Shut the F*** Up! The Second-Most-Powerful Man in America is Talking
After nine years at Channel 4, I left Boston in 1989 to take a job hosting Over the Edge, a reality magazine show on ABC. But we got canned just a month later when the new ABC president decided there was no future for reality programming. (Ha!) From there, I spent about six months at Fox’s Beyond Tomorrow before it got canceled to make room for some crazy experiment Fox wanted to try called The Simpsons. With a mortgage and two small kids who kept wanting to eat food, I was feeling as unloved and desperate a TV weasel as you will ever find. Fortunately, the phone rang. It was Hard Copy calling.
In case your memory of the late ’80s and early ’90s is hazy, Hard Copy was a syndicated half-hour tabloid news program that brought you everything you secretly wanted to know about the latest bloody evidence in the O. J. Simpson case, the newest child-molestation charges against Michael Jackson, the secret Gennifer Flowers phone tapes with Bill Clinton, and the hidden-camera video of Amy Fisher. We were like a cross between TMZ and CSI, combining celebrities, gauzy dramatizations, and crime stories. And we specialized in pissing off famous people. Howard Stern, for example, threatened to walk off the set of his own movie, Private Parts, if Hard Copy went forward with a story. George Clooney boycotted our sister show, Entertainment Tonight, until Hard Copy agreed to stop covering his private life. Getting the very famous riled up like that tends to give you a vague sense of power. It is surprising, actually, how easy it is to confuse being able to annoy powerful people with being powerful yourself.
And for a brief time, I became famous, too. B-list or C-list for sure, but famous enough to get invited to “celebrity” charity events, poker games with the likes of Sid Caesar, and a driving stint in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race. Being famous means you have people fussing over you all the time. They tell you how great you look or how great your show is. You have a “clothing allowance,” travel in limos, and stay in suites. You fly first class or on corporate jets, where you eat shrimp and sip champagne. Women who are much better looking than you are surprisingly nice to you at parties. People send you drinks, buy you dinners, and even offer you cars. You hobnob with other famous people, pose for pictures with strangers, and sign autographs for kids. And this is easily taken to mean, “I am somebody.”
Trust me: It goes to your head. My contract required that all travel had to be first class and hotel accommodations had to be suites. I remember being on some assignment out of town and walking into my hotel room and thinking: “Well, yeah it’s a suite, but it’s not a very big suite.” I got into an argument once with the production manager because he wanted me to take a taxi from the airport instead of a limo. And even though Hard Copy regularly covered celebrity divorces in great gory detail, I got quite miffed when Matt Siegel of Matty in the Morning mentioned my own split on Kiss 108. He was just trying to be funny. How dare he!
O’Reilly’s career, meanwhile, was following a similar arc to mine: After leaving Channel 5, he landed a gig in New York hosting Inside Edition, a syndicated show that featured tabloid crime stories and celebrity gossip. Reporters at Hard Copy often competed against his reporters for the best “gets” of the scandal du jour. And I don’t mind telling you that Inside Edition used to work in Hard Copy’s shadow. It also produced the single most popular YouTube clip of O’Reilly.
Sign-offs are the silly one-liners that appear at the end of a show to transition to the credits and the next program. I’ve taped thousands, and have watched others do it live, in the bitter cold or blistering heat, and at the scenes of disasters. It’s not that hard. But for some reason, on a particular day of taping Inside Edition, O’Reilly was having a really difficult time with a sign-off that went, “Here is Sting, to play us out.” What could that possibly mean? he kept demanding to know. Unable to get a satisfactory answer, he had a complete meltdown. After a few failed attempts at the sign-off, he became apoplectic and screamed at the stage manager, “Fuck it! We’ll do it live!”
One of the reasons the clip is so popular is that it came to light years after O’Reilly had hit it big on Fox. Seen today, it resonates as a kind of flashback — a rewind that offers us a brilliant prediction of the venomous, furious character who would eventually become so familiar. Back then, he had a full head of hair and fewer wrinkles, but it’s the same O’Reilly. The video also confirms what we’ve always suspected the guy was like off camera. The only reason any of us ever got to see the clip is that O’Reilly forgot one of the most important things all TV stars know: Always, always, always be nice to the technicians. Especially the ones who can make copies of tapes.