TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Last week the dramatic Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh made headlines and also made for riveting television. Over the weekend, two of TV's most tenured series, NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and CBS's "60 Minutes," returned with season premieres reacting to that fast-breaking news. Our TV critic David Bianculli has these reactions.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There's a lot of history to consider here - the history of televised government hearings and of the news and entertainment programs in place to summarize and respond to them. But in this particular case, in which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified about being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, it's worth looking at how two of broadcast TV's oldest series, the newsmagazine "60 Minutes" and the sketch comedy series "Saturday Night Live," scrambled to cover the hearings in their respective weekend season premieres. "Saturday Night Live," which launched in 1975 on NBC, is starting season 44 and began Saturday with a lengthy cold open that parodied the Senate hearings. Its best move was a bit of guest casting, handing the role of Kavanaugh to actor Matt Damon who played the part with his emotions and indignation on overdrive.
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MATT DAMON: (As Judge Brett Kavanaugh) What?
ALEX MOFFAT: (As Senator Chuck Grassley) Judge...
MOFFAT: (As Senator Chuck Grassley) Judge Kavanaugh, are you ready to begin?
DAMON: (As Judge Brett Kavanaugh) Oh, hell yeah.
DAMON: (As Brett Kavanaugh) Let me tell you this. I'm going to start at an 11.
DAMON: (As Brett Kavanaugh) I'm going to take it to about a 15 real quick.
BIANCULLI: The sketch, however, wasn't written that cleverly, didn't get beyond the most basic caricatures and committee interactions and didn't even include the dramatic events from Friday when Republican Senator Jeff Flake asked for a one-week delay on the vote to allow for a reopening of the FBI investigation into Kavanaugh's background.
"60 Minutes," however, did just that with a lead story for that show's Season 51 opener that showed why "60 Minutes" has not just lasted but thrived for more than half a century. Correspondent Scott Pelley interviewed for the occasion senators on both sides of the aisle, including Republican Lindsey Graham and, in a bipartisan joint interview, Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Chris Coons.
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SCOTT PELLEY: After Democratic Senator Coons floated his compromise, Republican Jeff Flake stood up and walked from the Republican side of the dais to the Democratic.
Senator Coons, there's a moment in the hearing in which Senator Flake walks by, essentially taps on your shoulder and the two of you walk out. What happened when you walked out of the room?
CHRIS COONS: I followed Jeff into the anteroom. And he said, very intently, this is tearing our country apart. We have to do something. And eventually, we literally had the whole committee...
COONS: ...Crammed into this tiny little hallway. And my recollection was Jeff, at one point, says - OK, I want to talk to Chris. And we went into literally a phone booth that was, like, this big. We're literally squeezed into a phone booth that we can barely fit in, talking to another senator. And there's this whole committee right outside. It was...
JEFF FLAKE: Looking in. Like, what are those guys...
COONS: Looking in. It was really...
PELLEY: Looking in on the phone booth, wondering what's going on in there...
COONS: Yes. Yeah, literally. It was quite a moment.
BIANCULLI: That "60 Minutes" report brought insight and new information to a still-evolving news story, something the newsmagazine has always done. "60 Minutes," after 50 years, remains on the right track, even when, for the moment, its own executive producer has lost his job over allegations of sexual harassment and other issues.
Television, in its own history, has changed significantly in the way it has covered important government hearings over the decades. In the 1950s, the hearings led by or focusing on Senator Joe McCarthy popularized two terms once again in vogue - the so-called witch hunt and the famous "at long last, have you left no sense of decency?" quote. But back then, network newscasts were threadbare 15-minute affairs, and most comics shied away from the subject.
In the '70s, by the time of the Watergate hearings, things were different. TV news didn't deal with the subject much at first, but Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" monologues got there early and nightly. And another TV talk show host of the era, Dick Cavett, interviewed not only the reporters covering the stories but the suspects and the senators. Cavett even broadcast one show from the Senate committee hearing room, interviewing such senators as Howard Baker, who asked the infamous question about what the president knew and when he knew it.
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DICK CAVETT: Senator Baker, by the way, when I was sitting in that witness chair, I felt guilty. It's a very strange feeling, sitting there.
HOWARD BAKER: You may be the first one.
BIANCULLI: By the time of the Clarence Thomas U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991, at which Anita Hill charged Thomas with sexual harassment, Carson was still there but not for long, and CNN was an established 24-hour news alternative. Today, for the Kavanaugh hearings, there are multiple omnipresent cable news services. The broadcast networks are all in, and so are the late-night comics in their shows. John Oliver on HBO was indignantly upset in his coverage of the story last night. And Trevor Noah on Thursday's "Daily Show" got many of the laughs from his audience simply by playing actual clips from the hearings showing Kavanaugh so visibly and vocally upset.
But Stephen Colbert, after a similarly long and clip-filled Thursday monologue of his own, ended his "Late Show" segment by pivoting suddenly and talking seriously.
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BRETT KAVANAUGH: For decades to come, I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwind.
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STEPHEN COLBERT: You really need a better weatherman...
COLBERT: ...Because - let me tell you, brother - this is the whirlwind. And the wind was sown when Donald Trump had 19 credible allegations of sexual assault against him, bragged about sexual assault on tape and your Republican buddies up on that committee said, yeah. But we want our guy on the Supreme Court. And that's you, Brett. That doesn't mean you're guilty. But please, save your indignation that finally someone is taking one woman's accusation of sexual assault seriously. We'll be right back with...
BIANCULLI: It was another striking TV moment in a week that, in entertainment as well as news, was bursting with them.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' To 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific."
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling books "The Big Short" and "Moneyball." We'll talk about his new book, "The Fifth Risk." It looks at the federal government under President Trump by focusing on Trump's departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce and how unprepared they are now to deal with urgent risks. I hope you'll join us. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.