If you regularly tune in to Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, you may remember that Olbermann was mysteriously absent from the show for three days at the end of April. But Olbermann didn't just "have the night off," as David Shuster, his fill-in, said on the air three evenings in a row. According to a source inside MSNBC, it was a bizarre temper tantrum on Olbermann's part that led him to storm off the set in protest. Even stranger: The drama was all Ben Affleck's fault.
Olbermann was not scheduled to take a vacation at the end of April. But he ended up missing three shows: Friday, April 17; Monday; April 20, and Tuesday, April 21. It's what happened on April 16, though, that prompted Olbermann to exit MSNBC's studios in such a rage.
According to a source at the network, Olbermann was livid when he learned that Rachel Maddow had booked Ben Affleck as a guest on her show. Olbermann, it turns out, had been interested in having Affleck on his show, too, and when he heard that Maddow's producers had secured the actor instead, he demanded that the interview be switched from Maddow's nine o'clock broadcast to his own an hour earlier. Maddow and her staff have been known to politely give in to Olbermann's whims in the past—it was Olbermann, after all, who helped bring Maddow to the network. This time, however, they didn't budge. (With ratings for Maddow's show a bit lackluster as of late, parting with an A-list celebrity guest isn't a decision to be made lightly.) Olbermann took the matter to senior management at MSNBC and NBC Universal and asked that they step in and "correct" the situation. That didn't happen, though, and Affleck went on Maddow's show as scheduled on Thursday, April 16. And Olbermann's three-day protest commenced the next day.
Olbermann's temper—and tendency to hold grudges—is nothing new. When Dan Abrams was the host of the 9pm broadcast, Olbermann famously refused to "toss," or introduce, Abrams on the air, as he now does with Maddow. At Olbermann's insistence, five seconds of footage of the exterior of 30 Rock appeared between the two programs instead. What did Abrams do to earn Olbermann's enmity? Nothing, really, although one popular rumor floating around MSNBC at the time was that they'd both asked out the same woman a number of years ago and she'd accepted Abrams's invite instead of Olbermann's.
But Olbermann's unpredictable behavior can even put the colleagues he doesn't have a grudge against in an uncomfortable position. On April 21—day three of the stand-off—David Shuster was asked on Twitter about Olbermann's absence. His reply speaks volumes. Shuster doesn't actually state that Olbermann has the flu. He merely points out it's "flu/allergy season," a nice little hedge in case the real story was ever revealed. He then awkwardly adds that "KO is a great guy. He will return soon, I hope," indicating that, at the time, no one really knew when Olbermann would return. (Not to mention that whether or not Olbermann is a "great guy" or not doesn't make much sense in the context of having the flu.)
The biggest question—and one no one can really answer except for Olbermann himself—is why having Ben Affleck on his show meant so much to him in the first place. The two have a past: Affleck spoofed the MSNBC host late last year, although Olbermann seemed to find the imitation flattering as you can see in this clip. It's much more likely that Affleck's role in this latest bit of drama didn't matter all that much, and this was just Olbermann attempting to once again force MSNBC to give in to his demands and satiate his ego. In which case, it was just another day at MSNBC.
We called MSNBC this morning for comment. Our call was not returned.
Update: Olbermann has issued an official statement on the matter: "That was my first opportunity to take even a long weekend to mourn my mother's death and deal with the many sad logistics subsequent to her sudden passing. The source of this story is a liar and those who spread it without seeking confirmation or reputation are beneath contempt."
Our Response: We were saddened to hear of Olbermann's loss and found his tribute to his mother deeply moving. But if that was the reason Olbermann took time off two weeks later, we can't imagine why Olbermann wouldn't have simply said as much. Furthermore, we find it hard to believe one of his colleagues at MSNBC—a respected journalist, no less—would have attributed his absence to the "flu/allergy season" if Olbermann had made the perfectly understandable decision take a few days to mourn his mother's passing.