Added On: Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Media Funny Men

Bobby Bank/

At the roast lunch were, from left, Rupert Murdoch, Peter A. Chernin, Tom Freston, the film and television producer Brian Grazer and Leslie Moonves.

Published: October 30, 2006

When Tom Freston agreed to be the guest of honor at an annual roast for media executives in New York, it was before he was fired as chief executive of Viacom. So when the event went on as scheduled last Wednesday, it seemed that it would be a somber or at least uncomfortable event.

Bobby Bank/

Tom Freston’s mock new technology skills included a video of him lip-synching a pop song into a hairbrush microphone.

As it turned out, the routines by Mr. Freston; Peter A. Chernin, the president of the News Corporation; and other moguls were worthy of David Letterman or Conan O’Brien, leaving the audience of 350 in stitches.

Who knew that media executives were funny? Perhaps it is because unlike, say, pharmaceutical or chemical industry executives, they do not take their business so seriously. But maybe it is because they know who to call in the comedy business.

For his speech, Mr. Chernin drew on some of the considerable talent on the lot at Fox Entertainment, one of the company’s big subsidiaries.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room that feels that Viacom has treated Tom fairly,” he said, in beginning his remarks at the event, held at the Center for Communication. “After years of loyal service, Tom was let go. And there is no doubt in my mind that Tom’s continued success will haunt Viacom for years to come. But enough about Tom Cruise. We’re here to talk about Tom Freston.” Mr. Chernin then went on to insult Mr. Freston in less printable terms.

When it was Mr. Freston’s turn to speak, he told the audience about his “personal digital strategy” since leaving Viacom, which included his finally getting a computer. There was also a video of him lip-synching the song “Bad Day” while dancing around his town house singing into a hairbrush.

Mr. Freston, who helped build MTV and Comedy Central, had no shortage of comedy writers to tap into. But there is also a small clutch of writers who specialize in the genre of media-mogul laughs. And the reigning king of such humor is Mark S. Katz, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton who collaborated on Mr. Freston’s remarks.

Friends of Mr. Freston’s said that after his departure from Viacom, he initially did not want to go through with the event. But once he decided to do it, Mr. Katz, said, “he dove right in,” adding: “I love the guy. I’ve known him for a week, and I love him.”

The funny thing about Mr. Katz — who actually looks like a cross between a comic and a consultant — is that he takes his methods awfully seriously. (He was initially reticent about being interviewed because he does not want to appear to be diminishing the comedic chops of his clients.)

“Humor is an underutilized tool in the arsenal of strategic and crisis communications,” said Mr. Katz, who calls his consulting company the Soundbite Institute. “It’s about solving problems.”

Having written jokes for President Clinton’s shtick at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner during some of the darker moments of his administration, Mr. Katz said there were similarities between presidential humor and media-mogul humor.

“The are things you can say, there are things that go unsaid and things that are unsayable,” he explained. “What humor does is move the unsaid into the said. But you can’t go near the unsayable — that is true of a president or a C.E.O.”

In Mr. Freston’s case, the unsayable would have been anything directly attacking Sumner M. Redstone, the Viacom chairman who removed Mr. Freston from the job after more than 20 years of building the company and its famous asset, MTV. Attending the lunch were Mr. Freston’s successor, Philippe P. Dauman, and Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, also controlled by Mr. Redstone. Mr. Redstone did not attend.

Mr. Freston was restrained by a nondisparagement agreement that came with his $84 million severance package, but then disparagement is probably not his style.

Mr. Chernin was less restrained. “MTV now officially stands for `Moonves Takes Viacom,’ ” a reference to the CBS Corporation chief Leslie Moonves, was just one of his zingers.

Everyone interviewed for this article emphasized that all the media executives involved were already really, really funny, and the pros just enhanced their routines. Plus, the writers point out, the executives have to be able to go toe-to-toe with the professional entertainment at events, like Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central, who was among Mr. Freston’s roasters.

For the speech, Mr. Chernin’s head of communications, Teri Everett, reached out to various writers and drew material from Greg Garcia, the creator of “My Name is Earl,” a sitcom Fox produces; Nicky Weinstock, vice president for comedy development at 20th Century Fox Television; and Mark Hentemann, a writer for the Fox program “Family Guy.”

Mr. Chernin beefed up the material and added some of his own, Ms. Everett said.

But despite Mr. Chernin’s skills and Fox’s in-house pool of gag writers, the News Corporation has turned to Mr. Katz as well. Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president, hired him to produce a video for the retirement party of Arthur Siskind, the company’s general counsel, last year. The 12-minute video, featuring cameos from Fox personalities including Bill O’Reilly and with a Fox News anchor, Shepard Smith, as host featured a mock trial at the Hague for Mr. Siskind’s “crimes against civility.”

Mr. Katz has also been enlisted by Bloomberg (when it was still being run by Michael R. Bloomberg, since preoccupied with the mayoralty of New York), as well as being hired for roasts of Time Warner’s chairman, Richard D. Parsons, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of The New York Times Company. With stints in journalism, advertising, television sitcom writing and politics behind him, Mr. Katz’s first media speech was in 1993 for an ABC executive, Robert A. Iger, now the Walt Disney Company chief executive. At the time he was paid $200, but declines to say how much he charges for recent gigs that included a speech Mr. Iger’s predecessor, Michael D. Eisner, gave in New York several months before he stepped down under pressure from shareholders.

“Mark is a terrifically smart and funny guy,” said Edward Adler, Time Warner’s head of communications. “We’ve worked with him as a consultant to provide humor to our presentations.”

Mr. Katz and Mr. Freston met twice to perfect last Wednesday’s routine. Instead of disputing the contention that Mr. Freston had lost his job in good measure because Mr. Murdoch had outmaneuvered Viacom in buying the Web site MySpace, Mr. Freston instead proposed a routine that included his setting up his first MySpace page — complete with a video from Mr. Murdoch welcoming him.

On Mr. Freston’s fictional page were headshots of various online friends identified by their monikers: they included two former heads of Viacom who had also been ousted by Mr. Redstone, Frank J. Biondi and Mel Karmazin, who were identified as “Bed Bath & Biondi” and “Good Karmazin.”

Mr. Freston remarked at the lunch that he had been meaning to get a computer for years and was now delighted by what he could do with technology — which included setting up his own blog devoted to eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“While all you guys were at Michael’s living large,” he said, referring to the popular restaurant, “I was at home creating content.”


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