People of the Year Extended: Keith Olbermann
Keith Olbermann has long been a reliable ally of LGBT people, but the host of MSNBC’s Countdown became a full-fledged hero with his November 10 Special Comment passionately denouncing California voters’ passage of Prop. 8. Olbermann sat down for an extended interview with The Advocate to talk about his commitment to equal rights, working with Rachel Maddow, and that impersonation by Ben Affleck.
By Trudy Ring
An Advocate.com exclusive posted December 5, 2008
Keith Olbermann has long been a reliable ally of LGBT people, but the host of MSNBC’s Countdown became a full-fledged hero with his November 10 Special Comment passionately denouncing California voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to eliminate same-sex marriage rights. “This vote is horrible,” he said. He told Prop. 8 proponents that gay couples simply “want what you want -- a chance to be a little less alone in the world” and asked them, “What if somebody passed a law that said you couldn’t marry?”
The commentary made Olbermann one of The Advocate’s People of the Year for 2008. Here, Olbermann -- who also cohosts Football Night in America, the pregame show for NBC’s Sunday Night Football -- discusses the motivation for the comment, the possibility of a major team-sport athlete coming out, his role in Rachel Maddow's career, life after Bush, and that impersonation by Ben Affleck.
Advocate.com: You have been a great ally to gay people for a long time, but people feel you really hit it out of the park with your Special Comment about California’s Proposition 8. Where did your passion about this issue come from?
Keith Olbermann: Well, that’s like saying where does the intention to breathe come from. What happened in California does not make any sense on any level. That people would so misunderstand their obligations to each other... it’s hurtful, wasteful, stupid, and hypocritical. This is like saying one group of people is not allowed to buy batteries. Why not? It’s not like there’s going to be a battery shortage. If you substitute in this entire equation the phrase alkaline battery for marriage, you can reduce it to the absurdity that it is.
Why do you think that some people don’t feel as you do on this issue?
It’s probably the standard, the exposure concept -- you take a member of group A looking at a member of group B. If he doesn’t actually know anybody in group B, the likelihood that he’s prejudiced against him or suspicious of him is statistically something like 90%. As soon as he personally knows somebody from group B, his odds of being prejudiced against that group drop to 10%. It’s as simple as that.
You said that you were hard-pressed to name even an extended family member who is gay or a close friend who had suffered antigay discrimination, but you obviously know several gay people, some of whom have appeared on your show --
One of whom has a show after mine.
Yes, Rachel Maddow -- so for you, it has been exposure and getting to know people.
I’m trying to think if there was ever anything in my upbringing at which I had to say, “No, that’s not true, gay people are fine too.” I don’t remember ever having to make that decision. It did take me a while to remember there is at least one gay member of my family. But, as important as it is to your community, the premise is not gay versus straight. It goes back to the idea of prejudice.
My family name is German. We are German Lutherans; however, because of the similarity of that name to a lot of Jewish names … My father told me this story when I was a kid. He’s an architect, and early in his career, the people at a major department store wanted to hire a full-time in-house architect. They interviewed him, and he came home and said, “You wouldn’t believe this. After the first couple questions, they gradually started asking questions that were hints -- like questions about what did I like to do on Saturday.” He said they were getting around to the point, without actually asking it, because it was already illegal to do this in a job interview, of whether or not he was Jewish. Finally he said, “I know what you’re getting at, because the last three or four questions have been obliquely about my religion. I’ve got to tell you something: I’m not Jewish. In fact, I’m not very religious at all. And in fact, I would never work for” -- fill in a serious string of colorful expletives -- “blank-a-blank-a-blank-a-blankers to whom it makes a goddamn difference.” And he got up and left. That makes an impression on a kid in a very good way because you understand the material things that have to be given up sometimes.
In the early ’80s I went out on a date with a great girl, and she happened to be African-American. We went to a restaurant I’d been to a thousand times. It was almost empty, and they took us over to one corner. I noticed another couple being seated about two tables away from us, which was really strange, because it was basically one couple for every 30 tables. This was a black guy with a white girl. I thought, Why did they seat them over here? I guess the waiter over here has more time on their hands than the waiter over there. About 15 minutes after that, in comes another white guy with a black girl, and I turned to my date and said, “Seriously, is it like this?” She said, “Every damn day.” I got it before, intellectually, and just saw enough of it to understand in a different way, viscerally.
So it applies to all people who are subject to prejudice. I am an honorary member of every minority group because I got the tour, and it is something that everybody in this country should go through. Just that moment, nine out of 10 prejudices would evaporate.
We have not seen a major team-sport athlete come out as gay, at least not before retiring. Is the homophobic atmosphere in sports lessening? Can we expect in the near future to see anyone unafraid to be openly gay, say, in Major League Baseball, in the NFL?
I’ve talked of this with some of the more enlightened and intelligent athletes of my acquaintance and come up with this conclusion. A friend of mine said, “When you're on a team of athletes, it’s kind of like a war without actual bullets; you get that close to the people you work with. There are all sorts of really important human emotions going on, and it’s all men. We come from this testosterone-filled, amped-up atmosphere of clanging helmets and running into people and knocking them down, and a guy gets traded and you want to start crying and you give him a big hug. There’s nothing that’s going to confuse athletes faster than nonerotic emotion toward members of the same gender.” They have been raised in an environment in which affection has to be physical, ’cause everything’s physical -- it’s a sport, it’s running into a wall -- so if they feel affection toward another guy on their team, they go right to a big macho announcement that they’re not gay. A guy like me will then say, “Nobody asked if this was gay; we’re just saying, ‘How do you feel about your best friend being traded?’”
There’s such an overreaction to this that I think the sports world is probably going to be the last cultural thing in America that admits anything. I say, “You’ve probably collected a baseball card of at least a couple of gay all-stars.” In sports the reaction to that is “No, it can’t possibly be true,” because that would also mean guys that might have been raised in an environment of prejudice discover they could have nonphysical affection with a guy who turned out to be gay. That’s way too much for the average athlete to understand. So it’ll be a while, I think. Someday some prominent athlete is just going to casually mention it and then the edifice will come tumbling down. But in the interim, it’s “Nope! Never. 0%!”
Back to someone who is openly gay and quite successful, Rachel Maddow --
Believe it or not! She had appeared on your show several times before getting her own show; do you feel you helped launch her?
There’s a practical answer to that -- I taught her how to use a TelePrompTer. Her big lack of confidence was, “I don’t know how to use a TelePrompTer.” I said, “Let me clue you in. The entire, four-year program we can do in seven minutes. And we’ll have lunch, and then we’ll go back and get your master’s in another three minutes. It’s not very complicated.” She, of course, being who she is, came in and practiced for 20 minutes at a time. She said, “Am I any good at this?” I said, “By this point, no one will know you’re reading a TelePrompTer.”
As to getting the show, the only thing I did that other people didn’t was, having done television shows and been the centerpiece of many of them, occasionally somebody else’s personality traits are so obvious that you can say, “That person can successfully carry the weight of a show on their own shoulders.” Other people here, long before me, said, “Rachel Maddow is great on television, a great guest, and a great analyst,” and I said, “I think she’s a host.” I think I was the first person that noticed that, and I did talk to people in management about her and say, “Host!” Finally, they said, “Well, if you’re willing to try her out on your show,” and I said, “In a minute.” She started guest-hosting, and although she didn’t fully know it at the time, that was basically an audition. The rest was what we expected, and even more delightfully, faster than we expected -- with negligible resistance or even acknowledgment that there’s anything special in her orientation.
It’s maybe the first postmodern story about this in media. Like, OK, “Big news! Lesbian to host news show!” And then it’s like, “Oh, OK.” There really wasn’t any story there, was there? She’s doing really well, and people like her, and people watch the show, so that’s all there is to that, isn’t there? It goes back to that theory of, if you know somebody of a particular group, it doesn’t make any difference anymore. I don’t think Rachel will ever position herself as any kind of flag-waver, but in a subtle, just by being there kind of way, she becomes for many people the person in that group they didn’t know before.
What do you see is your role as a broadcaster?
Do the best job you can seeing the truth and then do the best job you can telling the truth. Risk whatever you have to risk, because ultimately it’s probably not going to be as much as you think it is. Even if it is, at least you will have collapsed, been fired, shot at, or whatever for good reason rather than something stupid or self-serving. I suppose there was some risk in [the Prop. 8 commentary] -- the only risk I felt was, 'I’m not sure if I can read this aloud without getting too choked up to be understood.' I suppose there was some risk to it still, but it’s always worth the risk. Take the chance, because people are willing to speak up in support after you've made your stand. Because I had said that I didn’t have anybody truly in my life who’d been affected by this in any direct way, Ellen DeGeneres called me and said, “I wanted to make sure that you knew somebody who was personally affected by it.” She was very nice.
Many of your Special Comments have been aimed at the Bush administration. With George W. Bush leaving office, any worries about a shortage of material?
Does Prop. 8 give you an answer to that question? [There will be commentary material] possibly on the Prop. 8’s to come. And covering this landmark [Barack Obama] administration and holding them accountable to their promises is going to be interesting.
I’ll close on a frivolous note. What did you think of Ben Affleck’s impersonation of you on Saturday Night Live?
I’ve never had anybody do a successful impersonation, so this by default is number 1. This is kind of my red badge of courage. Sunday Night Football and Saturday Night Live share a studio, and awaiting me was one of the cue cards [signed by Affleck], saying, one, “I didn’t write it” and two, “I did the best I could.” I was delighted.