With only two days to go, I can finally see the light at the end of the press-tour tunnel. CBS concluded its TCA stint Monday with a panel for Jason Alexander's new sitcom, Listen Up, and a Q&A with four of the original writers from the soon-to-depart Everybody Loves Raymond. There was also a session with Dr. Phil for his upcoming prime-time special, but, well, let's just say I had to miss that due to a "dental emergency."
BREAKFAST WITH PAT O'BRIEN
9:03 am Dang it. The gift shop at the St. Regis is out of Balance bars and I'm really hungry. I bet the Century Plaza next door will have some.
9:06 As I approach the hotel's front entrance, I spot former Access Hollywood anchor Pat O'Brien sitting all alone behind a fold-up table. Is he registering people to vote? Is he selling lemonade? What in God's name is he doing!?!?
9:06:30 Oh, wait: He's here to promote his upcoming Entertainment Tonight spin-off, The Insider. Maybe he's out here waiting for Mary Hart to show up.
9:08 Scoop! The Century Plaza gift shop has Balance bars!
9:10 With breakfast in hand, I exit the hotel and O'Brien is, well, right where I left him. Only now he's talking on his cell phone while immersed in today's New York Post. And I mean immersed.
9:10:30 "Here's something for you... ," he whispers into his cell-phone headset. I can't make out the rest of his conversation, but it has something to do with the lead story in the Post's TV column. Did they get a hold of his good-bye e-mail to Billy Bush? Note to self: Pick up a copy of the Post and find out what has O'Brien so riveted.
THE EARLY SHOW
9:45 All four of the show's anchors — Harry Smith, Hannah Storm, Julie Chen and Rene Syler — are about to walk out on stage for a Q&A. At least I think they are. It's tough to see inside the ballroom from my treadmill at the hotel gym.
10:45 While we're waiting for Pat O'Brien and exec producer Linda Bell Blue to arrive, let me take a moment to give you the lowdown on The Insider. From what I understand, it's Entertainment Tonight for people with attention spans. Yeah, good luck with that.
10:55 Blue announces that The Insider (debuting Sept. 13) will be packaged with ET in many key markets, thus creating "an hour of power." Rumor has it test audiences rejected the original slogan: "A half-hour of teasers followed by 20 minutes of commercials and 10 minutes of actual content."
10:58 O'Brien wastes no time addressing his nasty divorce from Access Hollywood. "You may have noticed my entourage walking in," he says. "The good news is, I have one. The bad news is, most of them are lawyers."
11:02 O'Brien goes on to say that his rift with NBC and Access is further complicated by the fact that he's slated to host "170 hours of the Olympics" for the Peacock next month. "It was always strange to me that on one side they were patting me on the back, and the other side they were slapping a lawsuit against me. And it was hurtful because those are my friends over at NBC."
11:05 O'Brien insists he left Access for no other reason than his "contract was up." He then makes a point of saying, "I was not replaced by Billy Bush. I was out the door before [he got the gig]."
11:15 A fellow reporter leans over and whispers to me, "Pat's face is very red."
11:15:30 He's right. It is red.
11:24 Someone (not me) finally gets up the nerve to ask O'Brien about the scathing e-mail he sent to Access correspondent Shaun Robinson prior to his exit. (Sample excerpt, courtesy of the New York Post: "I have never known anybody so disliked in a newsroom and it's well deserved... You have the worst reputation I've ever seen in the business. You'll be back in local news before you know it... with no wardrobe people to yell at every day.")
11:24:30 "I regretted it," he now says. "I taught this country a great, great lesson: think before you push send." At the very least, have the common decency to blind-copy the New York Post.
12:56 pm Mmmmmm... Grilled salmon.
2:03 I take a seat at an empty table in the ballroom and notice a napkin with something scribbled on it. A reporter must have used it to take notes during the Early Show session this morning. "Did they fire Martha Stewart?" the message reads. Ooooh, I know the answer to this: Yes — yes they did! Am I too late?
2:09 So, what's Listen Up, you ask? It's a comedy that stars Seinfeld's Jason Alexander as a family man who works as a sports-obsessed TV personality/newspaper columnist. It's based on the writings of real-life sports commentator/columnist Tony Kornheiser. The Cosby Show's Malcolm-Jamal Warner co-stars as Alexander's sparring partner on the sitcom's faux sports show, Shut Up and Listen. And I'm pleased to report that Listen Up is slightly better than CBS's other new comedy, Center of the Universe. While that show was unwatchable, this one is merely bad.
2:12 Kornheiser, beamed in via satellite from Washington, D.C., confesses "it's pretty damn cool" that CBS turned his newspaper columns into a sitcom. "I'm flattered beyond belief that they put this on TV."
2:14 "One of the lessons I learned from Bob Paterson is I don't know that much," says Alexander of his previous stab at post-Seinfeld success.
2:20 Exec producer Lindy DeKoven insists that Listen Up's faux sports-show-within-a-show, Shut Up and Listen, is "not based on" Kornheiser's popular cable program, Pardon the Interruption. The fact that they're identical is just a coincidence.
2:34 Laugh of the day alert: "Soccer blows," Kornheiser groans. "It's a completely meaningless game that no one watches." Hey, this guy's funny. Note to self: Find out when Pardon the Interruption is on.
2:35 Can Alexander overcome the dreaded Seinfeld curse with Listen Up? "Seinfeld wasn't a TV show; it was a phenomenon," he says. "I don't know how any of us could live up to that. We'll always suffer from that potential comparison." Hey, this guy's insightful. Note to self: Find out when Pardon the Interruption is on.
EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND
3:03 Exec producer Phil Rosenthal, seated alongside veteran Raymond scribes Tucker Cawley, Steve Skrovan and Jeremy Stevens, begins by thanking critics for supporting the show early on. "You kept us alive," he says.
3:05 Might Rosenthal agree to one more season beyond this one? "It is over," he insists. I'll take that as a no.
3:07 One of the sticking points in the Raymond renewal negotiations was Rosenthal's request that the crew "get paid for a full season, and CBS graciously agreed."
3:08 Regarding the hoopla surrounding the final season, Rosenthal deadpans, "CBS assured me that they were going to eventize it." I knew that word would catch on!
3:10 Rosenthal confirms what I've been saying for weeks: "It's the end of sitcoms and comedy everywhere. I don't see anymore laughing." Good, maybe they'll believe him.
3:12 Scoop! The first-season Raymond DVD drops Sept. 12. What's more, it'll coincide with the release of Everybody Loves Raymond: Our Family Album, a picture book that Rosenthal says will give fans an "unprecedented backstage look at the show."
3:16 Rosenthal refuses to reveal his pick for the worst series finale in sitcom history. My choice? The Center of the Universe pilot.
3:18 The word "eventize" is once again used in a sentence. Paging Merriam-Webster...
3:20 "We haven't even discussed it," Rosenthal says of a possible Raymond spin-off starring Brad Garrett.
3:21 Scoop! Like Friends, Raymond's final episode will tape in late January and air in May.
3:23 A reporter goes ahead and asks the "state of the sitcom" question again. I give up.
3:31 When asked what message he has for fans bummed that Raymond will only produce 16 original episodes this season, Rosenthal says: "Read a book!" Nah.
3:46 The session comes to a close, and the CBS publicist reminds us that the "Dr. Phil Q&A is coming up next."
3:46:30 Ouch, my tooth!
8:30 I finally found a copy of Monday's New York Post and it had the most interesting article in the TV section. It's basically Good Morning America's Lara Spencer raving about her new Insider sidekick, Pat O'Brien. Sample excerpt: "I've known Pat forever and adore him, and, in my opinion, he's the best interviewer in the business." I wonder if he's seen it?
Coming up tomorrow: UPN