Exposing the Inner Toobin

How CNN's "overexposed" legal analyst beat his way back onto the basic cable airwaves

Cringefest ‘21: Jeffrey Toobin’s return to television was the SECOND most embarrassing spectacle of the pundit’s professional career

There’s no question that this pandemic has been an unmitigated horror show in countless ways, but for those who prefer to look at the world through rose-colored, um, face shields, the Covid era has nevertheless provided a few glimmers of quality entertainment.

I’m thinking specifically about the rapid shift to video conferencing calls, and the resulting hilarious videos of oblivious call participants sitting on the toilet, nude household members walking past in the background and, of course, the attorney who famously could not get rid of the filter his daughter had installed on his computer and was compelled to explain to a judge that he wasn’t, in fact, a cat. 

Pets making unexpected cameos have also provided no end of comic relief during otherwise monotonous work Zoom calls. In fact, some savvy employees have no doubt taken advantage, using their animal companions to avoid unpleasant work-related conversations:

Boss: “Fernstrom, you said your department would deliver a 70 percent revenue increase this quarter yet, according to the latest figures, your revenue appears to have DROPPED 70 percent. What the hell is going on?”

Fernstrom: “Well, you see, the thing is that, um, uh--

(Sound of snapping fingers, followed by a frenzied Jack Russell terrier jumping into frame, barking and sending papers flying everywhere)

Fernstrom: “Spunky, no! Get down! Get down right now! Bad D---”

(Video and audio cut out)

Boss: “Fernstrom? Fernstrom?”

But of course the king of the Covid Era Zoom-based faux pas has to be New Yorker writer and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin who, last October, took the opportunity during a break from a work Zoom call with his New Yorker colleagues to explore his own, um, legal briefs -- but without remembering to first disable his video function.

After the resulting outcry -- along with about 800 zillion jokes on late night talk shows -- Toobin was placed on leave by both the New Yorker and CNN.

The New Yorker eventually determined that no refractory period was long enough for Toobin to recover and cut ties with him entirely. But CNN bent in a different direction, and this past June put Toobin back on the air. 

Humiliation Nation

Of course, the network couldn’t just quietly book Toobin on an obscure weekend program and slowly ease him back into prime time. No, this is America where forcing disgraced public figures to humiliate themselves and beg forgiveness for their sexual peccadilloes to get back into our good graces is as beloved a ritual as once a generation losing a land war in Asia. And if the result is boffo ratings, well, all the better!

CNN host Alisyn Camerota must have drawn the short straw at CNN — or possibly yanked it the hardest — as she was given the extraordinarily awkward task of publicly “welcoming” Toobin back to the airwaves. In the resulting segment, which is every bit as cringe-inducing as you’d expect, she offers to recap why Toobin had been missing from the network. When he responds by saying, “Help yourself,” they both chuckle nervously because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what Toobin did to get himself in trouble in the first place.

Camerota opens by asking Toobin the obligatory “What were you thinking?” question. But come on -- do we really need him to explain the detailed thought process that led him to pull his pants down during a work video call and start going at himself like Louis CK at an “Up and Coming Ladies of Comedy” open mic night? Besides which, he obviously has to lie and say “I wasn’t thinking” rather than tell the truth, which was probably more along the lines of, “Well, you know Susan from marketing? So she came on the call wearing that low-cut, white silk blouse of hers that’s incredibly flattering, and then we had a break and so, um...”

To Camerota’s credit, I suppose, she handles the segment with as much professionalism as possible under the circumstances, never once giving in to the temptation to take a jab at Toobin like, for example, asking him to keep his hands where she could see them.

At one point Camerota does note that even as shady a character as OJ Simpson had been poking fun at Toobin. Toobin responds by saying, “My Dad used to say, ‘You can judge a person by their enemies,’ and if my enemy is OJ Simpson, that is OK with me.” Too bad for Toobin that his dad’s sage advice didn’t also include, “Make sure to turn off your video before masturbating on a Zoom call with coworkers.”

Jerkin’ Hard Or Hardly Jerkin’?

What with the pandemic and all, I certainly understand the impulse to want to cut people slack, and if the war criminals who led us into the most recent land wars in Asia are still welcome on cable news shows, why not a guy whose only offense was loving himself a little too, um, publicly? But at the same time I am interested to know what larger message Toobin’s return to the fold sends. Does this suggest that our society is loosening taboos and breaking with Americans’ longstanding Puritanical attitudes about sex? And now that Toobin’s busted through this particular barrier, will such activity be tolerated? To the frequently reiterated video call refrains of “Your video isn’t on” and “You’re on mute” will we soon add, “You’re still masturbating”?

Perhaps our newfound sex positive attitude will lead to such exhibitions becoming commonplace, and then one day we will look back upon Jeffrey Toobin as a pioneer, the Jackie Robinson of Zoom call masturbating, if you will.

And then who knows, once the pandemic ends, maybe it will even become acceptable to “pull a Toobin” during in-person work meetings. 

It seems unlikely, for sure, but just in case -- don’t throw away those face shields.