Watch Siskel and Ebert Sing Karaoke, A TV Moment That Will Melt Your Brain
Every few years Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert go viral. The compilations of their outtakes — which inevitably devolve into shouting matches and brutal insults — are always good for a laugh. So is their review of the comedy Cop and a Half, where Siskel was absolutely gobsmacked (and possibly a little offended) that Roger Ebert gave the film, which stars Burt Reynolds as a no-nonsense cop who teams up with an all-nonsense eight-year-old child to solve a murder, a thumbs up review. (“Wow! Where’s your big red suit and beard, Santa? You just gave them a gift!”)
It doesn’t matter that Siskel passed away almost 25 years ago, or Ebert has been gone for over a decade now; their bluntly honest and sometimes hysterically funny reviews remain perfectly shareable online clips. But there is one clip that seems extremely shareable that has, at least to my knowledge, never found the big online audience it deserves. And that is the time that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ... sang karaoke.
This fateful moment in the history of television (not to mention film criticism) came in 1989, as part of one of the duo’s annual “Holiday Gift Guide.” For years in the 1980s and ‘90s, Siskel and Ebert would host a bonus episode of their show that aired outside Siskel & Ebert’s regular syndicated time slot, where they would try and review all of the latest cinematic and technological toys and gadgets new for that year’s holiday season.
Unlike the Holiday Gift Guides that might air on cheerful daytime talk shows, Siskel and Ebert did not simply present the products with a quick word and a smile; they tried everything out — and if they thought a particular item sucked, they said so. These were not infomercials; this was something closer to a TV version of Consumer Reports mixed with a Martin and Lewis routine.
Take, for example, Gene Siskel’s merciless pan of a VHS tape called Lady Lovelylocks and the Pixietails in 1987. The gimmick of the cassette: It allowed the purchaser to insert their own picture into an animated feature. Siskel tried it and was ... well, let’s just say he was underwhelmed by the results. (And based on the footage shown here, rightfully so!)
Imagine getting that VHS tape under the tree for Christmas. Bah humbug.
The era of the Siskel & Ebert Holiday Gift Guide also coincided with the explosive rise of Nintendo and other home consoles, and so Gene and Roger’s fumbling attempts to master the latest gaming tech became an annual highlight of these episodes. In 1993, they used the notoriously crappy “Sega Activator” controller to turn their perennial verbal sparring into an actual (video game) fist fight.
But all of those memorable moments pale before the magic and majesty that is Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert warbling a duet of the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreaming.” That took place in 1989, during a lengthy segment dedicated to the sudden rise in popularity of karaoke at bars all across the country. Finally, the moment of truth arrived, when Gene and Roger themselves try out the Pioneer LaserKaraoke Player. And the only way to properly try it out is by singing.
(Dogged film critics that they are, they also spend a lot of the song critique the video that accompanies the lyrics.)
While I am not sure I would give Siskel and Ebert’s singing voices wildly positive reviews, I would give two enthusiastic thumbs up for their willingness to do karaoke, not just in a Chicago bar, but on national television to an audience of millions. It’s one of the reasons I love Siskel & Ebert so much; they were serious film critics, but they did not take themselves too seriously — and clearly they recognized that trying out these products, sometimes awkwardly and always competitively, made for great television. They didn’t know it at the time, but it made for great viral video too.