Posts, ghosts and a roast: The joke's on AOL's Falco

Exec, NBC hit with flurry of jabs

Sportscaster Bob Costas and "Today" executive producer Jim Bell roasted AOL CEO Randy Falco on Tuesday, with Time Warner bosses Richard Parsons and Jeffrey Bewkes, newscasters Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams and the ghosts of AOL's past also making cameos.

The chuckles were part of the Center for Communication's popular annual Frank Stanton Award luncheon, which this year featured current and past NBC Universal execs.

Costas quipped that Falco's move last year from NBC to AOL must have been a case of "fear of success" before launching into a couple of AOL layoff punch lines.

"He has three kids," Costas joked. "He used to have five, but he had to lay two of them off." AOL employees hit by a recent round of 2,000 layoffs haven't received notifications yet — "because they have AOL," he added.

Bell struck similar notes, saying that Falco had invited the remaining AOL work force to this luncheon. "Table 10, how are you doing?" he added after a brief pause.

He also had the audience in stitches when he noted that Katie Couric and Falco left around the same time, at which point photos of the two appeared on a screen. Bell went on to say that he has been wondering if there was any shared reason for the departures, at which point an image of NBC Uni CEO Jeff Zucker appeared.

"I am glad both are doing well after leaving NBC," Bell added. "Well, Randy is."

He also joked that he first met Falco in an airport toilet when a guy in the neighboring stall tapped his foot. "No, that was Steve Case," Bell added to cheers.

Falco received a warm reception from the audience in the packed ballroom at the Pierre hotel in Manhattan, where the crowd included New York City film commissioner Katherine Oliver, former NBC Uni boss Bob Wright, Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav and Center for Communication chairman Richard Bressler.

Falco opened his remarks by admitting that he is not known as flamboyant. "I am a trained GE executive. I am not really used to a lot of humor … but I am used to a flat stock price," he said in a reference to the sluggish price of shares of AOL parent Time Warner.

Getting a shot in against his former NBC boss, Falco said NBC was used to being the No. 1 network despite various executive changes. "Then, along came Jeff Zucker," he said.

He also in good humor set the record straight on NBC decisions he didn't approve of, including the XFL experiment and the failure to pick up David Letterman and "Desperate Housewives."

"MSNBC sounds like a bad disease," Falco continued quipping before taking a comedic shot at NBC's acquisition of iVillage.

Falco turned serious for a minute when he acknowledged the "remarkable slide" NBC and AOL had seen in recent years but added that he is craving the challenge to turn around AOL despite his lack of new-media experience.

"Turning a truly great brand into a brand-new business" is his challenge, and he took some time to decide whether to take it on, he said.

Then Falco drew cheers when replaying an alleged call he made to cancel his AOL service, which ended up with him getting to talk to TW president and COO Bewkes.

In the audio skit, Falco was heard telling Bewkes, "You'd be lucky to give (your AOL service) away for free," with Bewkes asking how to make money then. Falco's suggestion to focus on advertising earned him an invite to lunch.

Falco ended his romp by saying that when he considered the AOL job offer, he had sleepless nights in which he was haunted by AOL's ghosts. And these ghosts appeared in drawn outlines on several screens with biting commentary — former AOL TW co-president Bob Pittman, former AOL TW chairman Steve Case, former AOL TW CEO Gerald Levin and former AOL TW board member and vice chairman Ted Turner.

A slew of industry folks sent video tributes, including Brokaw, who quipped that he is disappointed every time he opens his AOL e-mail and does not get a note saying, "Randy says hi." NBC's Williams shared his take on Falco's job — "you've got challenges" — just in case not all AOL jokes had been exhausted already.
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