On March 1st, 1982, a few months before leaving Sneak Previews and a few more before syndication, Siskel and Ebert made their first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Right away, Letterman jabbed them in the work ethic. Just as fast, Roger parried, “Nine ‘o clock last Christmas morning, I was at the Chicago Theater.”
Dave, all teeth: “Oh that’s a sad, ugly story.”
This has been my sad, ugly story for several months. At night, I don’t sleep or put on a movie to speed that process or, Lord help me, write. No, when the only light left is my TV, I sprawl out, crack a box of shredded wheats, and let the YouTube algorithm work as trained. It is time for the boys.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert spent an uninterrupted 24 years on the air together in neighboring aisle seats. That equates to roughly 950 episodes, 16 Oscar specials, seven Holiday Video Gift Guides, four titles, four jingles, three Wonder Dogs, two thumbs, one Stinker Skunk, and one fateful coin toss that immortalized their names in that order for the rest of recorded history.
It’s a miracle that this particular history was recorded at all. The earliest incarnations, Opening Soon At A Theater Near You and Sneak Previews, fell victim to the churn-and-burn of public television. What survives on dubbed VHS is a testament to the pair as appointment viewing. The Disney era – Siskel & Ebert – was archived in its entirety on AtTheMoviesTV.com in 2007 but abandoned just five years later.
Now all the surviving episodes, ABC feast and PBS famine, are dignified by the same tracking fuzz. It makes tumbling through the decades, 20 minutes at a time, seamless, though you do form preferences.
My favorite intro is the Ebert & Siskel contest of newspaper trucks with the shameless saxophone that sounds played through a couch-cushion in even the cleanest dubs. And for all the latter-day thumb iconography, I find the Sneak Previews model of literally saying “Yes” or “No” to a movie much funnier.
Depending on who you ask, that simple dichotomy is responsible for everything from the rise of Rotten Tomatoes to the death of cinema. Watching anything more than a “10 Best On-Air Fights” compilation pins the blame firmly on the misunderstanding, not the misunderstood. Their agreements now sound like a canary song.
“That’s why this show we’re doing is very important,” says Gene in an episode on overlooked films of the 1970s, “We’ve got to encourage people to go with these [filmmakers] and take risks, otherwise we’re going to end up always with The Fish That Eats People.” They fought against the coming McMonoculture in real-time, unnerved by what they deemed “The Great American Hit.” As success found new metrics in four quadrants and opening weekends, Siskel seethed: “So what? Why does this picture have to appeal to everybody?” In a special on Steven Spielberg, an artist respected enough to appear twice on Roger’s Best of the 1980s list, Gene complains that his “Great American Hits” are ultimately sexless. No filmmaker got a free ride, not even those we now coat weekly with Teflon.
In an episode about miscalled shots, Gene needles Roger about his one-star review of Blue Velvet. The defendant, noted screenwriter of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, cites his moral disgust at Isabella Rossellini’s “exploited” nudity. Further questioning only hardens his resolve: “I must be honest in how I feel.” He concludes by praising Lynch’s artistry and recommending the film anyhow.
As much as Siskel and Ebert were well-intentioned ambassadors of their art – fighting against pan-and-scan, proposing a new rating between R and X, advocating for Black cinema – they didn’t mistake themselves for green vegetables or divine authorities. As a virtual tour of his basement screening room proved, for all his renown, Roger kept his stereo on the Styrofoam like everybody else. In the same episode where he pans Die Hard for its preposterously written cops, him and Gene gush over The Dead Pool as the best Dirty Harry since the original. Stick around past the contemporary novelties, though, and they just might sell you on the latest Eric Rohmer film.
In an age when every critic is Schrödinger’s Sellout, allegedly bought for and against all major studios, Siskel & Ebert plays like fantasy. Of a time when two experts who did nothing more than talk about their passion could stumble into the spotlight and stay there for decades. Of a time when the resulting death threats were, if not non-existent, impossible to see and the popular form of protest was changing the channel. Of a time when, to paraphrase the At the Movies intro, it was economically feasible for writers to pack popcorn in their briefcases and go to work.
They charted a course from the gilded Then to the engorged Now, but allow no undue nostalgia for the in-between currently presented as the dawn of cinema by your streaming service of choice.
“I wonder whether people haven’t just seen so much television that they think that they’re supposed to understand every single moment of every single movie that they see,” said Ebert in 1980, immediately after that remark about The Fish That Eats People.
It’s lines like those that give me pause between shredded wheats. But invariably, right when the doom starts to overtake, Gene does something like threaten to curbstomp Roger if his favorite Bond isn’t Sean Connery. Then I laugh, cry, and look for another balcony seat.
What a sad, ugly story. What a dream.