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NEW YORK — Katie Couric, Alec Baldwin, Brian Williams, Mark Feuerstein and Lorne Michaels roasted outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker at the Center for Communication’s annual luncheon here Monday, and they did so with jokes about failed NBC primetime programs, the Conan O’Brien-Jay Leno situation and even Charlie Sheen.
Zucker himself also spoke out, joking about his recent firing by Comcast COO Steve Burke who will take over the NBC Universal CEO post once cable giant Comcast closes its planned acquisition of the entertainment company.
“I haven’t felt so much love since I sat down with Steve Burke a few weeks ago,” Zucker told the crowd at the Center’s 30th annual award luncheon.
Referring to the Center’s decision a few years ago to honor Tom Freston just weeks after his firing from the CEO post at Viacom, Zucker said the Center has a knack for bestowing an award on executives “right after they get shit-canned.”
Pointing out a big severance package that Freston nabbed, he said: “Apparently he did not work for GE.”
Zucker had this advice for media executives when they get a call from the Center: “Run! Do not return the call, and start lining up your next gig fast.”
To much laughter and applause, he also played what he introduced as recent cell phone voicemail messages he had received.
Among them was one from the general manager at Manhattan power lunch spot Michael’s who said Zucker’s corporate card had been declined, Tom Brokaw declining a 6:30 p.m. news show ahead of Williams, one from McDonald’s human resources thanking him for submitting his resume and one from Arnold Schwarzenegger that said: “I don’t have an opening on my political staff right now.”
The crowd also enjoyed an alleged Williams voicemail meant for Burke. “Welcome, welcome, welcome…I’m your man,” it said.
Couric also earned many laughs, quipping that Zucker was at least “walking away with Conan O’Brien money.”
In a reference to an expected Republican rout in Tuesday’s midterm elections, she said that in few places beyond the White House can someone have little success with new programs and battle with budgets and still keep their job. “Oh yeah, NBC,” she quipped before suggesting that Zucker, who has expressed an interest in politics, among other things, could star in a CNN show, “Zucker-Pelosi.”
Couric also mentioned Zucker’s love for golf, adding that it is no surprise he is drawn to a game where the players with the lowest numbers win. In another ratings joke, she said that the Pierre, appropriately, is the fourth-best hotel in the country – a reference to how NBC fell from being the top-ranked network to the fourth spot under Zucker’s leadership. And she joked that Zucker must have known some change was about to happen in his career when he recently found Donald Trump sitting in his office.
In a reference to a comment that got anchor Rick Sanchez fired from CNN, Couric also quipped that Zucker is proof that Jewish people control the media, but aren’t necessarily good at it.
When she had heard that the 30th annual luncheon would take place at a midtown Manhattan hotel, she thought she would get to see Charlie Sheen, Couric also joked. The Pierre Hotel is near the Plaza where Sheen had last week trashed a hotel room.
Couric at one point acknowledged that she was getting really edgy, saying that she had seen Baldwin’s pro-gay marriage video before adding: “Rumor is that this isn’t the first time he’s been inside a Pierre.”
Meanwhile, Williams said he wasn’t sure what could be said about Zucker that hasn’t been said about him in the media or on online discussion boards. “Oh, I know: he’s a good guy,” he deadpanned.
Given that the Center’s luncheon “has a certain kiss of death” about it for media folks, Williams also nominated Couric and Diane Sawyer for the 2011 honor.
Up next, Feuerstein said that if the award came from the Center for Really Honest Communication, it would be called “Your consolation prize.”
Baldwin then took to the stage, saying: “I can’t believe that Katie Couric and Brian Williams are the funniest people at this lunch,” arguing that should tell people about the state of affairs of the entertainment industry.
He also asked Zucker for a production deal, with his first project being The Real Housewives of Rockefeller Plaza, featuring the likes of Zucker’s wife and Meredith Vieira who would share their most intimate secrets. Given that he’d plan it for NBC primetime, Baldwin told Zucker to relax. “All your secrets are safe, Jeff,” he quipped, adding they could do the deal Ben Silverman-style
But after a slew of jokes, all speakers lauded Zucker for always supporting them and believing in their work.
Michaels expressed his “total respect and admiration” for how Zucker handled himself under pressure, especially over the past two years.
And the fact that NBC allowed O’Brien to finish his run also deserves credit, he suggested. “I doubt that would have happened at CBS,” said Michaels. It definitely would not have happened at Disney – “they are way too well run.” Possibly at Fox, he added.
Couric lauded Zucker for taking chances and being one of best people she has worked for.
Williams lauded Zucker for his generosity and loyalty.
And Baldwin said he hopes that whatever company Zucker ends up with will hopefully end up buying NBC – “so that I could work for you again.”
And, in one of the most emotional moments of the events, Feuerstein called Zucker “a truly empathetic human being,” recalling how his 1-year-old daughter had two open heart surgeries, and Zucker kept checking on her state via email and asking if he could do anything – “at least once every two weeks.”
Michaels handed Zucker the award to a standing ovation.
The outgoing NBC Uni boss said he is looking back on a “fantastic career” with few regrets and said he hopes his next step will be “half as great” as his NBC experience.
With the Comcast-NBC Uni merger expected to get regulatory approval late this year or in early 2011, Zucker said “I still have a few months of work left.”
But he also thanked his mother, who was present, and his wife who he said he had married in the same hotel event room where he was now honored almost 15 years ago.
The awards luncheon every year bestows the Frank Stanton Award for excellence on a big name from the media world.
This year’s luncheon chairs were NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol, who couldn’t attend the event due to a prior commitment, and Universal boss Ron Meyer.
Among the other attendees were NBC Universal cable networks power players Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick, NBC Uni digital distribution expert JB Perrette, Sony Corp. chairman and CEO Howard Stringer, Viacom COO Tom Dooley, Katherine Oliver, the commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, as well as Center chairman Richard Bressler of private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners who said he was curious to hear what Zucker will do next.
Previous Stanton award honorees include Charlie Rose, BET chairman Debra Lee and Freston.
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