Lawrence O’Donnell Begins MSNBC’s Post-Olbermann Era

“Last Word” begins new time slot after “Countdown” host’s stunning exit

Last Updated: January 24, 2011 @ 8:39 PM

Lawrence O’Donnell took over Keith Olbermann’s former time slot Monday with warm words for the man he replaced, saying he was there "thanks entirely to Keith."

The host of "The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell" tried to pay tribute to his successor at 8 p.m. — and perhaps endear himself to Olbermann's skeptical fans — by noting that he was a frequent guest and fill-in host on Olbermann's "Countdown." His intro, and comments throughout the show, mixed humility with theatrical, old-school broadcaster formality.

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"Good evening from New York, I'm Lawrence O'Donnell," he said to open the show. "With those words I began every edition of 'The Last Word' in 2010. When we got to 2011, I stopped introducing myself every night because I figured most of my audience knew who I was by then, and the rest could figure it out from the title, 'The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell.'

"Now that I've been moved to a time slot magnificently owned and operated by Keith Olbermann for almost eight years, I think I better put my name back in the script for awhile."

O'Donnell took over for Olbertmann three days after Olbermann departed MSNBC without explanation on Friday's "Countdown." MSNBC President Phil Griffin told TheWrap Monday that none of the network's goals — including catching up to No. 1 Fox News — had changed with Olbermann's exit.

After his initial remarks, O'Donnell segued into the show by saying, "There is some news today that Keith would want you to know about." He then led a discussion of Rahm Emanuel being left of Chicago ballots, interviewed Independent Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, focused on gun control — one of his chief issues — and generally did a show like any other "Last Word."

Except for the long shadow of Olbermann.

Rather than avoiding it, O'Donnell immersed himself, again and again, in Olbermann's legacy. Before and during commercial breaks, he teased what he knew viewers most wanted to see: the moment he would address how, exactly, he had ended up in Olbermann's former time slot. 

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It finally came at the end of the show. He recalled his past experiences filling in on "Countdown," naming writers, directors, producers and many others who had helped him through, though he said he never felt worthy of the task. He remembered filling in for every night but one in March 2010, while Olbermann was at the bedside of his terminally ill father.

Trying to put Olbermann's accomplishments in perspective, he said he had produced five nights a week of "op-ed TV."

"Consider what Keith invented," he said. "And taught us to do."

Even his friend Maureen Dowd, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, would have said it was impossible to put so many op-eds on the air, O'Donnell said.

He also recalled his time as a writer and producer on NBC's "The West Wing" to make a point about Olbermann's work ethic.

"I saw exactly how exhausted the great Aaron Sorkin was after delivering 22 episodes a year of 'The West Wing,'" he said. "Well, Keith delivered 20 a month."

"No one on television has ever done anything like it," he added, omitting the fact that Olbermann's competition, No. 1 cable news host Bill O'Reilly, does something awfully similar on Fox News. (Though, as could be said of Olbermann, not in a manner everyone likes.)

"In doing it, he took MSNBC to knew heights," O'Donnell said, quite accurately: Olbermann helped lead the network to become the No. 2 network on cable by providing left-leaning programming that countered the conservative shows on Fox News.

"I know that I now occupy a platform built for me, by Keith Olbermann," he said. He thanked his predecessor for the new time slot, and said his 92-year-old mother did, too: "She could never stay awake past that first commercial break in my 10 o'clock show."

Then, as if accidentally puncturing the air of solemnity, Rachel Maddow appeared for the transition to her 9 p.m. show.

"Hey Lawrence," she offered, with her typical laid-back gumption. "That was very cool, what you just said."

Later, on "The Rachel Maddow Show," she credited Olbermann with helping her get her own show.

"I wouldn't have this show without Keith directly nudging the network to give me a try and without Keith clearing space for the liberals among us in this country to identify ourselves as such, as liberals, even on primetime cable TV," she said. "The way Keith cleared that space was by not only voicing his own opinion but by being really freaking successful while he did it."

Suggesting Olbermann and MSNBC's split may have been mutual, she added: "We are all sorry that Keith and MSNBC decided to end his run here."