On one of his final Current TV broadcasts, Keith Olbermann wore a sweatshirt in support of Trayvon Martin. It was not the noble gesture that contributed to his firing — it was the reported missed work days, irascibility, and whatever cocktail of ego and ability to make people cry that probably did the trick everywhere else — but he looked sad and suffocated in it, like he’d just lost a high-stakes basketball game and had drowned his disappointment in some ripe clams casino an hour before reading the Teleprompter. The writing was on the wall, and the rivulets of sweat were on the philtrum of the nomad who wanders the media world, bringing his talents and idiosyncrasies to whatever optimistic group of producers will gamble on him.
Lisa Lampanelli, who has cried, shrieked, and double-yap-handed her way through this season of The Celebrity Apprentice, has become an Olbermann-esque figure to me. Though she’s absolutely nasty to everyone in the boardroom, picking on poor Miss Universe winner Dayana Mendoza like her own tiara-wearing Bill O’Reilly, Lisa manages to avoid getting fired because she’s one of the only people in the game with good ideas and the ability to articulate them (poor Penn Jillette, shamed into silence by Clay Aiken). She is unafraid of herself, the camera, and whatever occasional ugliness she presents to it when she lets herself rail against the stupidity and vanity of her teammates. When she’s fired, it will be because she sent the wrong person into the bathroom of Trump Towers to weep, or because her offerings became so erratic that they were rendered useless by not being dependable. Is stand-up comedy the only place for an Olbermannian ego that swallows everything like a baleen whale Roomba-ing its way across the oceans of broadcasting? No. There are lots of other career options for a talent like Olbermann, though some of them haven’t been invented yet:
1. Stand-Up Dramedian
All you need is someone to hit the lights, a little basement theater with a two-drink minimum, and college kids on spring break who mistake the venue for an actual bar. The routine is not funny, nor is it intended to be; it’s more like a lecture, but one need not bill it that way. The Worst People in the World presentation ends with a photo of the biggest heckler in the room, taken by someone planted in the audience with an iPhone and Wi-Fi connection. What would happen if Keith Olbermann and Louis CK became one person? Would it end in that scene from Louie with Dan Patrick playing Pamela? Would every episode be titled “The Big Show”?
2. Showrunner on a Show About a Show About a Show
If Sports Night was about SportsCenter, then Good Sport could be about the experience of watching Josh Charles play you. To make it easier for everyone to get along, Keith Olbermann would play both himself and the character based on Josh Charles. Keith Olbermann would also play Peter Krause (unless Peter Krause becomes available again and is a patient and understanding fellow), as well as directing, producing, and writing for the show. He’s got the fire, and now he’s got the time. Maybe meta-biographical auteur-style programming is the future? And sets will just be composed of boxes made of mirrors reflecting old television sets playing Aaron Sorkin reruns?
3. Guest Judge on Top Chef
The best guest judges on Top Chef are the cruelest ones. Pee Wee liked everything, and his feedback was a dull blah that ruined the effect of the knife-sharpening SFX and killed the tension. Whether or not Keith’s a foodie, he could channel some of his stirring, rage-tinged speeches into something gratifyingly toothsome, like a quinoa. He might find that he likes wearing Crocs and hanging out with Padma Lakshmi. I bet he would. Who wouldn’t? The weak, the meek.
4. You Know, What Morgan Spurlock Does
If you like to take a lot of days off work, either because you’re on strike or because you need to call in sleepy, it’s nice to work on your own schedule: That’s why making documentaries and short-lived but awfully interesting television programs might be a good fit for someone who finds it difficult to be a team player. You can send your message home with a sledgehammer and still come off as enjoyably temperate, with the time to edit out all of the shots where your face gets too red and obscures your point, replace your crew of film students as soon as you break their spirits, and retain the obscurity of audience necessary to avoid being outdone by Ben Affleck (and Miss Precious Perfect) or made fun of on Twitter. Being made fun of on Twitter is the worst indignity, just the worst. Up with that a suited correspondent should not put.
5. The Grudge Report
The Mann can blogg, so why should he limit himself to 2,000 words a post? With a virtual media empire covering sports, politics, general dissatisfactions, and personal vendettas, KO’s online endeavor could be a new, hot, endlessly refreshable destination. The comments would be gnarly, and eventually all dissenters would be banned, but that would offer the opportunity for pop-up response sites that would drive more traffic back to the bespectacled, extra-vertebraed mothership. There is no question of showing up to work, because working online means wearing work like a Snuggie; it hugs you when you sleep, catches your coffee in its folds, and conceals your unreliability with time stamps that dress up laziness as urgency: It’s 2 a.m., and I couldn’t sleep because of the burning need to express myself! It’s not that I was napping until now! I am too angry to nap at this or any hour! It necessitates a sort of dressing-down, of course, when you’re coming from a place with makeup artists and ergonomic desk chairs, but maybe a show of humility is what’s in order here, a sophisticated yet unexpected wine pairing of “I don’t need much, just a humble keyboard and my brain, no entourage” with a bleeding lawsuit steak. Is he right? Is he wrong? Does it matter? Michael Ginsberg, Mad Men’s new copywriter, will probably prove to be equally abrasive and brilliant — he was hired despite himself, and had he not been taken on by SCDP, he would’ve been scooped up by those Young & Rubicam jerks who threw water balloons onto the civil rights protesters. His portfolio and horrible suit created too intriguing a mash-up to ignore. Something about Olbermann makes people want to chance hiring him against their better judgment and the chorus of people who shout, “No! Don’t do that!,” and that can be a potent mix, the kind of thing an opportunist would identify as a primo chance to reinvent oneself completely. Perhaps what Olbermann has built his career on has been slightly tangential to what he’s meant to be, struggling to climb to the top of a human pyramid, sending cleats into the eyes of his supporters, when he should just be somersaulting impressively alone on the field. New media, a dark subterranean stage, a humble pixelated pie: It’s an admission of cumulative errors, not any one specific error (because, of course, in each isolated instance he was right! Right! Right!), but a miscalculation of how frequently a person should stand up for himself and when tweeting longer is not necessarily tweeting wiser. Why can’t an Olbermann stand alone? Pride is a sin we tend to forgive, but it gets hard to keep producing it.