The Pandemic Canceled Michael Smerconish’s Tour, So He Recorded His One-Man Show in an Empty Bucks County Theater
The longtime Philly pundit's Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking was written to be performed in theaters. It will air on CNN on Saturday night instead.
Michael Smerconish, the Villanova-based political commentator with two eponymous programs — weekly on CNN and daily on SiriusXM — was all set to go on tour to commemorate his 30th year on the air. Over three decades of talking, starting in 1990 on Philly’s WWDB-FM, Smerconish has evolved from a reliably conservative thinker into a proud independent, a self-styled voice of reason in the middle of the increasingly hyper-partisan cable news punditsphere. The one-man show he was about to take on the road, Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking, an up-till-now career retrospective, had just sold out two May nights at Philly’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, with a slate of national dates set to go on sale, when the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled everything.
Rather than let the material go to waste, Smerconish rounded up a camera crew and, while practicing social distancing, performed the show on May 19th in the otherwise empty historic Bucks County Playhouse. For the recording — which will air on CNN on Saturday night, July 11th, at 10 p.m. — Smerconish teamed up with director Chris Strand, a friend going back to their days at Bucks County’s Holicong Junior High. We caught up with Smerconish on the phone to talk about his show, the state of the country, and learning to powder his dome.
Tell me a bit about the process of recording this performance for TV.
You know, the part of the story that I love is the person who’s directing it is a 40-plus-year friend of mine. More than 40 years ago, we were in junior high school — we were in the KYW News Radio internship program together. And even though we’ve maintained our friendship, we haven’t done anything since then. So I’m just really impressed with his abilities to sort of mold this piece of clay and give it definition.
So you and the director were school buddies?
I went to Holicong Junior High School [now Holicong Middle School], which is located in Buckingham Township. It was a brand-new school. And there I befriended a guy named Chris Strand. Holicong had a closed-circuit television system, and morning announcements were not delivered via a PA system — they were actually delivered by TV, by anchors who were your classmates. I always wanted to be an anchor. I never made the cut. I was nevertheless involved in the television station of the school. My buddy Chris was the sportscaster. And our friendship grew out of that. He then went to Temple. I went to Lehigh. And while we were undergrads, he came to me and said, “I have this idea that we’re going to film a TV short, and we’re going to sell it to the Home Box Office.” And we filmed this, in retrospect, ridiculous short about the televising of an execution. And, of course, we took it to HBO and they had no interest, and you know, we kind of went our separate ways professionally. And for 40 fucking years, we’ve been joking about the TV short and how we ought to do something again. It’s taken 40 years, but we’re about to put a show on CNN together, at least for one night.
In a way, doing a show in front of an empty house is fitting. Talking for an hour or so with no crowd reacting to you is … a little bit like radio.
True. If I’m in the midst of taking a call, I’ve got the person at the other end of the line, and I can play off of them. But you’re absolutely right. Having done two dozen small theaters in the past 24 months, I know what it’s like to feed on the energy of a crowd — you know if you’re doing well and you know if you’re not doing well. And that wasn’t there on May 19th, when I was at the Bucks County Playhouse.
There’s something pretty eerie about seeing the playhouse in the special’s opening sequence — this iconic, historic building that, like so many others, has been shuttered by the pandemic. Talk about how it felt walking into that building in the middle of all this.
It’s funny. They had a production, Other World, that they told me was going to be their most expensive production ever. And they were in the midst of getting it ready. When I contacted them and said, “Hey, can I come in for one day and bring a crew?,” they said, “We’d love to have you, but we broke down in a hurry, and we’ve got a lot of production equipment in there —it covers most of the seats in the theater.” I thought, “Oh shit. That’s going to destroy the whole look that I’m playing for.” Then I spoke to Chris, and he said, “Get them to vacate the first six rows, and I can do the rest in post-production.” One of the things that I’m [impressed with] is the marvel of post-production giving the appearance of an entirely clean theater, when in fact it was far from the case. They were eager to have me, because they weren’t open. The crew hadn’t been doing anything. The catering operation was eager to have me. I mean, it really brought home to me the standstill that whole industry came to. People are going to great lengths to try and restore live entertainment, and this gave me a good education as to some of the difficulties.
Speaking of the pandemic, America seems to be, and there’s no way to put this delicately, fucking up COVID big-time. Cases are back on the rise even as other countries are returning to something like normal. What is it about American politics and American culture right now that is making the situation so caustic?
It is so sad for me to see mask-wearing go the way of the political divide. Somehow, good public health practice has been cast in red state-vs.-blue state terms, and what it makes me think of is that we used to have political differences, and then they would stop at the water’s edge. We can fight as Republicans and Democrats, but if all of a sudden the Soviet Union, or now Russia, posed a threat, we were united as Americans against them. And those days are gone. It extends even to a pandemic, which is just heartbreaking.
You’ve been very vocal about the negative aspects of extreme partisanship. Can it get any worse than it is right now?
I don’t think so. They’re certainly as bad as they’ve been in the modern era. I’ve been paying close attention since 1980, and nothing that I’ve watched compares to this. The question is, how can it get better? And it’s actually a subject that I address in this program, which is very autobiographical, with some hopefully interesting stories and a couple of jokes along the way. But there’s a final seven-minute sequence which is a full-on message about how we got where we are and what it will take for us to change things. I’m very critical of the media influence. I don’t see correlation between the rise of a polarized media and a polarized Washington. I see causation. And there’s a line where I’d say nothing changes until people begin to change the channel. And by that, I mean that they’ve got to get off the steady diet that they’re being fed, either on the left or the right, and have a more centrist approach. That’s really the thesis of the whole presentation.
These are certainly extraordinary times we’re living through. In addition to the pandemic, we’re seeing sustained action against racism unlike anything probably since the civil rights movement, and certainly now on a bigger scale. What can and should result from this time in American life?
The realization that we never really did level the playing field. That’s really what I come back to. This has been a subject of conversation on my daily radio program since right after the killing of George Floyd. And I think it has, for me, brought that home. I know that it’s brought it home for a lot of my radio listeners. And the question then becomes: Okay, what exactly are we going to do about it? This saddens me, but I don’t know that enough of the country is really on board to even have that conversation. And even this now has become subject to the partisan divide.
In the political sphere, we’ve seen the idea of wholesale police reform, of defunding the police, move very rapidly from an idea on the far political fringes to somewhere squarely in the realm of possibility. It happened practically overnight. Can you recall seeing anything like this in the past where that window has shifted so rapidly?
First of all, I think that it’s arguably the worst semantic choice ever made. This country is never going to be sold on something called “defund the police.” We’re just not going to be able to sell that. I think when people hear it, they don’t understand that the argument that’s being made is that we heap on police a number of responsibilities that they’re ill-equipped to provide — frankly, much like we do with teachers. We ask [teachers] now to do everything for us. And we need to reevaluate that. But that’s not the way that it comes across to half the country. They just think it means that we’re going to take away their guns and eviscerate their department. That’s really not what it’s about, at least not as I understand it.
But you know, sometimes the switch gets thrown in the country and things move quickly. I think that same-sex marriage was like that. I think that there’s been a very rapid move on marijuana legalization, too. So sometimes, all of a sudden there’s this collective will, and people realize that it’s time to make changes. I don’t know if either of those are good comparisons, but they’re what comes to mind.
As a person who’s come to the center from the right, how do you view this moment where a lot of ideas and politicians coming from the left are getting traction out on the streets? I’m thinking of politicians like AOC and some Bernie-backed candidates who won Philly primaries recently. And the ideas around police reform and decarceration that are at the center of the protests.
I’m not sure that any of those are yet winning in Middle America, whatever that might mean. I think that they’re definitely in control of the Democratic side of the ledger. But you know, I look at who is the Democratic nominee. When all is said and done, it wasn’t Elizabeth Warren, and it wasn’t Kamala Harris. It was Joe Biden, who, to my way of thinking, was the most centrist of any of the candidates running. I think there’s a divide between the party apparatus, the worker bees, and certainly the leadership.
Speaking of Joe Biden, how do you see November playing out?
As you and I are speaking, it’s the 7th of July. If the election were held today, I don’t think it would be close. I say that trying to be an impartial observer, not someone rooting for an outcome. And of course, I’ll get callers who will say I said the same thing four years ago. And they’re right. But I look at a lot of data, and it’s not that there’s a one-off showing Joe winning. It’s the national surveys. It’s a very detailed Pew Research poll from a week ago, and it’s surveys done in the battleground states that show him with a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. This right now is a referendum on him, and he’s losing. And the pandemic — not because he would wish for it — ends up being an enormous advantage for Joe Biden, because it gives him all the reason to stay close to home. I’m trying to avoid the “in the basement” language. He is going out, only to the extent that he needs to go out to continue to be part of a narrative. But they are just letting Trump be Trump, and that’s not helping Trump. If there were no pandemic, Biden would have a live mic on him for 10 hours a day, which he doesn’t now.
How has the COVID shutdown affected the logistics of your work as a commentator and journalist?
Well, I don’t have in-studio guests. I haven’t for four months. I worried initially, with my radio program, that the call volume might not be what it had been before. My perception is that most of the people who call my program are in their cars, and a lot fewer people have been on the roadways. Thankfully, I never missed a beat. There was never any change. And the television world, again, I can’t complain. The only alteration for me is that on Saturday mornings, I’ve been doing my own makeup, and I have learned how to powder my noggin.