When I saw an ad for a debate between Bill Maher and Ann Coulter a few weeks back, I was fascinated by the idea of these two rabid ideologues rending each other from limb to limb onstage at Radio City Music Hall, then putting themselves back together to take the show on the road to similarly grand venues in Boston and Chicago. I mean, both of those blowhards know how to throw a verbal punch, right?
Imagine my disappointment to read a report in the next day’s New York Times that apparently, they get along just fine. Even like each other. And yet they had sold out Radio City for a debate? What the hell was going on here?
So on Tuesday night, I decided to check out the second installment of the cleverly named Speaker Series 2009, which featured panelists Arianna Huffington, Mike Huckabee (remember him?), and D.L. Hughley, moderated by Anderson Cooper. The series continues through May with Al Gore talking about the weather and for the grand finale, Charlie Rose mediating James Carville and Karl Rove.
Now I know BizBash is not where you go for your political fix, but I thought if this is some new trend, then I might at least take a look at the production qualities of these events. Staging speaker panels like these requires more know-how than you might think: The lighting and sound have to be perfect, the way the tables and chairs are laid out matters, and of course, the now ubiquitous giant screens have to be positioned just so.
The second annual series is produced by Madison Square Garden, and was conceived to capitalize (these are for-profit events) on the unprecedented interest in last year’s presidential campaign. Sensing a new market, organizers pressed on with a second season, evidently with success.
For Arianna and friends, Radio City seemed 90 percent full, certainly a respectable turnout. The huge proscenium of Radio City, home of the Rockettes, looked daunting for just four people, but the lighting was subtle, so the speaker area glowed without standing out like a sore thumb. The giant screens were mounted on the sides of the stage, a little farther from the action than I would have liked. Instead of taking in the stage and projection together, you did the tennis match eyeball thing. Left. Center stage. Right. Center stage. Still, so far so good.
In addition to the seating area, there was a podium where some guy stood to get the party started, right? He was not famous, nor funny as it turned out, but neither prevented him from launching in to a Jay Leno–like monologue of current event jokes. Uh oh. Finally, Anderson Cooper was introduced to a rousing cry from the ladies in the house (or a bunch of high-pitched men, which would make more sense, no?). Basking glorious, Anderson went into his own monologue, something about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, going to the movies there at the hall when she was young. Oh, Jeez. What have I gotten myself into?
After introducing his guests, Anderson left the podium and joined the rest of the group at the table, a bit of staging that seemed unnecessary. But at last the show was on the road. Or was it? Arianna’s mic wasn’t working, but it was just a blip.
I looked at my watch: three minutes had gone by.
Now, please know that I love Arianna Huffington. She fascinates me. Remember when she was a Republican trying to push her gay husband as senator? Or when she showed up at Arnold Schwarzenegger's California gubernatorial announcement, attaching herself surgically to his side? The saying seems to apply: If you want a broken leg, just try getting between Ms. Huffington and a camera crew.
But for some reason, she hung back this night, maybe because of her faulty mic. Instead, we heard the ridiculously simplistic and jingoistic stylings of Mike “I lost 100 pounds” Huckabee. “It’s patriotic to support the president,” got applause. He’s anti-TARP, of course. Then D.L. Hughley jumped in with the “You Republicans all have amnesia from the last eight years.” Again, a big crowd pleaser. Didn’t his show just get canceled? Why was he even there?
I started to wonder, who were these people who paid between $49.50 and $179.50 to come here? These famous mouths fed you the same pablum you can get for free on MSNBC any night of the week. Actually, the level of discourse is much better on MSNBC. But these folks were laughing and clapping and just lapping it all up. Are these the people without cable? Is this who they keep pushing the digital deadline back for?
After 80 minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore and made my exit. I missed what I’m sure was a scintillating Q&A session. But as I left, I noticed other disgruntled viewers like myself cooling their heels in the lobby, making cell phone calls and drinking. (Now there’s an idea I didn’t think of.) I heard one husband say into his handset, “Well, it’s better than her making me go to the ballet.” But was it?