I was Anthony Bourdain's "censor" at CNN.
No, we don't really have "censors," per se, at CNN -- we have Standards and Practices. I was the lucky one in our department to review "Parts Unknown" for things like graphic language or pictures, political bent or historical tweaking.
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I never met him. I never even spoke to him. I didn't have to. He spoke to me, and everyone else, through his work.
As a former documentarian, I especially appreciated the sheer beauty of his programs, and the talents of his team. I was blown away by the photography, the direction, the editing and, of course, the writing.
As many have remarked, Bourdain had a very distinctive voice. As a writer for "60 Minutes," I did preliminary scripts for the likes of Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer. I tried to hear their voices in my head as I wrote those initial tracks. I don't think I could have done that for Anthony Bourdain. His voice was too personal ... so visceral. I didn't know how he felt about what he was experiencing. Only he could tell us.
Tony -- and I think of him that way rather than by his formal name -- spoke plainly. Writers like him don't write to impress, they don't try to write poetry, and they don't even think about the impact their words will have. They write to share their experience as they are experiencing it -- not as a travelogue, but more trying to put you there with them. They can tell us what they see and hear and smell and taste and in a way that is organic.
For someone used to dealing with what news standards should be for our network, trying to find the "bar" for "Parts Unknown" was its own journey.
It's well known that Tony was profane. This was something new for CNN. We had hired him wanting him and everything that went along with it. But even though CNN is cable, it is also a brand. It's the most widely respected news network in the world, our viewers tell us, and we really don't want profane vernacular coming out of our anchors' mouths.
But we hired Tony to be Tony. Dilemma. So someone came up with the arbitrary "two shits per show." F-words were verboten and muted, although of course you could see what was being said. Tony joked about the "two shits" rule on late night TV and said he was negotiating for three for the next season.
I have to say, I eventually gave up on the "shits." But those weren't the biggest problem.
Tony loved talking about genitals. Mostly his. "Be careful after eating spicy foods to wash your hands before relieving yourself" was his favorite. Various bugs and reptiles climbing up his pants and endangering the jewels was another. Then there was the show where people were leaping in ponds and having to spend the rest of the day with "moist nuts."
Whenever the opportunity presented itself, Tony made sure you knew how his body functions were impacted. On a trip to the French Alps with his good buddy and fellow chef Eric Ripert, where both of them ate copious amounts of cheese fondue, Tony warned Eric that he would be having large, concrete-like bowel movements.
I learned that "crap" and "shit" were different. Who knew?
For one of the last episodes, about the Lower East Side of New York, I paid no attention to the "shits" uttered by Tony and his various guests. The multiple f-words, uttered equally by Tony and his dinner companions, would be muted.
But in this episode, Tony's guests were, hard to believe, more profane than he was. They told tales of 60's NYC and the very gritty art and music scene. A lunch companion, guest/singer/performer Lydia Lunch, spoke plainly about what it took to make it in the 60's -- hand jobs under the table to get her band to Europe. And that's one of her milder utterances. And millennials think they invented shock value. Let's just say "let it all hang out" wasn't a metaphor.
The producers at Zero Point Zero and I had many discussions over the dispatching of animals. I've since read what Tony wrote about that, and I wished I'd read it before. He was on the record as saying after he killed his first pig with a spear, which he felt obligated to do, having ordered the execution of many, many animals as a chef, he felt it was hypocritical not to show where our food comes from.
Again, cable is not necessarily cable news. I am an animal lover and admittedly in denial about continuing to eat meat while I can't stand the thought, let alone the sight, of killing animals. I didn't feel our audience was ready for Tony's level of reality. I challenged his executive producer with the question, "Would Tony want to bring a cow out to his dinner guests to see its butchering?" We compromised, but not much.
Of course, Tony was very, very funny. We had to seek a middle ground in many areas, especially politics. In one episode, Tony described a particularly disgusting-sounding food he tried somewhere in Africa as being so good he would "eat it out of Chris Christie's jock on a hot summer day." Besides the fact that, at the time, Christie was a sitting governor and a presidential candidate, there was the TMI factor. Then the "fat joke" factor. I have the fortunate alternative of kicking these decisions to the next level. It passed, under the "let Tony be Tony" rule.
Tony seemed to love all things shocking, not really a surprise given his personal journey, because after all, what was really shocking to him? In an episode on Tokyo, he reveled in following a couple who "taught" bondage. There were many extended scenes of "fun with ropes" that rubbed my bosses the wrong way -- if you'll forgive the pun -- but Tony loved it.
My responsibilities included looking at several cuts of each program -- rough cut, fine cut, picture lock. I actually needed to look at all the cuts because I was convinced Tony (or maybe his producers?) loved playing the game of "what else can I sneak in here that standards might miss on the second cut." Blurs needed to be checked and rechecked. Was there anything new? I'm sure I was just paranoid ... maybe.
One of my favorite challenges over the past five years was an episode on Chicago, where Tony visited a bar whose owner was also a painter. His work was primarily of political icons. One such painting was of Sarah Palin, naked, holding a shotgun, with a turkey being dispatched behind her. Uh. No. Please cover the vice presidential candidate's private parts. Made me think the show might be called "Private Parts Unknown."
Like his viewers, I fell in love with Tony. He was a brilliant writer and storyteller, and you saw his toughness and sensed his vulnerability. His team at ZPZ are the most gifted filmmakers I have seen in a long, long time. His shows were brilliantly shot, directed and edited, always. His writing was poetry, although his friends say he denied being a poet.
I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate and will miss my small part in this program. And my small connection with one of the most brilliant storytellers of our generation. I will miss his voice. I already miss his voice.
I have no claim to being more distraught over Tony's passing than any of his fans, and not in the same league as those who knew and worked with him. But like those who did know him well, I am really angry at his loss, and deeply sad. His kind won't come our way again.
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