The TCA Winter Press Tour is an event which never quite seems to live up to the TCA Summer Press Tour…but, then, that stands to reason, as the mid-season series rarely match the ones which hit the airwaves in the fall, right? Still, the experience never fails to be one which I enjoy, mostly because you never know what’s going to be around the corner, and Day 1 really set the stage for that: during the course of 12 hours, I interviewed Betty White, Henry Rollins, and Bruce Jenner, and, thanks to National Geographic, I wore a giant snake around my neck. Not a bad way to begin things…

It felt like there was more star power on hand than usual for a winter tour…but, then, having Oprah in your midst kind of skewers your perceptions on that sort of thing. I suppose it’s a testament to how many famous people I’ve met over the years, though, that one of the biggest reasons I look forward to the tour is not because of who I might interview but, rather, because I’ll get the chance to hang out with the friends I’ve made within the TCA. All told, it was another great time, but, as ever, when it was over, I was more than ready to get back home to my family and share my memories with them…and with you, too, of course.

Well, let’s get on with the reminiscing, shall we?

Oh, but one word of warning: if you followed my daily dispatches during the tour, then a couple of these stories will sound strikingly familiar, but please rest assured that the majority of the material has not been copied wholesale and is, in fact, 100% new. Swear to God.

Most entertaining panel by a broadcast network: “Made in Spain” (PBS)

Not being a foodie, I wouldn’t have known José Andrés prior to his kick-off of PBS’s first day at the TCA tour if he’d been standing next to me…and, even then, I wouldn’t have known that I was supposed to care who he was. After several minutes of clips from the first season of “Made in Spain,” however, I was already in love with the series, and when Andres himself took the stage, it was impossible not to be charmed by him. He’s a sweetheart of a guy for whom food truly is life, but he’s also a hoot.

Most entertaining panel by a cable network: “An Idiot Abroad” (Science Channel)

I was seriously bummed when I heard that no one from “An Idiot Abroad” was going to be in attendance for the show’s panel, but I figured, “Okay, at least they’ll be there via satellite.” In retrospect, there’s no way they could’ve been funnier if they’d actually been onsite. Naturally, just being in Karl Pilkington’s presence was enough to inspire Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant to dissolve into a fit of giggles, but they were utterly warranted this go-round.

Here, see for yourself:

Most annoying panel: “Platinum Hit” (Bravo)

Between Kara DioGuardi handling a question about “American Idol” about as poorly as she possibly could have – read more about that here – and Jewel dropping names like they were hot potatoes (“I was talking to Steven Spielberg…”), I’m hard pressed to think of any panel that left a worse taste in my mouth.

Panel which had the least need for an audience: “The Best of Laugh-In” (PBS)

It wasn’t entirely surprising that a panel consisting of Lily Tomlin, Jo Anne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens and George Schlatter would be able keep things moving along without any of the critics in attendance actually needing to ask a question, but they kept passing the conversational ball back and forth until someone in the crowd finally had to stand up and ask if it was okay to ask a question. Schlatter instantly shot back, “We’re trying to talk here!” Laughter ensued, as did plenty of questions about the history of “Laugh-In.” “Are you guys having fun?” Schlatter asked later. “Because we’re having a ball!” Must be what keeps them looking so young: you’d never in a million years believe that Worley – that’s her in the feathered boa, in case you hadn’t guessed – is 73 years old.

Funniest panel that you probably had to be there to appreciate: “Community” (NBC)

The only person not in attendance was Chevy Chase, who was described as being “very under the weather,’ but his co-stars more than made up for his absence. If I tried to tell you about it, though, you’d probably just stare blankly at me. Some of the funniness came from the giggling of the various panelists, some it involved one-liners which would require a lengthy amount of set-up for you to appreciate, some of it was totally visual, and…well, you get the idea. But it really was hilarious, I swear. The most easily-translatable moment is probably Donald Glover’s story about how they had to teach Betty White the lyrics to Toto’s “Africa” on the set. “I assumed she knew ‘Africa,’” he said. “I was, like, ‘Everybody knows that song!’ But, like, that song was out when she was already old. She was already 50-something.”

Greatest Moment of Complete Honesty During the Tour: When I approached Jack McBrayer (“30 Rock”) to ask him a question, he agreed, but then he looked down at my recorder and said, “Oh, my! You’re not going to record this, are you? I’d rather you didn’t.” At this point, he performed a perfect mock aside, holding a hand to his mouth and whispering, “I’m a little bit tipsy!” So I turned off my recorder. Kudos to you, Mr. McBrayer. Would that more actors had that blend of good humor and common sense.

Most common recurring question during the panels: “Who’s the moral center of your show?”

I am at a loss to understand why this vaguely pretentious-sounding query suddenly became the must-ask of the tour, but I’m sure I heard it asked half a dozen times, maybe more.

Most promising new cable program that I didn’t know much about before going into the tour: “Too Big to Fail” (HBO)

Even without knowing the subject matter of the film (it’s about the whole Lehman Brothers financial saga of a few years ago), just seeing the list of cast members is enough to make the title seem apropos. Dig these names: William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, Topher Grace, Billy Crudup, James Woods, Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, Tony Shaloub, Cynthia Nixon, Michael O’Keefe, Dan Hedaya, Kathy Baker, and Ed Asner as Warren Buffett. Seriously, how can this thing go wrong?

Least promising new broadcast network program that I didn’t know anything about before going into the tour: “America’s Next Great Restaurant” (NBC)

One of the critics asked, “Do you remember Rocco’s DiSpirito’s TV show, ‘The Restaurant’?” I do not. And I won’t remember to watch this one, either. Who cares?

My best opening salvo for an interview: telling Malcolm McDowell that I really loved his audio commentary for “Caligula.”

It could’ve backfired horribly on me, but given that it’s one of my all-time favorite commentaries (and given how thoroughly amused he seems to be throughout the proceedings), I had to lead with this unique piece of praise. As it happens, his eyes lit up immediately as he informed me that he’d wanting for years to do a one-man show about his experiences working on the film, assuring me that he’d saved a few stories for just such an occasion.

Favorite moment during a one-on-one interview: Phil Morris channeling the spirit of Lord Buckley.

We were talking about the character of Jackie Chiles, which Morris played on “Seinfeld” and has recently revived for Morris – now on TV One’s “Love That Girl!” – was trying to explain how Jackie’s delivery was what made the character funny, but while trying to come up with a name, he kept saying, “F. Lee…F. Lee…” F. Lee Bailey? “No, I mean, uh, Buckley.” Before he could clarify that he meant William F. Buckley, I laughed and suggested that he might be referring to Lord Buckley. At this reference, Morris raised his eyebrows and launched into a perfect impression of the mustachioed hipster comedian, which just about knocked me backwards. “Come on now, how often do you get to break that out?” I asked. Morris burst out laughing and offered a fist bump, praising me for “digging deep,” but I dare say the same praise could be lavished on him as well.

Favorite one-on-one interview overall: Tyler Labine, “Mad Love” (CBS)

I’ve got to go with Mr. Labine on this one. I met him during my first TCA tour in 2007, back when he was pimping the premiere of “Reaper,” and between Facebook, phoners, and further TCA events…well, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say we’re friends, but we’ve definitely built a comfortable rapport when it comes to our conversations. As such, his first words involved apologizing for the fact that we couldn’t kick back and drink scotch this time (that’s what we did when he was promoting “Sons of Tucson” for Fox) because he had to be back on the set in a few hours. Still, he’s a nice guy, he’s got a nice beard, and, once again, we had a nice – if woefully alcohol-free – interview.

Most intimidating roundtable interview: Tommy Lee Jones, “The Sunset Limited” (HBO)

Everyone warned me. They said, “He’s not a good interview, he hates doing press, and if you’re not planning to bring your A-game, then you might as well not come at all.” But, dammit, it’s Tommy Lee Jones. How do you turn down the chance to sit in the presence of that guy? Better yet, I’d watched and really enjoyed his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s play, “The Sunset Limited,” which he’d directed for HBO and starred in as well, along with Samuel L. Jackson. Sure, I was intimidated, but I’d done my research, I had my questions, and I was ready to roll.

As it turns out, Mr. Jones was everything I’d been promised and more, but while I had gotten out without having any of my questions insulted or dismissed, my original perception of the experience was heavily colored by one of my fellow journalists being informed at one point, “You know, I’ve already said that. I’ve already answered that question.” Listening back to the recording, though, I actually did better than I’d recalled: of the three writers who were there, I was the first to get a halfway decent answer out of him, and if I never really hit any out of the park, at least none of my questions resulted in a full-fledged swing and a miss. Still, if there’s such a thing as a badge of courage for TV critics, I feel as though one should be sent my way post-haste.

Least successful one-on-one interview: Mike Tyson, “Taking on Tyson” (Animal Planet)

When he swaggered into the evening event which was held by the OWN Network but encompassed all members of the Discovery Channel family, I thought, “Okay, I work for a guys’ website: I have to talk to Mike Tyson.” I approached him and asked him a question revolving around how he’s suddenly a media presence again, first with “The Hangover” and now with this new series. Before he could answer, one of his “handlers” ran up and said, “Hey, Mike, I found ya some food!” At this, Tyson grabbed himself something to eat and walked away, my question unanswered.

Later in the evening, it had become de rigueur to go up to Tyson and ask if he’d be willing to let you take your picture with him. I restrained myself at first, but then I finally decided, “Well, maybe I’ll just try again with my question, then someone can take a picture of me while I’m talking to him.” So I approached him once more and said, “Hey, Mike, can I ask you a quick question about the new show?” He glanced at me…and said, “Nah.” No less than 10 seconds later, he was taking more photos with people. That’s what I get for trying to work.

My 7 Favorite Cheap Thrills of the Tour:

1. Meeting the Fonz. Yeah, I know, Henry Winkler hasn’t been the Fonz in decades, but he’ll always be the Fonz to me. I’m thrilled for him, though, that the work offers are coming in fast and furious: he was at the tour as a cast member for both Adult Swim’s “Childrens Hospital” and USA’s “Royal Pains.”

2. Breathing the same air as Oprah. I’m pretty sure this means I’ll never get cancer!

3. Calling Elijah Wood on fucking up my shopping at Amoeba Music last tour. Wood was at the Fox party to promote his new FX series, “Wilfred,” and when I found a chance to chat with him, I said, “First, I’ve got a photo I want to show you.” I broke out my iPhone and showed him a shot I’d taken of him at the turntable at Amoeba. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “I was DJ’ing that day!” “Yeah,” I replied, “and you were also totally blocking the bargain bin. I only get there once, maybe twice a year, dude. That totally sucked.” He laughed, but he still looked appropriate chagrined, and he apologized. Given how much of a music geek he is, I think he probably even meant it.

4. Interviewing Paris Hilton. What can I tell you? She’s hot.

5. Successfully asking Jerry Rice a question about football, despite the fact that I don’t know anything about football, let alone Jerry Rice. Let it never be said that I’m not up for a challenge.

6. Spending 20 minutes with Bruce Jenner talking about nothing but his acting gigs from the late ’70s and early ’80s. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians and don’t plan to start anytime soon, but I do enjoy the chance to ask people about projects that they haven’t been given the chance to talk about in awhile. And that is why I have 20 minutes of anecdotes from Jenner about serving as a defacto replacement for Erik Estrada on “CHiPs” for several episodes, working with Harry Belafonte, LeVar Burton, and Dennis Haysbert on “Grambling’s White Tiger,” and, of course, all the dirt he cared to dish on the experience of working with Valerie Perrine and the Village People on “Can’t Stop the Music.” The only time his family’s TV series came up was when one of his daughters called to tell him that they’d won the People’s Choice Award for Guilty Pleasure…and it didn’t even occur to me to ask which daughter!

7. Just being in the same room with Jeff Bridges. How could this not be on here? He’s The Dude, for God’s sake.

Most awesome visit to the set of a network show: “Parks & Recreation” (NBC)

I admit that it took me a little while to get past my general indifference to the first season of this show, but having devoured the Season 2 set and quickly moved on to the six episodes of Season 3 that were sent out to critics in advance of the tour, I was psyched when I heard that we’d be visiting the nerve center of the Pawnee government. I was bummed that Chris Pratt wasn’t in attendance, but I was part of the group which was toured around the set by Adam Scott and Michael Schur and given up close looks at the offices of Lesley Knope and Ron Swanson, along with some of Pawnee’s most (in)famous murals. Plus, I…well, at the moment, if I told you that I had my picture taken with Li’l Sebastian, it wouldn’t mean anything to you, but I promise you that when the time comes for the episode revolving around the Harvest Festival, you’ll be all, like, “He got his picture taken with Li’l Sebastian! Sweet! That dude is awesome!” Or, at least, that’s what Tom Haverford would say, anyway.

Most awesome visit to the set of a basic cable show: “Conan,” TBS

I guess “awesome” might be overdoing it a bit, but I’m a big Conan fan, so it was just cool to be able to check out the set. Unsurprisingly, Conan himself – flanked by longtime pal and producer Jeff Ross – had lots of funny stuff to say, much of it self-deprecating. But, then, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Best piece of swag: If you were to ask my daughter, it’d probably be the game of Jenga that was offered up during Fox’s “Raising Hope” breakfast, which, although she’d never played it before I brought it home, has taken to it like a duck to water. Frankly, I thought she’d like the Mickey Mouse ears with her name embroidered on it more. Just goes to show that fathers don’t know the first thing about their daughters. For my part, it would’ve been the Greendale Community College shirt, except that it was a large rather than the XXL that I’d need to ever wear it in public. (Note to network publicity departments: given that you’re dealing with a group of individuals who spend the majority of their day sitting in front of their television sets, it wouldn’t be the craziest idea in the world to upgrade the sizes you send out. I’ve been a member of the TCA since 2007, and I think I’ve been able to fit into maybe two of the 50+ promotional shirts I’ve gotten in that time. On the other hand, my daughter has a lot of really awesome nightshirts.) In the end, though, I’ve got to go with the bloody bathmat left in front of the tub for us by Fearnet. Thank God I was given advance warning that it was waiting in the room for me…

Best off-site visit that wasn’t connected to the tour: to The Vanguard for the taping of two episodes of “The Green Room with Paul Provenza.”

At the end of 2010, I pulled together a piece which featured my favorite quotes of the year. After doing so, I sent the link to all of my interview subjects who were on Facebook, thanking them for being a part of the piece and wishing us both the best in 2011. Paul Provenza immediately wrote back, saying, “Thank you! Let’s do other stuff.” A few days later, I received an invite to attend tapings for the second season of his Showtime series, and since the dates happened to be in the heart of the TCA tour, I took him up on his kind offer, bringing my friends Christine Becknell and Eric Field with me.

What an incredible evening: free food, an open bar (I don’t mind telling you that the Newcastle was going down smoooooooth), and some seriously funny people, including Lewis Black, Ron White, Kathleen Madigan, Jamie Kilstein, Richard Lewis, Margaret Cho, Jeffrey Ross, and Kumail Nanjiani. Other comedians, including Rick Overton, Doug Stanhope, and David Feldman, were in the house, as were Sugar Ray Leonard and Ron Jeremy.

I think my personal favorite one-liner came when Ron White denied being an alcoholic, explaining, “I only drink when I work,” then adding, “But I am a workaholic.” What I’ll inevitably remember most, though. All in all, though, it’s hard to top Ron Jeremy repeatedly falling asleep during the taping of the second episode. Like that wouldn’t be embarrassing enough, but the poor bastard did it directly in front of Jeffrey Ross, who ripped him to shreds every time he caught him. (“Hey, look, Ron Jeremy must have an erection! He’s passed out from all of the blood rushing to his cock!”) Good times, to be sure.

Most awesome live performance of the tour: David Foster, promoting “Great Performances: Hitman Returns – David Foster and Friends” for PBS.

PBS really did right by us on this tour. For the first of their two evening events, they provided us with a performance from Harry Connick, Jr., who blew the roof off the joint in suitably jazzy fashion. Ultimately, though, he couldn’t hold a candle to David Foster, who opened with the love theme from “St. Elmo’s Fire,” followed with a medley of his biggest hits, along with clarification as to which of his ex-wives owned the rights to them, and then brought out a couple of friends to join in the fun. Although Charice – you may recall her from her appearance on “Glee” – knocked Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” out of the park, she still couldn’t defeat Donna Summer, who minutes earlier had turned the Langham into a discotheque with a breathtaking rendition of one of her signature songs, “Last Dance.” Damn, that woman’s still got some pipes!

Best party: Fox

It’s so weird: during the summer, it feels like Fox goes out of their way to put us in the loudest, most distracting environment possible (the amusement park on the Santa Monica pier), thereby making it almost impossible to conduct decent interviews. This is the second winter tour, however, where they’ve rented out Villa Sorriso for their evening function. Why can’t they do that in the summer, too? Sure, it’s crowded, but it’s a hell of a lot more conducive to conversation. Plus, they’re not afraid to offer up 12-year-old Macallan’s, which, as it turns out, is pretty damned conducive to conversation, too.

Most pleasantly surprising party: Hallmark Channel

I know the cool kids can’t in good conscience admit to watching either the Hallmark Channel or its sister movie network, but I don’t mind telling you that they know how to throw a classy party. It was a sit-down affair – the only one of the tour – where the food was delicious and the wine only stopped flowing when we walked out the door, at which point we were handed a bottle of Brut champagne as a parting gift!

Worst party: ABC / CBS (tie)

I understand that the networks don’t feel the need to go quite as all-out with their winter tour functions as they do during the summer, but the ABC and CBS network families took cost-cutting to a depressing low. Okay, I understand why ABC would only offer up talent from their mid-season shows, but given that most TCA members only get out to the west coast twice a year, it was depressing not to have the chance to interview cast members from their other series. Meanwhile, CBS didn’t even have a party. Well, not really, anyway. Instead, it was all, like, “Oh, hey, we sent home everybody who was here to promote their new CBS and Showtime series, but here are the people who were just onstage for the panels for The CW, so stand in the lobby and ask them questions!” Yeah, but…they were just onstage. Oh, well, at least it gave me the chance to have a pleasant conversation with Sara Rue, right?

Oh, wait, I forgot…

Most annoying moment of the tour: having Sara Rue’s personal publicist start tapping her watch at about 90 seconds into my attempt to interview her client.

I love Sara Rue. I think she’s as cute as can be, I’ve thought so ever since she was starring in ABC’s “Less Than Perfect,” and her guest appearances on three different CBS comedies (“Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Rules of Engagement”) have only cemented my appreciation of her work as a comedic actress. As such, you can understand why I gravitated toward her during The CW’s post-panel cocktail party in an attempt to grab a brief one-on-one interview with her about her new gig as the host of “Shedding for the Wedding.” The good news: Ms. Rue herself was as sweet as could be. In fact, from what I can tell, her only real fault would seem to be her taste in personal publicists.

The publicist was standing outside of Rue’s line of vision when the tapfest began. Frankly, since I was focused on my interview subject, I only half-realized what I was seeing at first. In fact, I pretty much convinced myself that it couldn’t have been what I was seeing, and I kept right on with another question. About 30 seconds later, however, the tapping resumed, this time more furiously and now accompanied by a look which hovered between annoyance and anger. Having little choice in the matter, I wrapped the interview and thanked Rue, who seemed to have enjoyed our short time together, but my plans to do a full-length piece offering a look at “Shedding for the Wedding” as well as an exploration of Rue’s earlier career had been shot all to hell.

What happened? Best guess: the publicist didn’t know me, wasn’t familiar with Bullz-Eye, and only gave me the time she did because she was in a room filled with CW executives and couldn’t get away with refusing me altogether. Next TCA tour, though, I’m thinking about wearing a t-shirt to all press events which reads, “Just because you don’t know me doesn’t mean I suck.”

Okay, last time I ended on my most annoying moment of the tour, and it felt woefully anticlimactic, so this time I’m going to end with a few laughs and offer up…

The Top 11 Quotes from the TCA Tour (one for each day of the tour):

1. “I got a little bit nervous when they told me that I had to be speaking in front of TV critics. I knew I was coming here to share time at PBS, but all of a sudden it’s, like, ‘The room is going to be full of TV critics.’ Great: all my life dealing with food critics one by one, and now I’m going to have to be dealing with an entire room of TV critics…?” – Jose Andres, “Made in Spain” (PBS)

2. “What is this Betty White business? This is silly. Really, it is very silly. You’ve had such an overdose of me lately. Trust me. I think I’m going to go away for a while. It’s hard for me to say no to a job because you spend your career thinking if you say no, they’ll never ask you again, and if you don’t take the job, you know, that may be the end of it, but my mother taught me to say no when I was a girl, but that wasn’t about show business. So the result is I’m trying to cut down. I really am.” – Betty White, “Hot in Cleveland” (TV Land)

3. “Betty White is in the building. Did you hear that? I hope I get to touch her. I just had cataracts, and I’m still adjusting, but what I see is looking pretty good.” – Ed Asner, “Working Class” (CMT)

4. “The one note we did get (for ‘Children’s Hospital’), it was from Warner Brothers…I hesitate to even tell you this, but when we turned in our first script for the web series, Warner Brothers called us up and said, ‘Um, do you think you could cut the shot where we actually see the Twin Towers burning?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, do you know what? That’s a great note.’” – Rob Corddry, “Children’s Hospital” (Adult Swim)

5. “My opinion don’t mean nothing. I’m here to talk about pigeons and stuff. Anything other than that, I’m a schmuck.” – Mike Tyson, “Taking on Tyson” (Animal Planet)

6. “If Oprah would have asked me to ride a unicycle naked and backwards at night, I would have asked her, ‘Where do I sign up?’ It’s Oprah.” – Mark Burnett, Your OWN Show (OWN)

7. “I wanted to be a substitute for Joan Lunden. And the agent at the time told me there weren’t going to be any more black people on network television. He said, ‘They’ve already got Bryant Gumbel.’ And I said, ‘But that’s another channel.’ And he said, ‘No, no. They’ve already got Bryant Gumbel. That’s not going to happen.'” – Oprah Winfrey, Owner of OWN

8. “I think the expectation that women be attractive as well as funny has just always been there. We even need attractive news anchors who are telling us about death and destruction and they still need to be pretty. I don’t know why it is. Some sociobiological level. We need to look at females and think, ‘I would hit that.’ I think that the gentlemen may need it.” – Julie Bowen, “Modern Family” (ABC)

9. Q: Are you going to have to put Steve on a five second delay on (’American Idol’)?
Steven Tyler: Fuck, no. (Pauses) I question whether I should have done that just now.

10. “‘The Good Wife’ was always meant ironically. I think it’s actually very descriptive. I think the comment I made was it would have been nice to be ironic and call it ‘The Sexy Wife’ or ‘The Sexy Wife Whose Husband Goes Down On Her’ or something like that. That might have brought in more people.” – Robert King, “The Good Wife” (CBS)

11. “Do you guys ask questions for a profession? You’re pretty good. You don’t look like much as a group, but…good questions.” – Steve Young, “Year of the Quarterback” (ESPN)