Keith Olbermann Owes His Job to Lou Dobbs’s Personal Life

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Photo: Scott Boehm/Getty Images

One hour before he went on air last night, Keith Olbermann did a "speak and dash" at the Algonquin Hotel to introduce the three finalists for the 2010 Thurber Prize for American Humor. "My plans changed because one of the other news networks is debuting its latest eight o'clock show tonight," he said, referring to CNN's Parker/Spitzer and apologizing to the 100-person crowd. "My original plan was to spend the entire evening with you and get the night off, but my bosses said no." Still, for the ten minutes he was in attendance, he spoke in earnest about the famous hotel and his link to the witty author and cartoonist, James Thurber.

"My television career started in this building," he said of the storied literary saloon. "I was offered my first job by the head of CNN Sports in 1981 at the bar. He only had one drink, but when I told him I was making more in radio part-time than what he had offered me to go work for CNN he needed several more. He told me he was going to pay $95,000 for six new sportscasters. And I said, 'That's interesting, because you're going to have to have five guys who are going to have to live on thirty grand because I'm not moving to Atlanta for less than $60,000.' As it turned out, a couple of weeks later, Lou Dobbs ran off with his girlfriend who was a sports reporter in New York and they needed somebody to suddenly fill in." After the audience's laughter subsided, Olbermann added, "I wish I were making that story up because it would be a testament to my ability to be creative and imaginative, but it's actually true."

While in college at Cornell, Olbermann watched a PBS special by William Windom that turned him on to the works of Thurber. Then, this past March, Olbermann was sitting in a hospital, reading Thurber stories to his dying father as he fell asleep. "My father said to me — he had never said anything like this in my entire career — 'You should read this on your show,'" Olbermann remembers. "I said, 'I can't imagine it would really fit that well. It's a newscast, more or less. How would I?' And my father said, 'Have I ever suggested something like this? It would be tremendous. I enjoy it. You should do it.' How could I say no in that position?"

Olbermann gave one test reading and realized he had a slight dilemma. "I said to my father, 'You know, these sorts of things are copyrighted and there is a small chance that a fee may be required.' If we run a movie clip, for instance, somebody from Mr. Spielberg's [office], will call and say, 'That will be $10,000 for the three seconds of Star Wars you just used.'"

But he told his dad he'd give it a shot. "And that's when I heard from Thurber's estate," Olbermann said. "I said to my dad, 'Here is an email from the literary trust. It's got to be a bill." And it was anything but. It was the most wonderful, genuine invitation on behalf of Rosemary Thurber (James's daughter) to read whatever I wanted on the air and off, and even to edit the work for time, if necessary. Which is basically like saying, 'You're not actually a heart surgeon, but go on in.' Well, the ratings response was marvelous. In fact, on Friday nights it represented an increase in our ratings and that pleased my employers."