Would Mark Twain have edited Tina Fey?

I’ll take the liberty of answering the question in the headline: “I doubt it.”

But that’s what the producers of the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor did to the show that was aired nationally on PBS last Sunday. It was a decision that resulted in far more negative news coverage, and online and e-mail expressions of outrage, than the largely positive reviews of the live performance a few days earlier.

A couple of quick points:

First, the producers of this event — Comedia and Mark Krantz Productions — are experienced. They’ve been doing the Twain Prize show since it started in 1998 in conjunction with the Kennedy Center and with PBS as a broadcast partner.

This time, however, I think the producers made a big mistake, one that was virtually certain to come back and bite them and PBS, in editing out several lines Fey used in the actual live performance about supporters of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Here are the Fey lines from the live performance that were cut from the broadcast version and are at the center of the ensuing controversy:

“And, you know, politics aside, the success of Sarah Palin and women like her is good for all women — except, of course, those who will end up, you know, like, paying for their own rape kit ‘n’ stuff. But for everybody else, it’s a win-win. Unless you’re a gay woman who wants to marry your partner of 20 years — whatever. But for most women, the success of conservative women is good for all of us. Unless you believe in evolution. You know what? Actually, I take it back. The whole thing’s a disaster.”

Second, according to one of the producers, Peter Kaminsky, “it was not a PBS suggestion to take out” that material during the roughly 24-hour editing period that the producers had to fit an almost two-hour live performance on Wednesday night into an hour and 25 minute TV broadcast ready for Sunday evening. “That [the editing] was done in our place,” Kaminsky said in a telephone interview. “We had no problem with anything she [Fey] said. It was a humor judgment call forced by time. Many of these things are subjective. We were given 24 hours to edit, and the live program ran 22 minutes too long.”

A Focus on Editing

The controversy surrounding this particular bit of editing brings to mind some other recent episodes where internal editing decisions eventually led to public controversy and challenges.

One occurred in July when a PBS special broadcast of an earlier White House concert honoring former Beatle Paul McCartney did not include a comment critical of former President George W. Bush that McCartney made after the music stopped and after President Obama had left the room. But it was heard by everyone else in the room and reported widely elsewhere the next day, although not on PBS.

Earlier this month, I wrote an ombudsman’s column about a recent program in the highly regarded Frontline series in which a government official’s on-camera answer to one question was used as an answer to another question. Afterwards, Frontline, to its credit, re-edited the program.

I mention these events not because the Twain Prize broadcast did the same thing, but because they all involved editing or coverage decisions that have had editorial and possibly political repercussions for PBS with viewers and among the so-called chattering class of commentators. And in all three cases, the differences in the broadcasts would only be known to those who were participants in the original event.

On Frontline, it was the government official who knew immediately that his answers had been mixed and matched and whose office let me know. For the honoring of Tina Fey, it would only be members of the audience who happened to watch the follow-up TV broadcast a few nights later and might have realized something was missing. Other viewers wouldn’t know what was going on.

One of those in the Kennedy Center audience that Tuesday night was Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi, whose review of the evening appeared online that night and in the Wednesday paper.

Farhi wrote a straight-forward review that said: “In her acceptance speech, Fey touched on her best-known bit — her Palin imitation — and offered some mock hands-across-the-political-divide commentary. The rise of conservative women in politics, she said pointedly, is good for all women, ‘unless you don’t want to pay for your own rape kit … unless you’re a lesbian who wants to get married to your partner of 20 years … [or] unless you believe in evolution.’”

I did not get any e-mail about Fey’s ribbing of conservative women after the original performance on Nov. 9 or after the reviews of that performance.
It Pays to Watch the Re-Play

But Farhi was among those who also watched the TV special that Sunday and it was his second report Monday night online and in the Tuesday, Nov. 16, Post that alertly reported: “Tina Fey got a little political airbrushing from PBS on Sunday night during its annual broadcast of the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.” His follow-up report also included the lines that were cut and opened the floodgates of criticism from viewers and pundits that PBS was manipulating its audience and pandering to conservative politics. Kaminsky was also quoted by Farhi as saying this “was not a political decision. We had zero problems with anything she said,” and it was hard to find anyone who believed that.

Ironically, in his initial review, Farhi also wrote that Fey’s on-stage lines about conservative women “played first to nervous laughter and then to not much laughter at all.” That is precisely what executive producer Kaminsky argues; that they kind of fell flat, that three-punch-line jokes are tough to deliver, and that the political content in her broad monologue “didn’t seem to be the strongest part of her material.”

Even if you agree with that, which I do not, you would have to have a tin ear, in my non-producer opinion, not to recognize that Fey’s extraordinary ability to mimic Palin on Saturday Night Live two years ago — aside from her many other accomplishments — surely was an important factor in this award, and to take out those 30 seconds or so seemed to diminish Fey’s uniqueness, take the viewing audience for granted and deprive it of one of the most edgy segments, and certainly at least appear to be influenced by political considerations.
Talk, Talk, Talk

Fey did poke some fun at Palin and Sen. John McCain elsewhere in her monologue and that was left in. Kaminsky said Fey was supposed to speak for about five and a half minutes. She actually spoke for about 13 minutes and almost nine minutes of that was broadcast. Fey said at one point in her stage appearance when talking about other topics that “we are probably going to cut this part for the broadcast.”

When I asked Kaminsky whether some way might have been found to alert a broadcast audience that this was a slightly abbreviated version of the show, or that it had to be shortened for presentation at that time, he said he thought that was a novel idea that was worth thinking about and discussing but that there wasn’t time in this case and that it would not have affected content. He pointed out that many such shows regularly must be shortened to meet network time demands, and that the performance last year with Twain Prize recipient Bill Cosby, for example, had to be cut by 31 minutes.

But among the traits that the Twain Prize is meant to recognize is to be “a fearless observer of society.” That’s what, in my view, got diminished by the editing, along with PBS’s credibility, even though they did not do the editing.
Here’s a Sampling of the Letters

I have to ask this question: “Standards of editorial integrity”? You’ve got to be kidding me. This political act and the lame excuses that followed are repugnant to us. Consequently, we say, “good bye, PBS”, just as we have to Fox News. At least Fox has the balls to be flagrant about its politics. PBS elects to slither along dismissively in the shadows. Yours is a more devious and perfect way of ending up with someone like Sarah Palin as president.

Larry Norman, Caldwell, ID

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I am compelled to write to you about your broadcast of the Mark Twain Prize show that honored Tina Fey. Your selective editing of Ms. Fey’s speech sparked a wildfire of protest in public media, and I must say the criticism is richly deserved. If a 90-minute program runs 19 minutes long, you are entitled to cut it back to suit your time slot (though I wonder why any once-a-year awards show should be edited down instead of broadcast in its entirety). However, of all TV networks, PBS should be the most keenly sensitive to any ham-handed editing, and the chopping you did to Ms. Fey’s speech was the most egregious hatchet job I have seen outside of Fox News. It doesn’t really matter what excuses you offer for this assault, it is obvious that your edits were calculated and driven by political motives. As I am out of space, I can only conclude: Shame on you.

Mark Fox, Memphis, TN

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I have to raise my eyebrows at the parts of Tina Fey’s speech which were edited out … the ones which would have been offensive to the incoming Republicans in Washington. To remove the most controversial and satirical seconds of humor from a speech given by someone accepting an award for her controversial and satirical humor is just plain not funny.

J. B., Biloxi, MS

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Wow … so PBS found it necessary to censor Tina Fey’s acceptance speech at the Mark Twain Award ceremony? And don’t say that it was due to time, or anything else … it is quite obvious that you took out every comment she made about Sarah Palin’s inanity, and, gee whiz, guys, the comedic parts of her speech! How ironic, while you’re covering the Mark Twain Awards! I can only imagine what Mr. Twain himself would say about your stupidity.

Jay Bloomrosen, Lake Worth, FL

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Who are you to cut Tina Fey’s comments on Sarah Palin? She is a controversial comedienne, so her comments that got spliced should have been expected. To say that political content had nothing to do with the reason for the shortening and that it was because there was not enough time to run it sounds absurd. You could at least be honest about it … you would be better respected for that. You have been making a habit lately of controlling what the public should and should not hear and watch on your stations. We pay to keep the public t.v. and radio alive … and what has always attracted us to it is its ability to stay on the side of the real truth. Censorship is not the truth. And staying in the middle is a cop out. Let “us” change the channel if it’s something we don’t want to watch. These are sad moves on your part. We have always loved everything about public broadcasting, but when you decide to alter what you share, it becomes awfully close to what someone like FOX news would do.

Melody Robichaud, Hood River, OR

Some Praise Mixed In

Wanted to congratulate you for your insight and integrity for the show by editing out the unclassy comments of Tina Fey on your show. I turned off Anderson Cooper because of his opinion of the event. PBS stands for high quality shows and it shouldn’t cave in to lesser values.

Marjie Steiner, Newell, PA

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Pretty gutless editing of Tina Fey’s speech. Too afraid of what the right wing media will say if you include the political comments of Ms. Fey, are we? The PBS explanation that this was anything but a decision based on the political content is nothing short of dishonest, and unworthy of the fine news network that is PBS.

Daniel O’Neill, Fontana, CA

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I watched the Mark Twain award show and have since learned of PBS’s censorship of Fey’s acceptance speech. Shame on you. Is there no mainstream media source that is not afraid of potential Republican retaliation? Our nation is only weakened by timid, cowardly media. Just look at the cost of the Iraq war and the role played by a passive press.

Shirley Brand, Delmar, NY

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We are very dismayed at the editing of the Tina Fey speech. It shatters your journalistic integrity. It’s your prerogative to choose the programming you air; however, it’s not your prerogative to edit out those comments with which you disagree. And please don’t quote “time issues”. Either run it or not.

Meredith Woodyard, Petersburgh, NY

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I watched the tribute to Tina Fey. I am so glad PBS edited her comments. But, I am unhappy that the media is now exploiting the situation. I am not a tea partier, but I am a rape survivor. I was a fan of Fey’s but now I won’t watch her as it will remind me of this triggering incident. I don’t know about now, but in 1976 when I was raped in GA, I had to pay for the services rendered by the hospital. There was no Crime Victim’s Compensation, etc. No, I do not know the politics regarding this issue at the present time, and this is not about that. Tina Fey should be ashamed of herself for trying to get a laugh with a subject like rape. It shows no respect for women, and it is not funny. PBS did a good job of editing. Thanks.

Lexington, KY

This column was originally published on PBS.org on Nov. 18, 2010.

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