best and brightest, but one whose legacy will live on in the level of professionalism she brought to her career and the lives she touched.

With Conan Debuting on TBS, Here's the Real Reason He's No Longer on NBC Right After Stations' Late News. And What Conan Should Really Be Doing

Chuck Ross Posted November 8, 2010 at 7:51 AM

Conan O’Brien’s debut onTBS on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010, coincides with my just having finished New York Times national media correspondent Bill Carter’s book “The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy,” which hit bookstores on Nov. 8th as well.

It's always tough to write a compelling book about a series of events that are so recent and that so many of us in the TV business followed so closely.

But as our friend Bill has proved before, he’s quite adept at getting those most intimate with the events to talk openly and frankly, and he’s got a good sense of storytelling.

A few of my takeaways from the book.

First, it seems to me that the biggest reason Conan is not still hosting “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m. on NBC has to do with two contractual issues.

The first has to do with what was clearly a mistake by Team Coco, and one that O’Brien, if he wasn’t explicitly told about it at the time, should be suing someone for malpractice.

Here’s how Carter explains it. The mistake is brought to the reader’s attention during a dinner between Robert Morton (known as Morty), a former producer of David Letterman’s shows at NBC and CBS, Jeff Ross (no relation to me), who is O’Brien’s producer, and Rick Rosen, Conan’s principal agent.

During the dinner--which took place before Jay Leno’s weeknight 10 p.m. show was canceled, and before Conan was asked to move “The Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m.—Morton spoke about how Letterman at CBS, and Leno when he was doing the “Tonight Show” at NBC, had provisions in their contracts stating that their respective shows would go on-air directly following the late local news on both affiliated and network-owned TV stations.

Writes Carter: “You guys got that for Conan, too, I’m sure,” Morty said.

He waited while watching Rick and Rosen exchange a little look.

“You didn’t?” Morty asked, holding back his next thought, which was: You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Of course that led to NBC being able to come up with the idea of putting Jay back into late-night ahead of Conan.

The second contractual issue was a brilliant catch that attorney Ken Ziffren negotiated into Leno’s contract when Leno agreed to do the 10 p.m. show.

How brilliant? Well, heretofore, the most brilliant catch in the world—outside of Willie Mays running an insane distance and then catching a fly ball behind his back in the 1954 World Series—was Catch-22. That’s a doozy.

But it pales in comparison to the brilliant catch Ziffren put in Leno’s contract—and one which he got signed-off by those wild and crazy suits at NBC.

Again, as Bill Carter describes it:

“Ziffren responded with a request like none other [NBC’s Marc] Graboff has ever heard in more than twenty years in the business. He asked for a four-year pay-AND-play contract….Pay AND play meant that for the agreed upon time the network guaranteed both to pay the negotiated salary AND to keep the star’s show on the air. And if the contract were to be breached in that time, the performer had the right to sue, claiming damage to his career. In addition, a breach would mean instantaneous freedom for the star: no being sent to the beach.”

In other words, once NBC canceled Leno’s 10 p.m. show, they were in breach of his contract. If they did nothing he could sue them for a gazillion dollars AND walk across the street to Fox or ABC and start to compete against Conan and “The Tonight Show” the next night.

Seems to me if you combine the effect of Leno’s pay-AND-play contract and O’Brien’s lack of protection regarding having “The Tonight Show” start at 11:35 p.m., those two things alone set the stage for what happened. The rest is mostly ego and Hollywood posturing.

Including, I must say, Conan’s heartfelt but nonetheless incorrect reading in his “People of Earth” manifesto that his going on at 12:05 a.m. with a program called “The Tonight Show” would lead to the "destruction" of this venerable institution.

In Carter’s book, it’s Jerry Seinfeld who makes this point with fierce passion: “Nobody ever uses these show names,” Jerry says, his voice hitting the high register familiar from his routines when he addressed the most mind-boggling absurdities of life. “These names are bullshit words! How do you not get that this whole thing is phony? It’s all fake! There is no institution to offend. All of this 'I won’t sit by and watch the institution damaged.’ What institution? Ripping off the public? That’s the only institution! We tell jokes and they give us millions! Who’s going to take over “Late Night” or “Late Show” or whatever the hell it’s called? Nobody’s going to take it over! It’s Dave! When Dave’s done, that the end of that! And then another guy comes along and has to do his thing. That, to me, is an obvious essential of show business that you eventually grasp. Somehow that seems to have been missed by some of the people here.”

Seinfeld says during all of his years as a stand-up, at some point at every comedy club he was ever in one comic or another would eventually bring up Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show,” and who would take over when Carson left. Seinfeld told Carter: “For like twenty years I had that conversation. And the one thing none of us realized was that, when you left, you were taking it with you.”

Conan is reportedly a student of TV history. But the point Seinfeld makes seems to be lost on him. O’Brien could disagree with it, but then he’d be a poor student.

Look at the history of “The Tonight Show.” First off, as NBC noted during the brouhaha, its hours have changed over the years. It’s started as early as 11:15 p.m., and has run as late as 1 a.m.

And the hosts of the show have all made it their own, as Seinfeld notes. Steve Allen, who hosted “The Tonight Show” for its first three years, could not have been any more different from his successor, Jack Paar.

Allen was comic and musical. Paar was a storyteller. Humorous and witty, yes, but the two men just plain ran at different temperatures, with different cadences.

And then came Carson. As Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh say in their bible-like guide to TV, “As emotional and likely to blow up as Paar was, that is how calm and unflappable Carson was.”

And clearly Leno is a lot different than Carson. Besides having different comic sensibilities, Leno is not a particularly polished interviewer, while Carson's interviews often sang.

Where does Conan fit in the pantheon of “Tonight Show” hosts? The closest I think he comes is actually to the first permanent “guest host” the show had. In Steve Allen’s last year of hosting the show, he also had a prime-time show, so he didn’t work Monday and Tuesday nights.

In his place was one of the true geniuses of the TV medium: Ernie Kovacs.

More on my Conan/Kovacs comparison in a moment.

First, I want to comment on a remark that was one of the nastiest I read in Carter’s book. And I was surprised by who said it: NBC’s Jeff Gaspin. Like most in the media, I’ve given Gaspin high marks for how candid he was during the Leno-O’Brien episode..

Here’s what he said that got my ire up: Gaspin is talking to Carter about how Conan might have decided to accept the offer to stay at NBC and do “The Tonight Show” later: “If he knew there was no Fox…,” Gapin mused. “If he knew he was going to end up on cable, do you think he would have done the same thing? The best you’re going to do is TBS?...”

Excuse me? And this is from the guy who runs NBC ‘s cable networks. How pejorative! And, in fact just plain not true.

Ask Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. I believe they are doing quite well, thank you. Wasn’t Stewart just named the most influential person in America? Or ask Tony “Monk” Shalhoub, who did very nicely on NBC’s own USA Network.

And up until a few years ago I assume Gaspin was deriding AMC as just some lousy movie channel. But now, with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” AMC has two of the most acclaimed shows on TV, let alone cable.

Conan will thrive on TBS. TBS and TNT have some excellent original programming already to go along with their syndicated and sports programming, and Conan will help the network that much more.

One last thing. If I were Conan, I’d actually think about doing a weekly program instead of a nightly one. That’s where my comparison with Kovacs comes in. Kovacs did lots of daily shows, but his clever, innovative genius really shone when he had the time to prepare a weekly show.

And I think Conan is a Kovacs-quality talent.#

[I'm assuming that most of you are far too young to remember Kovaks or his work. He died tragically in a car accident in January 1962, just days before his 43rd birthday. (To give you a time perspective, it was 10 months before Carson, 36,  would take over "The Tonight Show.") Through the magic of YouTube, here's a snippet of Kovacs' inventive, inspired work. These are the closing credits Kovaks did for a special he did on ABC--and probably the most imaginative closing credits seen on TV. Tell me you couldn't imagine Conan doing something similar...]

The Puzzling Failure of Obama and the Democrats: How We Suffered For Our Sanity. How We Tried To Set Them Free. They Would Not Listen. They Did Not Know How. Perhaps They’ll Listen Now. (But Don’t Count on It)

Chuck Ross Posted November 3, 2010 at 9:13 AM

Now that the entire frickin’ nation has yelled and screamed through their ballot boxes—except for us loons here in California--perhaps Obama will get it, but I’m not optimistic.

[Aside: How do I know we’re looney tunes out here? Well, how can one be as true blue as we are, and on that starry starry night last night, as we’re about to blast off with Gov. Moonbeam again, not also legalize pot?]

As regular readers of this blog can attest, I’m no genius. But I do profess to know what I know, and I can be pretty stubborn about it.

And I think a lot of what I profess to know you know too. What always amazes me is when we’re pretty sure about stuff , but the people in charge of dishing the stuff out seem to be clueless.

A few examples.

Back when I was a kid I knew the Edsel was ugly. Yes, as an adult I’d love to have one today because it was such a failure it would be cool to own one now.

But wasn’t most of America sure at the time that this was the ugliest car they had ever seen and no one would buy it? So how did it ever come to market?

I remember watching “My Mother the Car” when it debuted on NBC in September of 1965 and thinking my god, how stupid. I am absolutely positive most other people were thinking the same thing. I’m still shocked that it lasted an entire season.

I think one of TV’s most brilliant programmers was the late Brandon Tartikoff. Another one of his ilk is Steven Bochco. But how did “Manimal” and “Cop Rock” ever make it on-air? Yes, be a risk-taker. But I’m sorry, most of us could have told them long before these shows got their final OKs that they would not be embraced.

New Coke? Please.

Did you know that McDonald’s once tried McLobster? We could’ve told them not to bother.

This one might be urban legend, or maybe not. I’ve always heard that KFC once tried liver on its menu. Huh?

Jay Leno every weeknight at 10 pm? Before it ever came on many of us shrieked and screeched “no way.” But it got on-air anyway.

Like all of the executives that made the decisions to give us this stuff—and many more examples you and I can come up with—I think our Chief Executive, President Obama, is a pretty smart guy.

But why he chose not to realize that there were only three issues Americans have cared about since he took office—the economy, the economy and the economy—we’ll never know.

Well, maybe we can know. We know Obama likes to appear on TV—as long as it’s not on a real news show.

So let’s get him on HBO’s “In Treatment.”

At first Obama will tell therapist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) that oh sure, he addressed the economy.

Then Weston will point out to Obama that the president is really in a business where perception is reality, and the perception is that he really didn’t address the economy in a meaningful way. Wall St. and bank bailouts never resonated.

Then we might get to the nitty gritty.

Or, more likely, Obama will deflect, telling Weston, hey, buddy, I’ve watched this show, and with all your problems you’re trying tell ME what to do? I don’t think so.

Of course the message the country sent Obama yesterday was that actually it’s all of us who are watching him, and he’s not getting it.

He’s either going to get it and put on a blockbuster schedule or he’s gonna do something really stupid, like saying we’ll do some more Obamacare –just a little bit, maybe a half-hour’s worth at 11:35--and then tackle the economy after that at five after midnight.

Hmm. Last we heard, the chief executive who made a decision like that will be looking for a new job soon…

[apologies to Don McLean for the headline]