Fox has a way of holding the viewer’s attention and a love of highlighting smaller but key points often overlooked that remind me somewhat of John McPhee’s writing and of Professor Iain Stewart’s BBC documentaries “Journeys Into the Ring of Fire”, “Rise of the Continents”, and others.
I happen to be in the midst of rereading McPhee’s 1967 book Oranges at the moment, so I can share an example that’s fresh in my memory of what I’m talking about. The book was one of McPhee’s first – bibliography here – and is a horticultural, commercial, and social history of the orange. I believe I just heard one of your eyebrows arching up at the thought of an entire book about oranges and pomologists (fruit scientists), but see here: It’s entertaining, informative, funny, sometimes surprising, and thoroughly deserving of the occasional reread. Plus it’s fairly short.
Early on in Oranges, he explains the basics of growing citrus, which are odd enough to start. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, he then proceeds to blow your mind a little later.
Most citrus trees consist of two parts. The upper framework, called the scion, is one kind of citrus, and the roots and trunk, called the rootstock, are another. The place where the two parts come together, a barely discernible horizontal line around the trunk of a mature tree, is called the bud union. Seedling trees take about fifteen years before they start bearing well, and they bristle with ferocious thorns. Budded trees come into bearing in five years and are virtually free of thorns. In Florida, most orange trees have lemon roots. In California, nearly all lemon trees are grown on orange roots. This sort of thing is not unique with citrus. With the stone fruits, there is a certain latitude. Plums can be grown on cherry trees and apricots on peach trees, but a one-to-one relationship like that is only the beginning with citrus. A single citrus tree can be turned into a carnival, with lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, and oranges all ripening on its branches at the same time. Trees that are almost completely valueless for their fruit seem to make the most valuable rootstocks. Most of the trees on the Ridge are growing on Rough Lemon—a kind of lemon whose fruit is oversized, lumpy, ninety per cent rind, and all but inedible. As a rootstock, it forages with exceptional vigor and, in comparison with others, puts more fruit on the tree. Bitter Oranges, or Sour Oranges, the kind usually associated with Scottish marmalade and with Seville, make an outstanding stock in certain soils, notably on the banks of the Indian River.
Citrus scientists have difficulty finding the property lines between varieties and species and between species and hybrids. One astonishing illustration of this came as the result of an attempt, at the United States Horticultural Station in Orlando, Florida, to grow a virus-free Persian Lime. This is the kind of lime, almost perfectly seedless, that goes into everybody’s gin and tonic. About fifteen years ago, many Persian Lime trees in Florida were affected by a virus that was drastically shortening their lives. The most common way to create a virus-free strain of a citrus fruit is to plant a seed, since a parent’s virus is not transmitted to its seedlings. Persian Limes contain so few seeds, however, that the researchers—Philip C. Reece and J. F. L. Childs—cut up eighteen hundred and eighty-five Persian Limes and found no seeds at all. So they went to a concentrate plant and filled two dump trucks with pulp from tens of thousands of Persian Limes which had just been turned into limeade. Picking through it all by hand, they found two hundred and fifty seeds, and planted them. Up from those lime seeds came sweet orange trees, bitter orange trees, grapefruit trees, lemon trees, tangerines, limequats, citrons—and two seedlings which proved to be Persian Limes. Ordinarily, a citrus seed will tend to sprout a high proportion of something called nucellar seedlings, which are asexually produced and always have the exact characteristics of the plant from which the seed came. The seeds of the Persian Limes, however, sent up a high proportion of zygotic seedlings, meaning seedlings which arise from a fertilized egg cell. If zygotic seedlings come from parents which are true species, the seedlings will always quite obviously resemble one or the other parent, or both. If zygotic seedlings come from parents which are hybrids, they can resemble almost any kind of citrus ever known. The Persian Lime itself is probably a natural hybrid. The trees that grew from Reece’s and Childs’ lime seeds are still young, and they copiously produce their oranges and lemons, grapefruit and tangerines every year. The lemons are a type that are not grown, except perhaps in a laboratory, within three thousand miles of Orlando. However, most pomologists who are familiar with this story think that it has only one truly remarkable aspect. They think it is fairly phenomenal that, out of two hundred and fifty seeds, Reece and Childs got two Persian Limes.
McPhee has taught his “Creative Nonfiction” course at Princeton every spring since 1975; last week, he and the students moved online.
Perhaps a visitor can answer this question: Why is it that nearly every time I see whole lobsters awaiting prep on UK cooking shows, they’re uncooked but stone-cold dead? I just saw this again in the ongoing series 10 of MasterChef – The Professionals, screenshot of the daisy-pushing critters above. Because I’m so used to lobsters tootling about in my kitchen and giving me the tail-flapping, two-claw salute when I pick them up, it gives me the willies to see a passel of them lying on the work surface dead as doornails, but perhaps there’s a rational explanation that will calm me.
I could understand par-cooked, but they’re definitely raw – their colour alone tells you that. You couldn’t sell a dead, raw whole lobster here. I’m not sure if it’s against the law – it probably is – but that doesn’t matter: No one would ever buy one. My only thought is that perhaps they dispatch them moments before filming begins in order to spare sensitive viewers. That better be it – I’ve smelled lobsters that have been dead for a little while. Firing them into high Earth orbit or, better yet, the Sun, would be a better option than eating.
On the topic of how to deal with live lobsters on TV, here’s an excerpt from Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child regarding chowder and lobster guru Jasper White’s appearance on In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs in 1994:
Julia insisted that Jasper White make his pan-roasted lobster. It was his signature dish, steeped in cognac and butter, and a perennial favorite of hers, perfect for the home cook, but there were problems before filming even began. Weeks before, during a cooking demonstration on Today, Katie Couric shrieked when a chef killed a lobster. It brought media attention to the process of killing lobsters and PETA jumped on it right away. The organization’s power made [producer] Geof Drummond nervous. “He prefers we don’t kill it on television,” Julia explained to White, sitting in her garden during a break.
“That’s fine,” White said. “We can kill it before we start filming.”
Julia shook her head. “Then we’re not teaching them anything.” She got up and walked around the yard.
“Julia, there are other lobster dishes to be made. I could do lobster quenelles that start with cooked meat.”
A decision had to be made in the next couple of minutes. Finally, she said, “Fuck ’em! We’re going to teach people the right way to do it. Fuck PETA, fuck the animal-rights people!”
Together, they concocted a way to sidestep a possible outcry. As the lesson began, Julia stood gazing at White and his lobster. “So, dearie, how do we start the dish?” she asked.
“First we cut up the lobster,” he said.
Everything had to do with the expression on Julia’s face. She kept it glassy-eyed, completely impassive. For all anyone knew, she might have been watching a mother diapering a newborn, as White dispatched the crustacean. He had a Chinese cleaver the size of a scimitar and he wielded it like a cartoon character. His hands were a blur—swoosh, swoosh, swoosh! Presto: the lobster lay in pieces on the cutting board.
I can’t recall exclaiming at my telly so much in a short period as just now, when I caught this fantastic UK Channel 4 promo for Rio Paralympics 2016, which I didn’t see at the time, on a Gruen episode from last year (S12E05). Wow!
Discovered among the last few shelves of videotapes going to digital: A 12-hour French Chef marathon I taped when WGBH Boston aired it on Christmas 2004, four months after Julia Child left us. The tapes, with no labels on the spine but Post-its indicating the contents, included seventeen half-hour episodes I didn’t have in digital form before, including S07E20 More About French Bread. I just uploaded that one to YouTube – see below – to go along with the S07E19 French Bread episode someone else previously uploaded that I featured in an article here a couple years ago.
My two favourite series from the lists below are probably Baking with Julia, a thirty-nine episode, nineteen-hour series, and Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home. The former is mouth-watering throughout – just this week, I watched three episodes on my tablet while waiting for my car window master switch to be replaced and was then compelled to stop at a good bakery – exceedingly rare around here, but one happens to be just half a mile from the Hyundai dealer. In the latter eleven-hour series, filmed in Julia’s Cambridge home when she was 88, Julia and longtime friend Jacques Pépin frequently compare and contrast home and professional cooking techniques and sometimes disagree about various methods – or whether something’s done. She gives him plenty of good-natured sass, but he returns the volley more often than not. Lots of fun.
Windows Explorer tells me I now have 208 files with 105 hours of Julia Child shows in 40 gigs. Absolutely delightful.
Speaking of delightful, the image I grabbed for the video’s thumbnail is when Julia politely shushes Professor Calvel to allow us, too, to hear “la musique du pain”.
[1963-1973] The French Chef episodes [201×28].txt [1978-1979] Julia Child and Company episodes [13×28].txt
[1979-1980] Julia Child and More Company episodes [13×28].txt [1983-1984] Dinner at Julia’s episodes [13×28].txt
 The Way to Cook episodes [6×58].txt  A Birthday Party for Julia Child – Compliments to the Chef [1×58].txt
[1993-1994] Cooking with Master Chefs episodes [16×28].txt
[1993-1995] Cooking in Concert episodes [3×85].txt
[1994-1996] In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs [39×28].txt
[1996-1998] Baking with Julia episodes [39×28].txt
[1999-2000] Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home [22×28].txt
 Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom [1×58].txt
[I’ve none of the three in italics]
[1963-1973] The French Chef [51 of 201 eps, the rest on 3 French Chef DVD sets and Amazon Video]
S01E01 Boeuf Bourguignon.avi
S01E02 French Onion Soup.avi
S01E09 Vegetables The French Way.mp4
S01E19 French Crêpes.mp4
S01E20 French Crêpes II.mp4
S01E22 The Potato Show.mp4
S02E02 Cooking Your Goose.mp4
S02E07 Vegetable Adventures.mp4
S02E13 Elegance with Eggs.mp4
S03E17 Bûche de Noël.mp4
S05E03 Queen of Sheba Cake.avi
S05E09 Roast Suckling Pig.mp4
S05E10 More About Potatoes.mp4
S06E18 Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise.avi
S06E20 The Spinach Twins.avi
S07E01 Cake with a Halo.mp4
S07E02 Hamburger Dinner.mp4
S07E03 Salade Niçoise.avi
S07E05 Lasagne à la Française.mp4
S07E06 Waiting for Gigot.mp4
S07E07 How About Lentils.mp4
S07E08 Fish in Monk’s Clothing.mp4
S07E09 Gâteau in a Cage.mp4
S07E10 Cheese and Wine Party.avi
S07E11 Curry Dinner.mp4
S07E12 Apple Desserts.avi
S07E12 Apple Desserts.mp4
S07E13 Meat Loaf Masquerade.MP4
S07E14 To Roast a Chicken.mp4
S07E15 Hard Boiled Eggs.mp4
S07E16 Boeuf Bourguignon.mp4
S07E17 Strawberry Soufflé.mp4
S07E18 Spaghetti Flambé.mp4
S07E19 French Bread.mp4
S07E20 More About French Bread.mp4
S08E01 A Vegetable for all Occasions.mp4
S08E02 Pot au Feu.mp4
S08E10 The Whole Fish Story.avi
S08E16 The Lobster Show.avi
S08E18 Mousse au Chocolat.avi
S08E20 To Stuff a Sausage.avi
S09E06 Terrines and Pâtés.mp4
S09E11 Cheese Soufflé.mp4
S09E12 The Good Loaf.avi
S09E13 The Hollandaise Family.mp4
S09E14 Tripes à la Mode.avi
S09E15 Sole Bon Femme.mp4
S09E18 The Omelette Show.avi
S09E20 French Fries.avi
S10E07 VIP Cake.mp4
[1979-1980] Julia Child and More Company [1 of 13 eps]
Julia Child & More Company Summer Dinner.mp4
 Julia Child – The Way to Cook [6 of 6 eps]
04 Soups, Salads, and Bread.mp4
05 Fish and Eggs.mp4
06 First Courses and Desserts.mp4
[1993-1994] Cooking with Master Chefs [16 of 16 eps]
101 Emeril Lagasse.mp4
102 Michel Richard.mp4
103 Patrick Clark.mp4
104 Lidia Bastianich.mp4
105 Charles Palmer.mp4
106 Amy Ferguson-Ota.mp4
107 Robert Del Grande.mp4
108 Jean-Louis Palladin.mp4
109 Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.mp4
110 Jacques Pépin.mp4
111 Jeremiah Tower.mp4
112 Jan Birnbaum and Lidia Bastianich.mp4
113 Andre Saltner.mp4
114 Nancy Silverton.mp4
115 Jacques Pépin.mp4
116 Alice Waters.mp4
[1993-1995] Cooking in Concert [3 of 3 eps]
Jacques Pépin Holiday Meal.mp4
Jacques Pépin Stuffed Turkey Roulade.mp4
[1996-1998] Baking With Julia [39 of 39 eps]
101 Craig Kominiak.mp4
102 Alice Medrich.mp4
103 Michel Richard.mp4
104 Lora Brody.mp4
105 Marcel Desaulniers.mp4
106 Gale Gand.mp4
107 Norman Love.mp4
108 Lauren Groveman.mp4
109 Mary Bergin.mp4
110 Steve Sullivan.mp4
111 Nancy Silverton.mp4
112 Nick Malgieri.mp4
113 Flo Braker.mp4
201 Esther McManus.mp4
202 Beatrice Ojakangas.mp4
203 Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.mp4
204 Danielle Forestier.mp4
205 Markus Farbinger.mp4
206 Charlotte Akoto.mp4
207 Marion Cunningham.mp4
208 Johanna Killeen.mp4
209 Leslie Mackie.mp4
210 David Ogonowsk.mp4
211 Joe Ortiz.mp4
212 David Blom.mp4
213 Norman Love.mp4
301 Martha Stewart 1.mp4
302 Martha Stewart 2.mp4
303 Nancy Silverton.mp4
304 Michel Richard.mp4
304a Michel Richard.mp4
304b Michel Richard.mp4
304c Alice Medrich.mp4
305 Lauren Groveman.mp4
306 Johanne Killeen.mp4
307 Marcel Desaulniers.mp4
308 Nick Malgieri.mp4
309 Mary Bergin.mp4
310 Markus Farbinger.mp4
311 Jeffrey Alfor, Naomi Duguid, and Beatrice Ojakangas.mp4
312 Gail Gand and David Blom.mp4
313 Flo Braker and Leslie Mackie.mp4
[1996-1998] In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs [37 of 39 eps]
101 Roberto Donna.mp4
102 Jasper White.mp4
103 Lynne Rossetto Kasper.mp4
104 Jimmy Sneed.mp4
105 Madhur Jaffrey.mp4
106 Daniel Boulud.mp4
107 Jim Dodge.mp4
108 Charlie Trotter.mp4
109 Leah Chase.mp4
110 Christopher Gross.mp4
111 Jody Adams.mp4
112 Zarela Martinez.mp4
113 Jean-Georges Vongerichten.mp4
114 Rick Bayless.mp4
115 Gordon Hamersley.mp4
116 Dean Fearing.mp4
117 Reed Hearon.mp4
118 Johanne Killeen and George Germon.mp4
119 Carol Field.mp4
120 Michael Lomonaco.mp4
121 Monique Barbeau.mp4
122a Jacques Torres.mp4
122b Jacques Torres.mp4
122c Jacques Torres.mp4
123 Alfred Portale.mp4
124 Mark Militello.mp4
125 Julian Serrano.mp4
126 Joachim Splichal.mp4
127 Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Roberto Donna.mp4
128 Jimmy Sneed.mp4
130 Killeen, Germon, and Gross.mp4
131 Daniel Boulud and Gordon Hamersley.mp4
132 Madhur Jaffrey and Reed Hearon.mp4
133 Dean Fearing.mp4
134 Jim Dodge.mp4
135 Jody Adams and Jaochim Splichal.mp4
136 Mark Militello.mp4
137 Jasper White and Zarela Martinez.mp4
138 Alfred Portale.mp4
139 Monique Barbeau and Jaques Torres.mp4
[1999-2000] Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home [22 of 22 eps]
S01E02 Fruit Desserts.mp4
S01E03 Salad Days.mp4
S01E04 Our Favorite Sandwiches.mp4
S01E06 Beef Stews.mp4
S01E08 Roast Turkey Dinner.mp4
S01E12 Creamy Desserts.mp4
S01E14 Roast Chickens.mp4
S01E16 Winter Vegetables.mp4
S01E18 Comfort Food.mp4
S01E20 Roasts of Veal and Lamb.mp4
 Food Network Tributes August 2004
Emeril Live Tribute to Julia Child 2001.mp4
From Martha’s Kitchen with Julia and Jacques 2000.mp4
Julia Child – A Tribute – Food Network 2004.mp4
Sara Moulton – Cooking Live with Julia 1997.mp4
TV’s Greatest Food Moments 2003.mp4
Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child In the Kitchen 2002.mp4
Other  Chicago Tonight interview.mp4
Other  Julia Child – A&E Biography.avi
Other  Julia Child – An Appetite for Life 1997.mp4
Other  Out of the Box with Jack Nadel interview with Julia Child.mp4
Other  Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom.mp4
Other  Chicago Tonight interview.mp4
Other  American Masters – Julia Child.mp4
Other  Julia Child – Culinary Revolutionary – The New School.mp4
Other  Siting Julia – Radcliffe Institute Conference Panels.mp4
Other  Dearie The Remarkable Life of Julia Child.mp4
Other  Sharing Julia Child’s Appetite for Life with Noël Riley Fitch — Dinner in the Library.mp4
Other  American History (After Hours) The French Chef, American-Style.mp4
Other  Alex Prud’homme – The French Chef in America Julia Child’s Second Act (Full Lecture).mp4
I’m watching “The Games” again, delighting in Clarke’s seemingly casual but actually meticulously crafted wordplay, and remembered an interview in which he discussed making the series. I’ve clipped that segment and fixed the original’s eye-squeezingly bad aspect ratio here:
As promised in my Overnight article, here’s the complete final week of NBC News Overnight, 29 November through 3 December 1983. I also created a playlist that includes these and my other Overnight uploads.
This is the clip that was shown during the 1984 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award ceremony for excellence in journalism. As I wrote in my appreciation of Overnight, the jury said the program was “conceivably the best-written and most intelligent television news anywhere.”
As promised in my NBC News Overnight post earlier today, here’s the highlight reel I received many years ago from a fellow aficionado. The quality is poor throughout, but hey, you take what you can get. Other than my personal copies of the final week’s shows, this is about all I’ve ever found.
2016 update: Comcast, where my old web site was hosted, shut down its customer web site service a year or two ago, so I’m finally getting around to republishing my years-old essay on NBC News Overnight here. In 1995, this was one of the first articles I published on my site.
I still think Overnight was the best damned news program ever and I still sorely miss it. It was the model of a one-hour news program, and its style and substance contrast achingly with the carny-filled 24-hour news cycle of today.
Some years ago, I digitized the final five broadcasts, 29 November 1983 through 3 December 1983, and I’ve uploaded the final broadcast to include in this post – it’s about a third of the way down this article if you want to see it now and read the essay later.
In the near future, I’ll separately post the Monday-Thursday broadcasts from that week, but before I do those, I’ll upload in another post a 90-minute Overnight highlight reel I got from someone many years ago. It includes a segment from Hodding Carter’s PBS series Inside Story on the passing of Overnight.
Updated 23 October: I’ve uploaded the rest of my Overnight videos as mentioned above. Here’s the playlist.
NBC News Overnight: An Appreciation
“Don’t worry. It’s a piece of cake. We’ll open with a something and a something, tell some news, a little of this, a little of that, watch a commercial, then a thing and a thing, a reel, some not-ready-for-prime-time stuff, more more news, sportstalk, some sports scores – Reuven said we gotta do scores because of bookies or something – then a roll, a reel a roll and a long five – they talk long at the BBC – a recap, some items, once overnightly, another something and a something, goodbyes – and we’ll be off. A piece of cake.”
– Herb Dudnick, describing Overnight to prospective anchors Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns. “Reuven” is Reuven Frank, then president of NBC News.
Linda Ellerbee described the theme music once: “You hear something that may be music or may be the sound Donald Duck would make if you held his head underwater awhile.”
NBC News Overnight, a live one-hour news program, aired for about seventeen months starting on July 5, 1982. Its debut coincided with a lunar eclipse, and despite science reporter Robert Bazell’s disappearance during the live broadcast (he went for some coffee), it was a success from the first night. It was probably the best-written, best-executed news program ever produced. It never talked down to its viewers because, from day one, it never assumed that the lowest common denominator was the way to go. Entirely the opposite, in fact. The writing was crisp, witty, and smart. Overnight closed its doors in the first week of December 1983, after NBC management dropped it because of low ratings.
The first co-anchors, co-writers, and co-editors for Overnight were Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns, who had, a few years previously, co-written and co-hosted Weekend, an offbeat weekly magazine for NBC.
This is how the first program opened:
Dobyns: “Tonight, to inaugurate our program, we bring you an eclipse of the moon. And what other program ever did that for you?”
Ellerbee: “And if you want more, there is more: more news, sports, more more news, the Not Ready for Prime Time News, plus dragon boats, crocodiles, spaceships, and one billion Chinese…more or less. Welcome…to Overnight.”
I was hooked immediately. As a matter of fact, I can trace my own interest in journalism directly to Overnight’s first week on the air.
After about six months of helping to shape Overnight, Dobyns left to do other work for NBC. (He developed and anchored Monitor, aka First Camera, during this period.) Bill Schechner ably took his place as co-anchor and co-writer until Overnight went off the air.
Overnight featured literary quotations, subtitled reports from overseas news programs for a new perspective, the best features (or sometimes just the silliest) from local affiliates, and a whole grab bag of things never before seen on national news programs. As Bill Schechner said on the final program, it proved that there is more than one way to deliver and to receive the news. Overnight must have been puzzling to some, though, because it had an unexpected mix of both seriousness about important issues and irreverence for nonsense. For instance, when NBC News released a fairly vapid brochure about Central America, Schechner spent his editorial time wisely. While holding up the brochure, he said this in the voice of a carnival huckster:
“It’s called ‘The NBC News Guide to Central America: Central America in Turmoil’! In these sixteen thrill-packed pages, all somebody thinks you need to know about those pesky southern countries that are making such big news.”
To illustrate Overnight’s content, here’s how a fairly typical program went. This one’s from late November 1983. Paragraphs indicate commercial breaks.
Title shots and theme
Shuttle Columbia launch
German television report on German scientist aboard Columbia (subtitled)
CBC report on British newspaper strike
WTCN Minneapolis report on large Midwestern snowstorm
National Weather Service’s long-range winter forecast
From a scientific conference: Carl Sagan’s 5-minute film on the newly-coined “nuclear winter”
Not Ready for Prime Time News: BBC report on a Spanish actor’s 3-day stay in a Barcelona zoo
Scores on a few slates
Doo-Dah Parade in Pasadena
Report: What ever happened to the Aquino assassination investigation and what kind of investigation was it?
Zeta and Bubba, the Jewish Santa Claus
WEAU Eau Claire report on Capitol lawn Christmas tree and the Civilian Conservation Corps men who cut it down (and originally planted its forest)
Multi-colored money in our future? (Well, no, as it turns out. More likely, Katherine Ortega floating a trial balloon.)
KNBC Los Angeles report: remotely operated toys help photographer with scared kids
Once Overnightly: headline review, several miscellaneous news items, and weather
On Sesame Street’s 15th anniversary, clips from German, Kuwaiti, Latin American, and Israeli versions of the show
Sesame Street teaches the beginnings of proper language, no matter what the language, and it uses riddles as one way to teach. Here’s a riddle: Where does the present include the past and future, the singular include the plural, and the masculine include the feminine? Answer: the state of California. For example, what follows are some rules of interpretations found in most of the California codes containing state statutes. These come from sections 11 through 13 of the Health and Safety Code. Quote: “The present tense includes the past and future tense, and the future the present. The masculine gender includes the feminine. The singular number includes the plural. The plural includes the singular.” Close quote. Mind you, this is supposed to make things more simple. For lawyers, one supposes, surely not for normal people. The state of California argues that without a rule on gender, for instance, a woman might insist a law referring to its subject as “he” applied only to men. A few codes do vary the format, at least one of them in a way that lets you know immediately who you are…sort of. Consider the Business and Profession Codes of the state of California, which take care of the tacky pronoun matter with this rule: “Each gender shall include the other two.” [Ellerbee mouths “Two?”] That’s what happens when lawyers get ahold of English…or sex. And so it goes.
As with any live broadcast, goofs occurred from time to time on the program. However, the anchors always made the best of it. They would chuckle instead of becoming mortified and simply corrected their mistakes, often injecting a bit of humor. Ellerbee once said this on the program after one such mistake:
“Live TV is a great time saver. It allows you to make a fool of yourself in front of large groups of people instead of one at a time.”
Shortly after Dobyns left, an NBC News executive suggested to Ellerbee that she take Dobyns’s seat now that she was the senior anchor. Ellerbee said she felt no need for that, but agreed to give it a try. Some nights later, she returned to her old spot. During that broadcast, she explained, after showing a tape of her position changes:
“Lately, you may have noticed a bit of Musical Chairs being played on this program. But in three nights, I have spilled three cups of coffee because the coffee was where it should be, but I was not. So I have moved back. And if the executives don’t like it, they may jolly well come and do the show and spill their own coffee.”
A year and a half after its birth, NBC decided to cancel Overnight in November 1983, due to low late night ratings — it aired from 1:30 AM to 2:30 AM — and corresponding lack of ad revenue. In the following days and weeks, thousands of viewers (ten thousand, to be exact) called and wrote letters or telegrams of protest to NBC management. Some even sent checks and cash to defray the costs of producing the program (all the money was returned).
NBC’s news release on the program’s cancellation said the program remained “the model of a one-hour news program,” but it was being canceled because “being the best is not enough” (NBC News President Reuven Frank). Today, more than a decade later and, I think, to their shame, no network has attempted to do such a program.
I was in Los Angeles on a business trip when I heard the news of the cancellation. Later that day, I sought out a Western Union office and sent a telegram to Grant Tinker, chairman of NBC. It’s the only time I’ve ever sent someone a telegram. Although I was sorely tempted to write “**** you. Strong letter to follow.” (with the asterisks), I did not. Instead, I believe I wrote something like this: “Strongly urge you reconsider cancellation of Overnight, the best news program ever.”
A small but pretty damned vexing thing came to light when Linda Ellerbee wrote her book, And So It Goes. It led me to believe that factors other than ratings may have contributed to Overnight‘s demise. Her chapter on the show was titled rather strangely. She closed it like this:
“Why did I call this chapter ‘Leave it to Beaver’? Because that’s what some of the men at NBC News called Overnight, the first network news program run by women.”
During the final few weeks of Overnight‘s tenure at NBC, some of the newswriters were invited to be the newsreaders for the stories they wrote, instead of being the usual “hazy background figures” often referred to on the program.
Just a week or so before the last story was filed on Overnight, editor Patrick Trese, who wrote the sports copy for the program, read one of his own stories. This one was about the coordinator of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. His closing comments follow. “Linda and Bill and Deborah” refers to Linda Ellerbee and Bill Schechner, co-anchors and principal writers, and Deborah Johnson, executive producer.
So, from time to time, hazy figures do emerge from the background. This month, thanks to Linda and Bill and Deborah, it was my turn. And, tonight, I suspect that it’s the last time any of us hazy figures gets to say anything in our own voices.
With Overnight about to close down and our futures uncertain, you might think that we had nothing to celebrate this Thanksgiving, but we did.
Around 6 PM, we shared a turkey dinner with all the fixings in our little office down the hall. Correspondent John Hart burnt a cork and gave everybody a moustache, and we laughed, and Linda read some of your letters out loud. We had a group picture taken on the set and then we all went to work on what we know and the critics tell us is just about the best news program ever.
Sad? Of course. Thankful? You bet. Because we have each other. The best in the business. And we got that way because the people who, now, must take us off the air gave us the chance to show what we hazy figures could do for you, and for ourselves. Most people never get that much, but we did, and we’re grateful tonight. And so it goes.
Good night from the mushiest newscast in the business. And there are six more.
Here is the final broadcast of Overnight. It aired the early morning of Saturday, 3 December 1983. Most of this is the digital copy I made from the videotape I recorded that night. The quality improves greatly after the first five minutes, which I got from another source – I missed the opening on the night. Hey, it’s even got commercials, including a seemingly 12-year-old Kevin Costner pretending to know how to use a shockingly clunky looking Apple computer.
A playlist of the entire last week plus extras is here.
On the final program, in the midst of the usual news stories, sports on a roll, one final pig feature (“on the theory that your body never outgrows its need for animal stories”), a very funny “best of” segment, and senior producer Cheryl Gould’s great set of footage with “Beyond the Blue Horizon” sung by Lou Christie underneath*, a few principals gave their commentaries.
*I had this listed as Mike Nesmith’s version for a number of years because Bill Schechner assured me that my original article’s reference to Lou Christie was incorrect, but even YouTube’s automated listing of copyrighted works contained in my Overnight uploads says it’s Lou Christie, so I’ve changed it back.
About halfway through the final program, Schechner introduced editor Pat Trese:
One of the job titles here is editor. It means writing and cutting pieces. Pat Trese’s got that job, or, that’s what they pay him for. And for the past seventeen months, part of the job has been writing and editing sports. We call it “sportstalk.” They are the only words that Linda and I speak that we don’t write ourselves. But Pat’s real job here is to be wise. Every newsroom needs such a person, but few are so lucky as we. Pat’s got some things to say about sports, so tonight, instead of a sports feature, we feature Pat.
It all began, as Ted Baxter once said, in a little 50,000 watt NBC radio station in Cleveland, Ohio. I turned twenty-one and got a job writing for the late Tom Manning, the dean of the nation’s sportscasters. Tom had started out announcing the starting lineups for the Indians at League Park with a megaphone. Later, he was second man to Graham McNamee for the first coast-to-coast radio broadcasts of the World Series and the Rose Bowl. That’s the man who taught me to write sportstalk, one of the very first in the business.
He taught me some other things about sports, too. That, despite what the modern sportstalkers tell you, winning isn’t everything. If Billy Martin’s job is up for grabs tonight, it’s because the Yankees finished third, not first, this year. And if amateur athletes are in trouble for using steroids, it’s because they’ve been told that there’s no other place but first place, and if you don’t win the gold medal, you’re nothing at all.
That was not the sportstalk message of the man who trained me, or of his contemporary and friend, Grantland Rice. And if their message seems corny in this age of superdomes and interminable playing seasons and million dollar deals and cocaine busts and labor-management disputes, it does not seem corny here, not tonight and not on this team. For when the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game. That was the message of Grantland Rice. And there is this to say about Overnight: It’s the only place I can recite those lines with a straight face.
Later, Schechner gave his final words:
Time for last words, for the last time. My turn first.
Two important things happened here. One, it seems clear that you there and we here broke the barrier of the medium that connects us. We involved each other in the ideas that were this program. We showed there is more than one way to send and receive the news. The experiment succeeded. Will the technique spread? Let us all hope.
Well, that’s business. Let’s talk about life. We were not afraid of each other’s successes in here. When one of us grew, it did not mean that another had to shrink. There was plenty of room. The producers, editors, researchers, technicians behind me and in a bunch of rooms on other floors and in other cities were the sinew of what went on here. It is on their wings that this show flew, and together we went higher than any one of us could have reached alone. And our work was multiplied by a lot of things: love, respect, wisecracks, irreverence, bad and good taste, and a fair share of wisdom.
It was a news show. It was a high time. It was one hell of a ride.
Ellerbee brought down the curtain this way:
Before we leave, thank you. Thank you for the more than ten thousand letters, telegrams, and calls. And for the toys, flowers, books, records, songs about Overnight, and the money, which we sent back. What you said we take with us.
I think that it is not as important that NBC took this program off the air as it is that NBC put this program on the air. That was something. We go smiling.
The final quote is from Mark Twain, discussing the young missionary who went out among the cannibals. Said Twain: “They listened with the greatest of interest to everything he had to say. And then they ate him.” This is the three hundred sixty-seventh edition of Overnight. There are no more.
And so it goes.
During the final credits, after “It Was Just One of Those Things” finished, the final verse of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” was heard, sung by the cast of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. MTM‘s last episode featured the cancellation of the news program. Grant Tinker, at one time Moore’s husband, was the chairman of NBC when Overnight was cancelled.
Just before fade to black, they showed a close-up of several of the toys viewers had sent in during the final days. (Linda Ellerbee always had a small duck on her desk, hence the deluge of animals and wind-up robots and such, and hence her present company’s name: Lucky Duck Productions.) Smack dab in the middle, to my surprise, was a walking 6″ tall wind-up signboard man quite familiar to me:
It wasn’t a huge surprise, though. Earlier in the last week, on the night they received my package, they put the signboard man at the front of the anchor desk, next to Ellerbee’s lucky duck, and it changed positions a few times during commercial breaks:
I don’t think I could have asked for a nicer “thank you.” Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and also to the fact that I’m a lazy bum and never purge old word processing documents, I can now reveal to you what the signs on the front and back of the little guy said:
WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO
Linda Ellerbee Bill Schechner
OVERNIGHT, Lloyd Dobyns
BRAVO! Deborah Johnson Cheryl Gould
Gerald Polikoff Marvin Einhorn
Peter Basil Russ Ross
David Levens Truus Bos
Cathy Porter Darrell Strong
ENCORE, Philip Wasserman Daniel Webster
Patrick Trese Dave Berg
ENCORE! Katherine Field Cynthia Brush
Kimberly McCarthy Debra Pettit
Roberto Soto Avrom Zaritsky
Neal Baker Ellen Harris
Hope Chodosh Patricia Lewis
Piera DiMichelle Jered Dawaliby
Joyce Hurley David Herz
Frank O'Shea Vance Babb
- et al -
Overnight‘s final broadcast was in the early morning hours of Saturday, December 3, 1983. Thus, for this constant viewer, began a very long winter of broadcast news discontent.
In 1984, Overnight was posthumously honored with an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award for excellence in journalism. The jury said it was “conceivably the best-written and most intelligent television news anywhere.” This is the clip that was shown during the award ceremony:
“We tried to do the news without frills, without fluffy hairdos, without graphics. It does say something about our business that is not very pretty. It didn’t matter how good the show was. What counted was money.”
– Linda Ellerbee
Here’s the entire crew of Overnight, in the order they were presented in the final show’s closing credits (left to right, top to bottom of each set).
TOP Security: Reginald Lewis, Stan Kagmarski, Jr.; Makeup: Candy Carell, Deborah Harrin; Stage Hands: John Harty, John Trautwein, Jack Wilner
MIDDLE Broadcast Operations: Tony Ramos; Teleprompter: Dave Auerbach; Electronic Maintenance: Mike Girardo
BOTTOM Audio Assistant: Lynne Hendel; Transmission: Leroy Brown; Studio Supervisor: George Mendez
TOP Camera: Bob Zweck, Nestor Torres; Lighting: Rick McGuinness; Library Researcher: Robert Meyer
MIDDLE Electronic Graphics: Susan Connal; Videotape Operators: Ivan Kleiman, Steven Johnson; Graphics: Burtis Scott, Kathryn Miles
BOTTOM EJ Maintenance: Sal Grasso; Tape Librarians: Ralph Rangel, Tony Gugino; Burbank Control: Jay Roper, Director
TOP Washington Control: Bill Kreps, Director; Tape Editors – Washington: Connie Gochis, Rich Clark; Tape Editors: Vince Sarubbi, Lonnie Tabman
MIDDLE Tape Editors: Sonny Hansen, Phyllis Famiglietti, George White, Vinnie Novak, Mike Kaas, Ilene Schneider
BOTTOM Tape Editors: Cara DeVito, Jim Byrne; Tape Supervisors: Lou Giachetto, George Bushell; Video: Carl M. Henry III
TOP Stage Manager: David Herz; Audio: David J. Levens; Associate Director: Bern Meyer
MIDDLE Directors: Marvin Einhorn, Gerald Polikoff; Researcher: Patricia Lewis; Technical Director: Peter Basil
BOTTOM Desk Assistant: Hope L. Chodosh; Production Associate: Ellen Harris; Production Staff: Jered Dawaliby
TOP Production Staff: Claudia Pascarelli, Peira DeMichele; Newsreel: Robert Soto (Newswriter), Ralph Martucci (Editor); The Week in Review: Bruce Burger (Editor), Kim McCarthy (Newswriter)
MIDDLE Unit Manager: Vance Babb; News & Feature Assistant: Neal Baker; Production Manager: Frank O’Shea
BOTTOM Technical Manager: Frank Garofalo; Newswriter – Burbank: Dave Berg; Newswriter – Washington: Debra Pettit
NOT PICTURED Production Secretary: Cheryl Funaro
TOP Newswriters: Cynthia Brush, Avrom Zaritsky, Katharine Field
MIDDLE Editor: Patrick Trese; Producer – Burbank: Daniel Webster; Producer – London: Truus Bos
BOTTOM Producer – Chicago: Darrel Strong; Producer: Philip Wasserman; Producer – Washington: Cathy Porter
TOP Principal Writers: Linda Ellerbee, Bill Schechner; With Special Thanks To: Herb Dudnick; General Editor: Linda Ellerbee
MIDDLE Senior Producer: Cheryl Gould; Executive Producer: Deborah B. Johnson
BOTTOM Locations: Archie P. Lago (with viewer toys); anchor desk; Ellerbee’s lucky duck
(It occurs to me that “Locations: Archie P. Lago” has got to be last pun perpetrated by the writers.)
As I review this appreciation while updating it in early 1997, some months after the rescue of Mystery Science Theater 3000 – due in no small part to a very organized effort by thousands of people who liked the show – I have to wonder if Overnight might have survived if the Internet were as ubiquitous in 1983 as it is now. Just think of the increase in support and press the show could have and almost certainly would have received. Ah, well…c’est la mort.
Once every year or two, I review my tapes of the final week of Overnight, marvel at its style and substance once again, and am not surprised in the slightest that I miss it just as much as the first week it was off the air. The news, of course, is old, but the energy and intelligence that was Overnight shines through brightly.
Second postscript, April 1998:
Good golly. Something I never expected has happened: All of the principals of Overnight have now seen this appreciation. In the space of about ten days, I’ve heard from anchors Linda Ellerbee, Lloyd Dobyns, and Bill Schechner, as well as Herb Dudnick, inventor of the insides of Overnight. Linda visited this page first and advised the rest of the folks by e-mail. They all wrote to me and had the most magnanimous comments. They all made me feel rather proud of my small effort. I’m quite glad that the inventors of Overnight now know that their efforts of fifteen years ago [thirty-three years ago as of this 2016 update] are remembered and appreciated, and, what’s more, they’re still having a positive effect out here.
Garry Shandling invented what I believe will always remain the best sitcom ever, “The Larry Sanders Show,” for which I’ve been grateful for almost twenty-five years. He died this week, as did my boss of many years, five or six bosses ago.
Shandling was the guest on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” just several weeks ago, and was hilarious as usual. His appearance on Marc Maron’s “WTF” in 2011 is here, out from behind the paywall in tribute.
It’s been a sad week, so my antidote of choice is to watch some of Garry’s shows.
I can feel it working.
Nice guys finish first. If you don’t know that, then you don’t know where the finish line is.
Slate has handily identified all the people in last week’s Colbert Report finale. Me, I was waiting with bated breath for Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and George Scott to show up, mebbe a nuclear explosion or six. But no, it was in no way a nod to another brilliant satire, fifty years old this year, that in its finale used the same theme of immortality for the elite and the same song. It had to be all about Stephen. T’huh. Typical.
“There would be no shocking memories, and the prevailing emotion will be one of nostalgia for those left behind, combined with a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead!”
The only thing I don’t like about the web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is that I’ve never heard Seinfeld mention Robert Llewellyn’s Carpool once. It’s not just that he doesn’t mention it, it’s that when I’ve seen him interviewed about CiCGC, he accepts compliments on his great idea for a show in a manner that at the least heavily implies that it was his idea. A simple one-time, ten-second nod to the UK show that predated his by more than three years would do.
Anyway, this week’s episode features the delightful Amy Schumer. The show usually features some good coffee shots, so here’s one of mine: