Keith Olbermann and Five More Unexpected TV Exits

There’s a first-season episode of The West Wing called “Take Out the Trash Day,” which explains a notion somewhat common in the news biz: information that is either non-essential or potentially sensitive tends to be all that comes out on Friday, because, as Josh Lyman puts it, “no one reads the paper on Saturday.” As a result, media types tend to check out early on Friday nights, so it’s probably safe to assume that BlackBerries and iPhones all over New York and DC started blowing up just before 9pm last Friday, when MSNBC host Keith Olbermann unexpectedly announced that the current episode of his news and opinion program Countdown was its last.

Television departures tend to be lengthy, protracted affairs, announced months in advance so as to take advantage of the considerable hype and fanfare (and, thus, big ratings) of an extended farewell. Oprah Winfrey’s exit from her eponymous talk show made news nearly a year in advance; Larry King announced his retirement from CNN more than six months before he signed off. Jay Leno tops them all, though; he announced his departure from The Tonight Show a full five years before his 2009 exit. (How’d that go, by the way?) To commemorate Olbermann’s sudden resignation, we’ve rounded up the fascinating stories behind five more of TV’s most unexpected exits.

Jack Paar (The Tonight Show)

Witty, erudite Paar was the second host of NBC’s late-night talk juggernaut, manning the desk from 1957 to 1962. (Johnny Carson was his successor and held the post for 30 years.) The program was wildly successful, but not immune to controversy — though the piece of censorship that led Paar to walk was not his Fidel Castro interview, but a line about a toilet. On February 10, 1960, one of Paar’s monologue jokes was a gag about a “W.C.,” a slang term for “water closet.” NBC cut the entire joke from the broadcast without informing Paar, who announced on the following evening’s program that he was leaving the gig.

‘I’ve been up 30 hours without an ounce of sleep wrestling with my conscience all day,” he told the audience. “I’ve made a decision about what I’m going to do. I’m leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way to make a living than this, a way of entertaining people without being constantly involved in some form of controversy. I love NBC, and they’ve been wonderful to me. But they let me down.” And with that, Paar got up and walked off the set — in the middle of the live broadcast. Announcer Hugh Downs thought the host was joking; when he realized it was real, Downs took over and finished out the show.

Paar returned to the program less than a month later (he mused “As I was saying before I was interrupted…”) and apologized to his audience: “Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing.”