Dipti S. Barot | Longreads | November 2019 | 11 minutes (2,634 words)
When I was a teenager, I made the unusual decision to switch schools midway through high school. I kept having the distinct, nagging feeling that there was much more to explore beyond the comfortable bubble of my tiny private school, and if I didn’t leave, then my growth would be stunted forever. One of my best friends at the time wrote me a lovely metaphorical story as my farewell gift. It was about two beautiful bird friends who lived in a gorgeous garden surrounded by tall walls, one of whom wants to fly outside to discover new worlds. And fly away I did. I transferred to a large public school shortly thereafter and immediately realized that I needed to find friends, and fast. Fate intervened in the form of two middle aged white gentlemen who soon became my constant weekly companions during this rough transition. Their names were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
Times were financially topsy turvy for our family then, and television provided an escape from that. I don’t specifically remember stumbling upon Siskel and Ebert the first time, but it likely happened when I was surfing the limited number of local TV channels that our antenna could catch for free. It was a half-hour movie review show, where two critics who wrote for rival newspapers in Chicago would get together and talk shop and share their opinions on the movies of the day.
This 16-year-old brown girl was likely an outlier in the target demographic for two white men from the Midwest around my Dad’s age. Undoubtedly it was one of their classic, boisterous back and forth bickerings that must have given me enough pause to stay on their channel rather than continue surfing, the sheer magnetism of their bursts of antagonism drawing me in. But once I discovered them, I was hooked. There was no going back.
I had one date and one date alone every Saturday evening at 6:30pm, and I would make sure that no other commitments would stand in the way of my special time with my guys. Of course, there were no other plans to cancel or reshuffle, because the reality of having no close friends during your junior year of high school had paved the way for many an empty weekend. And thus began the tradition of Siskel and Ebert Saturday nights with my dudes. I relished their repartee, their intelligent banter, their expressions of disgust and contempt towards disappointing movies, and oftentimes towards each other.
This last category was what I imagine hooked the most fans, and certainly the reason I got lured. When do you get to see intelligent people who actually respect each other disagree so passionately that it’s as if sparks are ricocheting off the screen? There was chubby Roger Ebert, often the meaner of the two, with his barbed complaints about his partner’s latest opinions, and there was the tall, balding Gene Siskel, the gentler and kinder one, more likely to throw up his hands in exasperation. With Siskel and Ebert, you got to peek into the unvarnished moments where they wanted to throttle each other, and it was an intellectual exercise in rhetorical gymnastics, layered with the antics and drama of World Wrestling Federation. It was a bedazzling polemical display.