Bull Durham's Curve Ball


Tim Robbins handed me his speech. “Tell me what you think,” he said. And there I was, thrust into a difficult position at the very last minute.

We were backstage in the green room at the NAB conference, where Robbins was scheduled to give the opening keynote address, after which we were supposed to do a Q&A, with me as moderator. But Robbins had been asked by the NAB not to deliver the speech he'd written. Not ordered. Just strongly advised, with the idea that giving a speech so preachy might be a mistake.

Fresh off one final, apparently unsuccessful appeal to his NAB hosts to read his speech, Robbins stewed in the green room. At this point, we'd been close friends for, oh, about three minutes, having just been introduced. But with the potential audience for his written address down to one, he handed it to me for my opinion. Twenty-four pages. One hour to go before we were to take the stage.

If I didn't like the speech, it likely would have made for a prickly Q&A. But that problem quickly led to another: I didn't just like it, I loved it. Even on the printed page, there were lots of jokes that made me laugh out loud, lots of insights and observations that made me think Robbins could do excellent double duty as a TV critic, and, at the end, a plea for broadcasters to elevate the medium that seemed to me not only justifiable, but important.

In my decades as a television critic, I've seen enough bottoms of enough TV barrels, and watched enough promising new delivery systems compete to pander to the lowest and most popular common denominator, to know Robbins was speaking truth to power. When he writes, with as much sarcasm as he can muster, “Show me Knight Rider drunk on the floor eating a hamburger, and I won't ask why my kid has no health insurance,'' he's venting understandable outrage about a medium gone amok. And when, with no less sarcasm, he complains about media monopolies being threatened (“Just when we were getting close to a national playlist for our music, satellite technology is threatening to provide music that people actually want to hear”), he's taking a clear shot at Clear Channel—and hitting a bull's-eye.

I told him what I thought. Robbins didn't want to be an ungrateful or uncooperative NAB guest, and neither did I. We discussed options, I told him I'd do whatever he wanted, and he decided we'd do a Q&A for the entire time, but that he wanted to open by saying something about the speech he had written but didn't plan to read. Which is exactly what happened—up to a point.

“I have read this speech,” I said, and I urged them to seek it out wherever it ultimately was printed or posted. I likened it to Edward R. Murrow's 1958 “wires and lights in a box” speech and Newton Minow's 1961 “vast wasteland” speech, and said, “Here was somebody who, with a lot of good jokes thrown in, was saying something fairly important to exactly the right, important audience.”

I then, planning to slip right into my first prepared question, noted that Robbins, not too many years ago, had gotten in lots of trouble for saying something controversial by speaking out against the war. Many in the audience applauded, and that's when someone in the crowd yelled, “Speech!”

“Y'know, I'll do it!” Robbins said, almost threateningly. More shouts of “Free speech!” followed, and Tim Robbins looked at me.

This was way beyond my no-pay grade, but what was I going to do? Personally and critically, I thought the speech was a home run, and potentially a historic address, but I had no idea how it would play. I also knew the NAB folks were concerned about that—but with the crowd itself calling for the speech, there seemed no other option. Besides, what do you expect when you hire Tim Robbins? Hula-hoop tricks from The Hudsucker Proxy?

“I just want to say,” I said, pointing out one last consideration to the crowd, “that if I allow this, it's really reducing my role as moderator.” The crowd laughed at me—but I didn't take it personally.

Robbins took the podium—literally, by lifting it and moving it where he wanted it—and took the 24 pages from his jacket pocket. “Hello, I'm Tim Robbins,” he began defiantly.

The rest, I'm a little proud to say, is history. Or will be, if this NAB address ends up having the legs I suspect it deserves. Oh, and one last critical comment, from my center-stage perspective: Even if some at the NAB wanted to kill Robbins, Robbins killed.

Ben Grossman's Left Coast Bias column will return in two weeks.