Note: In earlier versions of this post, Warren Bell’s quote below, “I think I got the idea from an episode of ‘The West Wing’,” was incorrectly written. For reasons that can only be blamed on pre-holiday haste, we cited the show as “Sesame Street,” which actually makes no sense. W&W apologizes for the error.
Following his appointment to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, TV comedy-writer producer Warren Bell denied that he ever said that he wanted to “dismantle” public broadcasting. Rather, he tells W&W he wants to “keep public broadcasting as strong as it can be” and boost PBS’s scripted-fare offerings with his contacts and experience in Hollywood.
President Bush slotted Bell, a self-avowed conservative, on the CPB board in a recess appointment on Wednesday. Attempts to confirm his nomination in the Senate were scuttled in September when Democratic members raised objections. They raised fears that he would be an idealogue along the lines with embattled former chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, who during his tenure sought to correct what he saw as a liberal bias in PBS and NPR programming.
Bell, executive producer of “According to Jim,” believes that he ultimately got pegged as another Tomlinson, and got swept up in the rhetoric of a political season. He says that he intends to work in a nonpartisan fashion and “has a year to prove” critics wrong, given that the recess appointment lasts until the end of the next congressional term. A comedy writer by trade, he also writes an irreverent column and blog on National Review Online, and some of his humor has rubbed people the wrong way.
He says that the former “According to Jim” writers who say they heard him make the comment about “dismantling” PBS actually mischaracterized what he said. Bell says he was expressing an opinion that “Sesame Street’ shouldn’t get government funding because it can support itself through licensing and merchandising. “It is a widely held belief,” Bell says. “I think I originally got it from an episode of ‘The West Wing.'” He says he since learned that CPB does not provide funding to the long-running children’s show, anyway.
Bell will be but one voice on the nine-member board, but he hopes to draw on Hollywood’s creative community to develop PBS shows, especially projects that, for whatever reason, can’t be done on commercial networks. He also will continue on “According to Jim,” which It goes on hiatus in three weeks. Should it return, he’s worked things out with ABC so he will have time to attend CPB meetings.
He downplays his political bent, pointing out that even his National Review postings are more humorous than partisan, and that he doesn’t “follow politics that closely.”
“I have been inside the Beltway exactly twice,” he says. He’s also met Bush twice, but only in brief photo op meet and greets.
What is certain is that he’ll probably keep more careful tabs on his humor. Among one of the jokes that rattled D.C. insiders was a riff he made on incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He wrote on National Review Online in May 2005: “I could reach across the aisle and hug Nancy Pelosi, and I would, except this is a new shirt, and that sort of thing leaves a stain.”
On his blog on Wednesday, he apologized for the joke, and said that it was “genuinely unfair” to make such quips of a personal nature.
He wrote: “Some pretty nasty things were written about me in the last few months, and I didn’t like it one bit. I took a totally unprovoked swipe at Ms. Pelosi for no good reason, other than I thought it might be funny. Now that I know how it feels, I’m not going to do that again. I think I can be funny without it.”
Of the whole confirmation process, he tells W&W: “The most enlightening thing that I have learned is that there is a wide gap between the humor in Washington and the humor in Hollywood. In Washington, they take themselves very seriously.”