Steve Allen on Jack O’Brian


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March 19, 1958, Vol. III, No. 21

Jack O’Brian and the Art of Criticism

[In the Village Voice for March 5, columnist Nat Hentoff praised the Journal-American’s Jack O’Brian as one of the few good television critics in New York City. A contrary view has now been submitted by Steve Allen, who needs no further identification–Ed.]

By Steve Allen

At least 50 times during the past several years I have heard TV people say “Something really ought to be done about Jack O’Brian.”

It should be explained at the outset that this article is not a simple instance of a performer taking personal issue with a reviewer. There are few more pathetic spectacles than that of an actor pulling critical barbs out of his skin and demanding naively to know what right the press had to attack him. One of the first things a performer must learn is to take the bitter with the sweet.

It should also be made clear that this protest concerns Mr. O’Brian alone. With rare and isolated exceptions, all other TV critics have been eminently fair with me, as they are with other entertainers. No, O’Brian is unique. He alone, among his hundreds of colleagues, has so abused his position and power that a statement concerning him must be made, and publicly. I say publicly by way of establishing that the majority of new York television people are privately willing to express their contempt for him at length.

Recently I dined with a group including one of television’s biggest comedians, one of our top singing stars, and a popular emcee. O’Brian’s name happened to come up and, as if reacting automatically to the stimulus, each performer in turn had shocking stories to tell of unfair treatment at his hands.

That there has never been a public protest about him before is explained by the fact that most performers are conditioned, and correctly, to feel that it is pointless to become involved in controversy with critics, and by the fact that were any actor to be tempted to speak out, he would be advised that O’Brian could retaliate daily in his column. I am well aware that O’Brian’s response to this piece will more likely be a series of personal attacks on me than a response to the charges against him, but I feel that my discomfort is a small price to pay in this instance. Mr. O’Brian has assumed the role of the neighborhood bully. His conduct demands attention. There is a job to be done. No one else has seen fit to do it.

There has never been a scoundrel on earth, of course, who could not rally a certain number of people to his support, but the fact remains that by far the greater number of TV people openly disapprove of O’Brian’s professional methods. And I propose to limit this article to those methods, to what can be learned of the man from his written word. Concerning his personal life I shall say nothing, since all men are weak. I would be remiss, however, were I not to report that this gentleman who so frequently speaks for virtue in his column impresses many people as shockingly vulgar in speech and social deportment.

But the business at hand is an analysis of O’Brian as critic. Such an examination, I submit, can not fail to substantiate the opinion that he is derelict in his duty to his readers, unethical in his methods, and beneath the respect of the industry because his column is frequently an outlet for his personal emotional delinquencies rather than a reflection of intelligent, fair, responsible criticism.

It can not be emphasized too often that the reason performers consider O’Brian anathema is not simply that he is from time to time displeased with what he sees on television. Hundreds of other columnists are able to discharge this duty, with varying degrees of finesse, but always with honor and with some consideration of the fact that they are writing about fellow human beings.

O’Brian alone, because of his emotional immaturity, writes criticism that is characterized by clumsy reporting and vindictive displays of pique. He alone has reduced his column to an adolescent potpourri of brick-bats for those whom he personally dislikes and posies for those who are, or pretend to be, his pals.

The list of entertainers who are consistently treated unfairly by O’Brian is long and imposing and, significantly enough, largely comprised of the biggest names in the business.

O’Brian’s anti-Arthur Godfrey attitude, for instance, is so unbending that if there is not enough bad news he can relate about him, O’Brian will drag Godfrey’s name into print for no other reason than to express contempt. Examples: “Bill Gargan doesn’t own any of his new Martin Kane TV films, and they’re selling like Godfrey used to.”

Another victim of the O’Brian love-’em-and-leave-’em pattern was Jackie Gleason. Initially O’Brian praised Gleason. Eventually he attacked him, at last so rudely that the two almost came to blows one night in a restaurant.

Still another performer unable to receive fair treatment at the hands of O’Brian is Ed Sullivan. If there is any news to gladden Ed’s heart you may be sure it will not be brought to the attention of Journal-American readers. If, on the other hand, Sullivan’s rating happens to slump, or a portion of his program is below par, it is fairly certain that O’Brian will mention it. His hatred of Sullivan is so pronounced that he can not even bring himself to refer to his hour as a “program.” Instead he uses phrases such as “the Ed Sullivan whatsis,” or “the Sullivan catch-all.”

Whether O’Brian’s frequent errors are the results of slovenly reporting or deliberate intent to harm it is, of course, impossible to say, but neither possibility reflects credit upon him. I can perhaps best explain what I mean by careless reporting by referring to my own experience. A few years ago my good friend and producer Bill Harbach was being badly overworked to the tune of 10 or 12 hours a day on the old “Tonight” show. In social conversation he happened to remark that the show was a man-killer and that he would welcome a long vacation, or words to that effect. A few days later O’Brian reported Bill wanted to get off the show because of “the star’s temperament.” Since this was an untruth, Bill sent O’Brian a letter explaining that my “temperament” had nothing whatever to do with the case. O’Brian ran the retraction but left the quotation marks off the word temperament, which of course exactly reversed Bill’s meaning.

Another instance: We took the “Tonight” show to Hollywood once for a two-month stay, and since our crew numbered some 20 people we could not have handled the expenses of the move without working out a “deal” with a Los Angeles hotel. The hotel agreed to put our small army up more-or-less free in return for on-the-air plugs, in accordance with common industry procedure. You would never have known that, however, from O’Brian’s reference to the matter. Omitting all mention of our large staff, he implied that I did plugs for the hotel so that I personally could avoid paying room-rent.

There were numerous examples of a similar sort. For a time I contented myself with writing fair and frank letters to O’Brian, providing him with the facts of the matters he had incorrectly reported. A trade-wise publicity man advised me I was wasting my time. “Any other critic,” he said, “will thank you for straightening him out of he gets a few facts bollixed up. O’Brian will resent being corrected, no matter how wrong. He’s a grown man with the emotions of a 4-year-old boy. If you contradict him, no matter how politely, he’ll kick and scream.”

“He can’t be that bad,” I protested.

Eventually, I was to revise my opinion. Several headaches later O’Brian printed one particular lie that caused me to write him not a peacefully worded not at all but one telling him frankly that I had a good mind to take a poke at him if he didn’t correct his untruth and fast. The facts of the case were as follows:

One evening an NBC executive called my office in a state of considerable apprehension. It seems a movie actor had walked off the Perry Como show after rehearsing for a couple of days and left Perry on the spot for a replacement. My agent, Jules Green, asked me if I wanted to fill in for the actor and I said: “Well, it’s my night off, but if they’re in trouble, naturally I’ll jump in.” The NBC man said: “Of course Steve will get his usual guest-shot price, $7500, which is okay because that’s Perry’s top anyway.” Jules told him it was a deal, I did the show, and Perry and I had a lot of fun. Then I read in O’Brian’s column that the Como show had been over a barrel because Perry had had a sore throat and that when I was contacted about replacing Perry I held the show up for big money, whereas other comedians around town had offered to go on without salary.

My letter to O’Brian about this particular untruth was phrased in such forthright terms that he referred to my denial the next day, but characteristically didn’t admit his error, saying instead that the source, for his version of the story was an NBC executive.

One of O’Brian’s uglier practices is what would seem the deliberate attempt to foster ill-feeling between performers by including in a single paragraph a compliment for one with a criticism of the other. To select one example: “David Brinkley of the NBC-TV news twosome is very good, dry, and interesting; can’t say the same for Chet Huntley.” Any intelligent viewer can observe that Huntley and Brinkley are two peas in a pod; the apparent reason for O’Brian’s criticism is that he suspects Huntley of liberal political inclinations. O’Brian is perhaps the only critic in the nation who judges television fare according to the political opinions of those who present it.

Like many people who are themselves ultra-sensitive to criticism, O’Brian has the sensitivity of a mastodon when it comes to the feelings of others. An orchestra leader who has appeared on my program wears a toupeé, presumably because he does not want people to know he is bald. O’Brian informed his readers about the musician’s baldness. He can be equally cruel to women regarding their physical endowments of the lack thereof. Recently he referred in print to the fact that one TV comedienne wears “falsies.” Such insensitivity is hardly the mark of a gentleman.

One reason for the preparation of this statement, incidentally, is my feeling that new, young TV performers will benefit in being warned that destructive evaluations of their talents by O’Brian need not be seriously entertained. By way of example consider the case of Dody Goodman, who appears with Jack Paar. I find Miss Goodman amusing, and so do most of the people with whom I have discussed her.

On the program one night several weeks ago she happened to say to Hans Conreid: “Oh, shut up,” in a tone obviously intended as playful. O’Brian attacked her cruelly the following day and has done so on many occasions since. One of his more shocking comments about her began: “Dody Goodman–who isn’t funny–.” I watched the program the night of his initial attack and observed the Miss Goodman was uncommonly subdued and not at all her usual happy, scatterbrained self.

Suspecting that O’Brian was to blame, I wrote advising Dody that millions of TV viewers knew that she was funny, and warning her that the critic for the Journal-American was the one TV columnist whose criticisms were beneath respect because of his record of irresponsibility. Her reply confirmed my suppositions as to the reason for her depressed on-the-air demeanor; she told me that a number of other people had given her substantially the same advice.

It must not be supposed that O’Brian’s rudeness is directed only toward performers.

Many publicity people and secretaries relate stories of his chip-on-the-shoulder attitude if they are first assured that their words will not be broadcast, for they tell you frankly that they fear O’Brian. It is precisely that fact which has had much to do with the preparation of this article. That decent, hardworking publicity and network people feel fear of this irresponsible man is deplorable. Part of that fear is understandable, of course, although not entirely excusable.

There exists the baseless impression that O’Brian is the Journal-American, that to antagonize him is to alienate the Hearst organization. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Several J-A people have told me they can not abide the man, and they laugh at the idea that he is a power on the Hearst team.

One highly placed Journal executive told me over a year ago that O’Brian was on the way out. Although his information appears to have been incorrect, his statement is indicative of the fact that a protest to O’Brian will not necessarily antagonize his employers by any means.

Such activity will, of course, antagonize the readily combustible and sometimes pugnacious Mr. O’Brian, concerning whose character psychologists would no doubt have an easy time drawing inferences from his choice of verbs in sentences pertaining to the relative ratings of television programs.

His column of November 12, 1957, leads off with the announcement that the “Maverick” show “mauled” Ed Sullivan and myself in the overnight Trendex competition. Since “Maverick” topped Sullivan by only 2.8 and since our rating for the same half-hour was 17.6, it will be seen that the verb “to maul” is A: an exaggeration, and B: an indication of a wish on O’Brian’s part, either conscious or unconscious, that Sullivan and Allen be mauled, either professionally or physically.

It is true that any columnist, rushed by a deadline, and seeking a colorful phrase, might employ such phraseology without malicious motivation, but such wordage is not the exception with O’Brian, it is the rule. To describe the difference in rating between programs, he habitually uses terms like “clobbered,” “swamped,” “buried”–all of which may cast more light on the real Mr. O’Brian than the “clobbered” shows.

His most famous boner in this particular area has become something of an industry joke and was perpetrated one week last year when Lawrence Welk had a rating of 21.7 to Sid Caesar’s 21 even. Describing this difference, which all TV people know is completely meaningless statistically, O’Brian wrote that Welk “walked all over Sid Caesar.”

Something else that throws interesting light on O’Brian’s characters is his attitude toward psychiatry. In his column of November 1, 1957, he expresses approval of the Western series, “Boots and Saddles,” but makes use of the opportunity to drag in by the heels the following outburst:

“It (‘Boots and Saddles’) isn’t one of the avant, or nouveaux, double-dome Westerns with delusions of intellectuality…it simply is a very good, straightforward film series without the fidgets or idgets of the egghead cowpokes, who too often are not the good, simple, homespun cowhands and nineteenth-century American soldiers of pioneer fortune, but irritating cerebral explosions of the new spate of TV authors who wish to extend lessons learned on their head-shrinker’s couches to those among the TV audience who, psychiatrically, are considered members of the great unwashed-brain brigade.”

The circumstance whereby the individual most in need of psychiatric aid is discovered to be he who denounces it most vigorously is too classic to require further emphasis.
O’Brian does have his occasional “normal” working days when his modest critical ability manifests itself, but there are others when he can find little to please him in this world. His column of September 24, 1957, for example, contained 36 separate items. Of these only three could be construed as complimentary.

Despite all this, the man is not entirely without virtue. If a program is truly inept, O’Brian can sometimes do an accurate, if heavy-handed, job of pinpointing its inadequacies. Upon occasion he has shown that, when he is not emotionally involved in the issues he is covering, he can be a capable reporter.

The case against O’Brian has so many particulars that I have been able to do little more than summarize it here. In doing so there is no question but that I have reflected on popular opinion, even among other New York columnists, most of whom openly dislike the man. What is perhaps open to question is the matter of result.

What good will have been done by the publication of this article? Well, first, as I have pointed out, performers who are relatively inexperienced will be cheered by the knowledge that O’Brian’s destruction criticisms are in most instances unworthy of respect. To be criticized by Crosby, Gould, Van Horne, Minoff, and the rest–especially in concert–is to have cause for concern. To be criticized by O’Brian may well be an indication that you have talent.

Will the publication of this essay have any beneficial effect upon O’Brian himself? It is not inconceivable. Perhaps O’Brian’s evil has been done all in innocence. Perhaps it truly has never occurred to him that he is the only TV critic in the nation who is rude, inaccurate, unchristian, and vengeful.

Perhaps this blunt presentation of the case for the entertainer will, after his initial shock and anger, lead him to consider mending his ways. Animosity is always unpleasant, and I am sure the hundreds of performers who presently dislike O’Brian because they disapprove of his methods would much prefer to be on the same sort of polite terms with him that they are with all other reviewers.

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