I am sitting on a dark green leather love seat while John Haslett Cuff towers above me, stretching out his arms and gripping a bottle of champagne in his right hand. “DOM PERIGNON, 1985! A HUNDRED-DOLLAR BOUQUET OF FLOWERS!!!” he yells, cradling his arms to hold the imaginary floral arrangement. “They were sent to me by a whole huge number of people at the CBC who like me and like what I’ve done. The grunts! Not the fucking overpaid suits! It’s not the hatchet men and knife-in-the-back pimps! And who are the grunts?” Cuff’s eyes are bulging and his chiselled face is red. “THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE TELEVISION!” he roars triumphantly. The tall, broad-shouldered man replaces the bottle on the bookshelf above his prized 1869 Charles Dickens collection, then falls back onto the sofa and stares at me, waiting for me to throw him another question that he can sink his teeth into.
Some people think The Globe and Mail’s TV critic is a tiger, always ready to pounce. They believe he bares his teeth (and, some would argue, his soul) far too frequently on the front page of the Arts section. In fact, if you only read the Globe’s letters to the editor, you might come to the conclusion that Cuff is the most hated TV critic in Canada. One reader accused him of having “some perpetual peeve against the CBC that warps his judgment, inclining him toward vandalism rather than criticism.” Another begged the G1obe, “Please. Make him stop.” He has drawn angry mail from a who’s who of Canadian broadcasting: Peter Herrndorf (chair and CEO, TVOntario), Keith Spicer (chair, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), Ivan Fecan (vice-president, Baton Broadcasting) and Peter Kent (anchor, Global News). From the CBC, well, the list is endless: Peter Mansbridge (anchor, The National), Mark Starowicz (executive producer of documentaries) and many, many more. There are also those who don’t think Cuff is at all animalistic. They find little that’s ferocious in the bluster and bravado of Cuff’s five-days-a-week column. These readers like his passion, his authoritativeness and his knowledge. They, too, write to the editor, penning his praises. “People feel like they’re getting the straight goods from a guy who’s cutting through the smoke and mirrors of the industry,” says James Adams, Arts editor at the Globe.
But whether they love him or hate him (some even love him and hate him), most read him. Therein lies his uniqueness: unlike other TV critics in Canada, Cuff gets a response. If they love him, people respond by watching what he’s recommended or mention his opinion to their colleagues at work. If they hate him, they yell at the newspaper or bring his name up with venom at a dinner party. But they’ll still come back to him, day after day.
In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote: “Television has gradually become our culture. This means, among other things, that we rarely talk about television, only about what is on television.” Most of Cuff’s fellow critics on Canadian dailies do just that – they present plot summaries, write about ratings and slobber over the latest TV stars. But Cuff is not content with teaching readers how to interpret the TV guide. He doesn’t write about what’s on, he writes about what’s on underneath. Cuff digs past the surface of press releases and handy synopses to the core of a program. For example, in reviewing the CBC movie Little Criminals (an intense and disturbing view of a troubled 11-year-old), he wrote: “Not only a superb piece of emotionally corrosive drama but an eloquent argument for the kind of humane social engineering that is anathema to government’s deficit-cutting zealots.”
On CBC Newsworld’s Gilmour on the Arts, Cuff again went in-depth: “Gilmour is best when he’s being negative and cynical, taking well-deserved shots at the narcissistic excesses of the entertainment industry that is so shamelessly pandered to everywhere else on TV (Extra, Entertainment Tonight, etc.), and in most magazines and newspapers. But he’s also capable of fawning, as he did over a banal interview with the insipid [actor] Andie MacDowell and in an utterly ennervated encounter he had with Vanessa Redgrave.” Best when negative and cynical? Capable of fawning? Banal? Cuff has just described himself-on some days.
On other days, Cuff is capable of using the column for personal catharsis. Consider this example from October 16, 1995: “I can barely remember what it was like to be twentysomething (a messy blur of booze, drugs, bad sex?).” He personalizes most issues and brings his own life with its ups and downs and quirky asides-to each review with varying success. Last fall, Cuff made some insensitive remarks about Louis Farrakhan’s “Million Man March” on Washington, D.C. (“Arguably,” he wrote, “there were probably more Crips and Bloods, ex-cons, parolees and felons per square mile in Washington yesterday.”) As a result, he drew a large volume of angry responses; readers felt the statement was “blatantly racist.” In a rare apology three days later, Cuff acknowledged his “sweeping and dismissive generalization” and explained that he should have prefaced the statement with something like, “if the statistics about crime and young black men are reliable…… He then concluded: “For adding to their pain; for adding another brick to the wall of ignorance; and, most of all, for the sake of my son, who is brown-skinned and beautiful and still seemingly blissfully unaware of the ugliness of racism, I apologize.”
Ironically, the man who is now hated by many of the country’s top television and film people appeared, in the mid-’80s, in two campy horror B-movies (Psycho Girls and Gravevard Shiftt) an American Express commercial with Peter Ustinov, and a movie of the week with Alan Arkin. But Cuff’s acting career ended just after the break-tip of his second marriage. “I was a psychological terrorist,” he says of the union that ended in 1986. “I was an extremely possessive, fiercely intimidating, psychopathic motherfucker.” Though he had been a heavy drinker for some time, his addiction got worse. “I was starting to drink so bad that I didn’t look so good in the morning,” he adds.
“I developed a combative attitude very early in life,” says Cuff of his formative years out west. Born on January 13, 1949, in Surrey, England, Cuff grew up in Alberta and Saskatchewan. A sickly, cross-eyed child, he had gastrointestinal and lung problems and spent most of his pre-adolescence in the hospital. At 13, “because children are so cruel,” he began to lift weights, an activity (along with tennis) he still does today to counteract the effects of life as a professional couchpotato. In December 1960, he moved to Vancouver, where he eventually became entertainment editor and writer for the then-underground paper, The Georgia Straight. There he renewed his acquaintanceship with Ted Laturnus, a high school friend and fellow writer at the Straight. They were drinking buddies, says Laturnus, and though they drank a lot, Cuff was a happy drunk; he was more fun that way. The pair used to play Scrabble for money -a buck a point- and once dared each other to a novel-writing contest. “He always wanted to be a writer, that was the deal,” says Laturnus.
But Cuff also wanted to be a rock star. “I can remember him at parties, posturing like he was a combination of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant all at once,” adds Laturnus, chuckling. “He was a good-looking guy and he played it to the hilt.” That is, of course, when Cuff wasn ‘t dressed like a pimp. The two used to play a lot of pool and one day, says Laturnus, Cuff showed up at a local pool hall “wearing bright red pants, a bright red jean jacket, big python boots and a corduroy cap-the whole thing. He got into this game with these drunks, and I just have this image in my head of him being chased around the table by these three guys, ’cause some shit had happened. And he was doing this black, patter rap thing he had going, like, ‘Hey man, back off, man!’ and the three drunks weren’t having any of it.”
On the advice of a friend, Cuff moved to Toronto in 1977. “He went through hard times and was really lonely,” says Laturnus. “It takes a lot of jam to just plunk yourself down in a big city when you don’t know anybody.” He tried jobs cleaning factories, driving cabs and acting as a private investigator. He also spent a year at Ryerson’s School of Journalism after begging the admissions officer to let him in. (The officer, learning of Cuff’s bag of Georgia Straight clippings, had thought the school had nothing to teach him.) By the mid-’80s, in addition to acting, Cuff was freelancing as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail plus a few magazines like the Globe’s Toronto and Quest.
Throughout this period, Cuff continued to drink-even after accepting a job offer from the Globe to cover the TV beat. But it didn’t take long, he says, before “it became very clear to me that there was something wrong with my behaviour. If such a lovely human being [as his second wife] could love me and marry me and then leave me, there must have been something wrong with me.” He jumped on and off the wagon for about 10 months. Then, on March 26, 1987, he sobered up. Completely.
By 1989, Cuff had become an established TV critic, and an award-winning one at that. For a series of columns on CBC budget cuts, he picked up a National Newspaper Award for Critical Writing. He won again in 1990 for his overall television criticism. Though the prizes signalled to Cuff that he was doing something right, this period was also fraught with difficulty.
In early 1990, one year before Cuff’s third marriage fell apart (“I was still in the throes of recovery. I was not a fit person for anyone to marry”), executives at Baton Broadcasting took issue with some pieces he wrote about Divided Loyalties, a made-for-TV epic about Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. The broadcasters felt Cuff had implied they weren’t committed to putting out quality television, and served Cuff and the Globe with a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. Three years later, it was settled out of court and an apology was printed in the Globe. “I have no disagreement with [the apology],” he told me. “I don’t want you getting in trouble and I don’t want me getting in trouble.”
In the summer of 1994, the Globe gave him his present column and he has savoured every column inch of it. He took on his role with fire and fierceness, criticizing successful talk shows like Jerry Springer (“carnivals of sleaze”) and sitcoms like Friends (“Wake up people. These Friends are not your friends, they only want your time and your money”) for peddling to lowest-common-denominator audiences. But he also celebrates shows like Seinfeld for not “succumbing to the easy and obvious ploys of so many of its competitors.”
According to writer David Littlejohn in the book Television as a Cultural Force, TV critics like Cuff don’t have the ability to make or break the careers of producers or their shows, but they do have the ability of affecting “the shape of television programming in the long run,” Cuff certainly tries to do his part. His approach is blunt-he dismisses and praises shows with equal zeal. He passionately defends such pet shows as Homicide: Life On the Street (a strikingly filmed and intelligently written U.S. cop show) and My So-Called Life (the trials and tribulations of a 16-year-old girl). And he enthusiastically attacks such pet hates as Side Effects and Lonesome Dove for using mostly Canadian crews to imitate American values.
Though he could never be classified as an academic critic like former New Yorker writer Michael Arlen (“the reigning master of this unrespected craft,” according to Littlejohn), Cuff does use and understand the kind of critical guidelines that writer N.D. Batra describes in The Hour of Television as: respect for the potentials of the medium; knowledge of how TV “modifies and redefines” traditions; and how a good critic should become a “watchdog for historical truth and accuracy.” Still, Cuff’s evaluations of television come more from his emotional and instinctive responses to it. When I visited him in his apartment, he was watching the end of a short film called The Plague and the Moon Flower. Asked to describe it, he says, “It’s a peculiar but rather lovely British thing which is sort of music and images and some sort of poetic discussion of the end of the world or the beginning of man. Very lovely, but I don’t know what the fuck it’s about.”
Cuff can be very much like the strong, descriptive words he uses: compelling, gritty, offensive and, his favourite adjective when describing the CBC, ludicrous. The public broadcaster, in fact, has become Cuff’s Number One Hate. Consider this rant on November 14, 1995: “CBC Television, in its obsequious deference to corporate sponsors, its often timid approach to news, information and documentary programming, continues to erode whatever remains of its once strong and devoted public support.” Or this screed about Prime Time News being changed back to The National: “The whole business is so dazzlingly ludicrous, so richly symptomatic of executive incompetence and the public network’s chronic imaginative constipation that no-one should be surprised that the CBC is well on its way to further privatization or extinction.”
One of his constant beefs has been with the CBC’s leadership. In a 1994 column about incoming president Anthony Manera, Cuff wrote: “Why on earth is the network going to be run by yet another individual who knows nothing about producing programs, about the creative process, about the very raison d’etre of the public broadcasting system?” Because of Manera’s training as an engineer, Cuff later hinted that the president knew less about programming than “a sack of hammers.”
But the man that Frank magazine described as a “Self-loving diarist ineptly disguised as self-loving television critic” has also written positively about the CBC. For instance,when the CBC faced its tremendous budget cuts several months ago, Cuff wrote: “The political slaughter of our only national public broadcasting service represents a psychic and ideological shift of national consciousness …. And while none of us love everything about the CBC, most of us find something to enjoy in the eclectic brilliance of Ideas, the first-coffee-of-the-day familiarity of Morningside, the anarchic hilarity of This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the reliable, stolid earnestness of The National.”
“I love the fact that it exists. I’d just like to see it be better,” says an exasperated Cuff. “The reality is I care about it, and it’s important.” Among the shows he’s liked recently are: Liberty Street (“a superbly crafted and entertaining television series”); Rita and Friends (“the best weekly showcase of a rich and diverse range of Canadian musical talent”); and individual documentaries in The Passionate Eye, Witness and Rough Cuts. As for last fall’s Quebec coverage, CBC was best, wrote Cuff in his October 31, 1995, column: “It rises to occasions such as the referendum with an impressively efficient, sober-sided thoroughness that no other network, not even CNN, can quite match.” In his year-end summary, Cuff also ranked The National/CBC News in his 1995 list of top-10 shows. However, some within the CBC don’t appreciate these compliments.
“God save us from friends like Cuff,” says Tony Burman, executive producer of The National in his office in the chaotic newsroom. “I know he prefaces every trashing of the CBC with a sort of righteous proviso that says, ‘Hey, I’m a great believer of public broadcasting.’ If he’s a great believer of public broadcasting, why is someone with so many years of experience so uninformed and ignorant?”
“When his failure to actually pick up the phone,” adds Burman, “and ask the very basic questions of the people who produced the programs, when that failure produces a distortion and totally misleading account of what’s going on, then readers aren’t well served, and we aren’t well served.” Burman went public with his complaints about Cuff in a Globe op-ed piece on June 30, 1994: “Drip by drip, like Chinese water torture, the Globe’s television critic John Haslett Cuff targets [Prime Time News] with one cheap shot after another, providing us with no opportunity to respond.”
This was followed by a letter to the paper by Bob Culbert, executive director for News/Current Affairs and Newsworld, about some glib comments Cuff made regarding staffing policies at Prime Time News. (Cuff had written, “My sources, and they are very good ones, suggest that the staffing policy at Prime Time News is ‘Hire three for every one that leaves.'”) Culbert stated that Cuff’s assertions were wrong, and that, because of budget cuts, PTN’s staff is actually smaller than Cuff leads people to believe.
“He doesn’t have to call me about his opinions,” says Culbert. “But if he’s going to write based on fact, he should check. I still see television criticism as journalism. I don’t think different rules apply.”
Despite these objections, Cuff feels no pressure to pick up the phone as often as some CBC brass might like. “I’ve been lied to so many times I gave up talking to people and I’m referring specifically to the CBC. I’ve been lied to consistently and avoided for 10 years. At a certain point, you don’t want to hear their bullshit anymore.” Besides, Cuff maintains, the people who count-“the grunts”-often support him. They were, after all, the ones who sent him the champagne and flowers.
“I’ve won two national awards for my reporting and my criticism,” he says of the CBC’s challenge to his professionalism. “I think that speaks for itself.” When asked about the sources that Burman claims are “so off-the-wall and peripheral,” Cuff’s tone turns icy. “I would reply by saying that my sources are so good that these people would quake if they knew who they were.”
Supporting Cuff is Richard Nielsen, president and owner of Norflicks, a television production company that develops feature films and TV shows for the CBC and others: “It does not serve the CBC well for people to withhold criticism from a system which is manifestly failing.”
Manera and other CBC brass felt otherwise and approached the Globe in 1994 for a meeting on the paper’s “anti-CBC” editorial slant. “It struck me at that point that they actually perceive what Cuff writes as a threat,” says Liam Lacey, former Globe TV writer and current film critic. “Why is a billion-dollar-a-year organization worried about a guy they claim not to respect? Their magnificent reach is well beyond ours, so what’s the issue?”
The phone rings and Cuff is on the line. “Just a thought, Mikala, but did you know that the Royal Canadian Air Farce does a sketch of a TV critic? Someone wrote me about it and said it reminded them of me. His name is Gilbert Smythe-Biteme and he has long silvery blond hair, like mine was before I cut it. He has the three names and numerous ex-wives, like I’ve had. Other than that, there’s no comparison,” he laughs.
Cuff loves to be the centre of attention. He thrives on the fact that he has an audience, that he makes people angry and, even better, makes them think. But what angers him is when people believe that “Mr. Cranky” (as The Toronto Star’s editorial media writer Antonia Zerbisias refers to him) doesn’t actually like the medium he criticizes. But it is an easy mistake to make, and Cuff has acknowledged it. “The contempt inspired by television, bred by its familiarity and household status as just another appliance, is often well deserved,” he wrote on January 31, 1996. “On the other hand, the particular genius of consistently excellent television shows is often greatly unappreciated.” According to Cuff, great television should surprise, provoke, stimulate, amuse, anger and move its audience. Television should offer viewers “their stories and some of the best stories from around the world.”
“What I do love is great writing, great acting, a good story,” he yelled at me in an early interview “I love the great television that I see. I adore it. Of course I do! I mean, how many guys in North America sat through 26 hours of a German fucking subtitled series’ I loved Heimat, [Die Zweite Heimat, a series about generational conflict in 1960s Germany,] I loved the sound of German when I got through with it! And they’re telling me I don’t love television?” The danger for a writer like Cuff is the possibility that he may end up as just another piece of television fluff, resorting to sound bites, gossip and foolish banter in order to keep audiences. After all, says Bob Appel, communications director for the McLuhan Centre on Media Sciences: “Critics are no less a part of the entertainment medium than the medium itself.” But the true critic must also offer profound thoughts about the medium and perceptive comments as to how TV affects our lives. So how does Cuff see himself fitting in?
“I see myself as a kind of entertainer who has to get out there day after day and maybe be a little amusing, maybe be a tiny bit insightful … I think of myself as a TV critic-it’s on my business card-but I also think of myself as a TV columnist. I don’t know that you can be a critic with 500 words,” says Cuff somewhat ambiguously.
Five hundred words, five days a week, does not a critic make, says Morris Wolfe, who wrote a monthly television column for Saturday Night from 1973 to 1980 and, five years later, published Jolts, a book that compared television programming in Canada and the U.S. In fact, Wolfe argues, Canada doesn’t have a first-rate television critic, and he doesn’t think we ever had one. Yet why have other arts had their celebrated critics (notably the Globe’s Jay Scott in film and The Toronto Star’s Nathan Cohen in theatre) but not TV? “If you’re writing five columns a week, I don’t think you have time to sit back and put things into a larger perspective,” says Wolfe. The critic, he says, must be well read and immersed in day-to-day culture. This is important because television offers the most comprehensive look at our lives in the present, as well as the past and future. It serves as friend and foe, fantasy and reality, everything and nothing. Understanding the workings of society helps the critic to link what we see on television to what we experience in our everyday lives. Cuff’s writing, Wolfe believes, doesn’t perform that function adequately. “But he may be the best of the Canadian reviewers writing today.”
Cuff is the kind of guy who’ll say, half-seriously, “I’ve always wondered why no one has ever done a profile on me. I’m far more interesting than anyone else.” He’s the kind of guy who has several different kinds of hair products in his bathroom. The kind who uses “Vanna White’s Perfect Smile Teeth Whitening System.” The kind of guy who can “bench-press 200” while watching TV and who has vanity plates on his car that read: JHC TV But Cuff is also the kind of guy who is charming and sometimes, when not preening, self-deprecating. He’s the kind of guy who adores his six-and-a-half-year-old son Adrian (by his third wife) and who helps a gal on with her coat. He’s the kind who proudly points out the brown-tinted pictures of his dad and mom (an Alberta paratrooper and a well-to-do British war bride) that he has framed on his bookshelf, and the kind of guy who works hard, watching between five and 10 shows a day on one of two mammoth-screened TV sets.
Yet Alex Strachan, The Vancouver Sun’s new TV critic who writes six columns a week, finds “a lot of his stuff very lazy and very simplistic. Sometimes he’s a little precious. It’s almost as if he’s writing for people who hate TV.” Still, most of Cuff’s colleagues across the country respect him as a writer. “He’s entertaining as hell,” says the Calgary Herald’s movie and TV reporter, Bob Blakey. “When you start reading his stuff, you usually finish reading it.”
As for the television industry itself, there are also people who like Cuff. They might not like him when he tears apart their productions, but they like that he’s there. Brian McKenna, who, with his brother, Terence, produced for CBC the much ballyhooed WWII documentary, The Valour and the Horror, is one of them. He has been the target of both praise and criticism from Cuff, and points out that “People do listen to him even if they say they don’t. He has an impact and people who have to sustain one of his withering attacks know that it’s being read by their peers.”
Feedback is essential to TV producers. “One of the difficulties of television is that it takes place in people’s living rooms and you’re not there with your audience,” says Pat Ferns, executive vice-president of the annual Banff Television Festival. “If you’re in the live arts, you know whether people clap, hiss or boo at the end of a program. [With TV] you’re quite hungry for a response.”
TV directors, like Cuff’s friend Gerard Ciccoritti (Straight Up, the 1993 movie Paris, France and the two B-movies Cuff starred in 10 years ago), have their work constantly scrutinized by critics. But Ciccoritti says that because the industry is so defensive and because there are so few “good critics, it might be easy to dismiss good criticism. Still, “Critics keep you honest. Criticism elevates opinion to give it some kind of value. It goes beyond saying, ‘This is a good product’ or ‘This is a bad product,’ it’s saying, [a show] is important or it’s not important. … [Cuff] can’t just say ‘I didn’t like this movie,’ he’s got to say, ‘I didn’t like this movie and the people who make this movie shouldn’t be making movies.’ That’s the role of a good critic.”
In the 10 years that Cuff has been writing about television for the Globe, only two of his pieces have been killed. One was a column on the William Kennedy Smith rape trial and the other a piece on homophobia as it related to a short film called Too Close for Comfort. The Kennedy Smith piece never ran (the editors had a different idea for the piece than the one Cuff delivered-they wanted a column about the effect of television in the courtroom and Cuff wanted a column about the issues of rape and sexual abuse). But Frank and Xtra! (a gay lifestyle magazine) picked up the homophobia column in July 1991. In it, Cuff wrote: “I have a 22-month-old son whom I adore, and one of my fears is that he will grow up to be a faggot, gay, bum bandit, pansy, limp wrist, queer, fairy, fruit, queen, homo or any variation thereof. Not that I expect to love him any less, but because I’m a homophobe who thinks of homosexuality as a handicap.
“And if that’s how I still talk-when I should know better-then I certainly don’t want my boy to have to deal with a world that is often even more vicious in its condemnation of homosexuals.” The Globe feared that despite Cuff’s intentions to personalize an issue, his readers would misconstrue what he was trying to say. He accepted it.
“One thing about me-and whatever imperfections I have, and there are many-is that I do try to write as honestly as I can about what the hell I’m feeling. I’m an emotional creature and I hope that my writing reflects that,” says a weary looking Cuff from his sofa. The living room in his apartment is getting dark and he’s talking up a storm about the relationship he has with the readers of his column. Television, he says, is something we all share. He also says that great criticism, like that of former New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael (“I have love, respect, devotion and admiration for her”), is a high form of journalistic art. And yes, though his business card identifies him as a critic, he primarily identifies himself as something else:
“I’m a hack and a tap dancer, but there is something real here and there is a real person trying to communicate with other people.”