The Unreliability of Memory – Marc Maron, Sean Lennon, Mike Gittleman

•  What goes on behind one’s back when interviewing the son of a Beatle

•  What this has to do with one of the sweetest jerks I ever worked with

•  Crying while blogging: very difficult.

During a workout this weekend, I was listening to WTF, Marc Maron’s podcast. His guest was Sean Lennon, and the son of John & Yoko mentioned the unreliability of memory.

“What you think is a memory,” he said, “is really just the memory of the last time you had the memory.”

This triggered a memory (or whatever it is) of the time I interviewed Sean, live on CNN . . . and he pranked me. It was at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert at RFK Stadium in Washington. It was the third of a series of such events begun two years earlier, organized by the Beastie Boys. This one featured Radiohead, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and – as they say – many more. In the morning, hours before the concert started, we were set up outside the stadium for live shots and Sean was brought to us. I stood next to him, the anchor in Atlanta tossed it to me and I talked with Lennon about the concert organized by his friends, the Beastie Boys. It went ok. I’m sure I asked him something like, “What do you think your father would have thought about this issue and this event?” Basically, a by-the-numbers live shot. As Sean walked away, the producer in the control room said into my earpiece, “Uh, Mark . . . you weren’t aware of this, but as you were starting, and looking at the camera, Sean was holding two fingers up behind your head.”

Really? You could talk to me through the IFB (technical name for the earpiece’s role) and you didn’t mention this to me while it was happening? You wouldn’t hesitate to whisper “Wrap it up, Mark,” in my ear if we ran long, of course.

Ah well, the joke’s on me. (As for Sean, I did think, a little resentfully, that the son of a . . . Beatle probably thought that kind of joke was something his irreverent dad would have done. I thought it was lame. But I am over it, honest.)

This got me thinking about the relationship between the two kinds of people who work in television news. The “talent” and the “techies.” Or in broader, generalized terms, the on-air people and the behind-the-scenes people. If you’re “talent” and you fail to recognize and respect every single person who labors to put whatever program you’re doing on the air, well then, you deserve their utter disrespect. And you’ll get it. In spades. Behind your back and often in front of it. But I didn’t consider my Sean Lennon bunny ears to be a case of “correspondent harassment” then, and I still don’t.

(This false sort of hierarchy reaches down to other levels. When I worked at Air America Radio Network, the blossoming stars, Marc Maron, Al Franken, and Rachel Maddow, were the top tier of the air staff. We newscasters, ripping, reading and re-writing AP copy in our little newsroom, were decidedly not “stars.” But Marc, Al, and Rachel were all very friendly and appreciated it when we’d alert them to a breaking news story.)

Here’s where the really bittersweet memories I want to share kick in:

Mike Gittleman was a CNN cameraman in the New York bureau. In 1990, I was a newly-minted entertainment news correspondent for Showbiz Today, and I often was assigned Mike and an audio person as my crew for all sorts of shoots. He had a fearsome exterior. A large physique, a bald head, a scowl, a biting wit that could make a television news rookie like me quake in fear of humiliation from one false move. Boy, could he dish it out. But, as you might have guessed, very early on it became apparent Mike had the proverbial heart of gold. He helped me immeasurably as I continued to learn the ropes. (“No, if I shoot a cutaway from over there, I will break the axis and you cannot do that!” “If the sun is setting during the interview, or the background otherwise changes significantly, you will have a nightmare in the editing room.” “I will NOT let you do a pointless walking stand-up!”)

Gittleman, far left

So, imagine my shock the time Mike screwed up, not me. We were doing a sit-down interview out in the field with Billy Corgan, leader of Chicago rock band Smashing Pumpkins. (Mike loved music and loved to get Showbiz Today assignments like this.) At the conclusion, after Billy had left the room, Mike leaned into me and whispered, “Mark . . . I am soooo sorry! You are going to kill me. I swear, I have never done this before, but I’ve seen it happen to other guys. About 15 minutes into the interview, I noticed that I wasn’t recording it! I double-clutched! It’s the rookiest of rookie moves. I pressed the trigger to start recording but unknowingly immediately pressed a second time. You only have the second half of the interview.

He was mortified. We crossed our fingers and, back at the bureau, I screened the tape and found, to my relief, there was enough good stuff to still do a good package. Mike’s relief was greater, no doubt.

I’ll tell this story Tuesday night, as Mike Gittleman’s friends gather at a bar near the old CNN bureau on 8th Avenue to roast him and celebrate his life. He won’t be there because last week he was moved into hospice in New Jersey. Mike’s dying of cancer. It came on suddenly and moved quickly. Only a few weeks ago did most of us learn of it through some posts on Facebook in which he bravely – and impudently – let it be known he wasn’t long for this world.

Last fall we touched base. He was working in Times Square for Thomson Reuters television. He said I should come down and have lunch with him. I said you bet. But then, you know, the unreliability of memory. I forgot for a while, remembered, made a mental note to call him, forgot to follow through. You know how it goes…

Anyway, Mike knows what he’s in for Tuesday night: waves of love and rude recollections. And he wouldn’t have it any other way, as he told a colleague who’s organizing the gathering: “I understand Ken is offering everyone a last chance to kick my ass, I urge you to take it. In the immortal words of Loudon Wainwright III: ‘You’re gonna wanna cry, you’re gonna wanna wear black, I’ll be dead but you bet your life I’m gonna get you back!’”


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