After nearly 25 years on-air, John Langley is still keeping reality TV real
"I’m not gonna go for another jerk-off meeting with you,” John Langley recalls telling the Fox programming executive. “You wouldn’t know a good show if it slapped you in the face. I’m tired of your crap. Just leave me alone.”
Langley, an affable raconteur, had repeatedly met with Fox and other TV networks, selling his show “Cops,” which he ultimately did and has accomplished a feat few can claim: his show has been on for 25 years in a row. On the same network. [The show is moving to Spike TV next season.] But getting there, Langley says, was “agonizing.” “They [the TV execs] were all very negative,” is how Langley tells it. “I thought it was a very simple idea that was easily graspable, but you’d be shocked at how many objections people posed to the notion.”
When Langley refused to go to “one more meeting” with Fox, the programming executive promised to get Langley in front of Barry Diller, Fox TV’s top boss at the time. “ ‘You’ve gotta have a narrator,’ Diller said. And I said no, ” Langley remembers. “ ‘Whaddayamean no?’ Diller said. And I said that defies the whole purpose of doing it the way I’m talking about doing it. ‘All right then,’ Diller said. ‘You gotta do some reenactments.’ And I said no. He said, ‘Whaddayamean no?’ And I kept doing this with him on each point because my feeling was I’m not gonna sell out my idea anymore. To hell with ’em all.”
“Stick to your guns,” advises John Langley. That’s what you need to do if you want to get things done the way you want them done. That and a good idea.
“This would really be great to follow police officers, in their footsteps as a ride-along,” Langley tells the Archive of American Television about the pitch for “Cops.” “A genuine ride-along with no interference between you and the subject. In other words, no narration, no narrator, no host, no script, no reenactment, none of that. Just keep it as pure as possible so you can experience the process.”
Diller greenlighted a pilot. Langley admits the pilot was “too powerful.” He had left in a graphic blood-and-guts scene from a brutal murder; stuff that today is commonly seen in shows like “CSI,” but was new in 1989. Langley knew it would be taken out. Diller and other executives began debating whether they could even air such material. In the middle of it all, Langley remembers the door to Diller’s office opening.
“And this guy came in the room and sat in the corner. He looked like an accountant.” Diller kept arguing. “And then the guy in the corner says, ‘Order four of them. Try four.’ And I look over and Diller says, ‘Ah, just hush, I’m talking right now.’ And I thought, ‘Well, who’s that guy, the accountant?’ Well, obviously, it turned out that he wasn’t the accountant. It was Rupert Murdoch, but [back then] nobody knew who Rupert Murdoch was or what he looked like.”
John Langley was already a television producer. He had done shows with the legendary columnist Jack Anderson and with Geraldo Rivera. One with Anderson that aired in 1989 explored, even predicted, the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the United States.
On December 2, 1986, as a precursor to “Cops,” Langley was also the first to televise a drug bust live—actually three of them—on “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation,” with Rivera. Langley had persuaded the Broward County (Florida) sheriff to let cameras tag along as deputies followed up on a tip. “I convinced them to conduct this drug bust, which they were doing anyway, but to do it on that night,” Langley recounts. “And they agreed.”
That moment of TV history was made more surreal by the fact that the suspects in the raided house were watching themselves on TV. “That was the most post modern experience I’ve ever had. They literally were watching the show as the door banged and we followed the police in as they bust ’em. It was a really weird thing and somebody had to run over and turn off the TV so it wouldn’t confuse everything.”
Now, a quarter-century into “Cops,” John Langley has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, more importantly, he is able to indulge other passions like wine, cars and cigars.
“Yeah, I like those Ramón Allones recently,” Langley explains, sitting in his office where he screens “Cops” and movies his company is producing. He pronounces Allones properly in Spanish, having grown up speaking it in West Los Angeles. His family moved there from Oklahoma shortly after Langley was born. “I only smoke a cigar a day. I cut way back.”
Langley is a relative newcomer to cigars. He used to carry his smokes in leather cases, but kept losing them. Now he carries cigars in tubes that he saves. “I started in 1995. A friend of mine and I went to dinner,” Langley remembers, “and he said, ‘Let’s have a cigar.’ This is back when you could smoke cigars on patios in California. So, I believe we had an Avo of all things. And I said, ‘God, this tastes pretty good after dinner.’ Thereafter I got hooked on Cuban cigars. Love Cuban cigars.”
Langley visited Cuba early in the last decade, licensed by the U.S. government on a humanitarian mission. “My wife and I went to deliver medicine with one of these charitable organizations that send medical aid to third-world countries and needy hospitals across the world,” Langley explains and laughs. “But my real motive was not so charitable as my wife’s. It was to get Cuban cigars legally because under a license, I was allowed to bring back a hundred cigars. I think it was a hundred cigars per person who were on that mission.” [Technically, at the time, one could bring back $100 worth of cigars, but no longer.]
Langley is somewhat giddy as he tells the story. “So, I had my wife with a hundred cigars, the pilots had cigars, they all had their allotments which were imported legally into the United States.” While in Cuba, Langley visited cigar factories after delivering the medicine to hospitals. Langley says he learned to love all shapes and sizes in the Cuban cigar portfolio.
“I also like Churchills. I’ve always liked Romeo and Julieta Churchills, but it’s very difficult to get good ones this day and age. They had a heyday, then they had a lousy batch. They plummeted. Now they’re coming back a little.” Langley also shares that “I love the Partagás Lusitania,” but that this large cigar is also very hard to get, even though one can easily obtain Cuban cigars in Los Angeles despite the prohibition.
“That’s why it’s one of those prohibitions that is a polite fiction. It doesn’t exist in fact,” Langley offers. “I think the, what do you call that, the blockade is absurd. It’s an idiocy of the first degree.” He laughs heartily. “First-class stupidity, in my opinion. I mean, unless we were doing one with China, Russia and everybody else.”
On a blustery afternoon, after lunch at Locanda Portofino in Santa Monica—“Try the salmon carpaccio,” Langley advises. “It’s amazing.”— Langley sits on his office balcony with a robusto and a Diet Coke. He’s trying to smoke only one cigar a day and lay off the wine for the moment, except on weekends, while he’s in “training.”
“We’ve been racing for four years,” Langley explains. He’s talking about off-road racing. You know, those stripped-down, souped-up, tricked-out “dune buggies” that have near-rockets for engines? That’s Langley’s latest love. His team is called “Cops” and the cars carry the show’s logo. “You have to be in shape,” Langley says. “You really get tossed around. It’s just like Mad Max. I go with my sons. It’s like a guys’ vacation.”
The Baja 500, a 500-mile loop inside of the Baja California peninsula through forest, desert and dust, is the event for which Langley is preparing. The race starts on his 70th birthday. “When I’m in Baja, I might smoke three or four cigars a day,” Langley allows. Langley’s team has already won twice, in 2009 and 2010. He’s planning a show called “Desert Assassins” about the sport.
On the less dangerous, though no less risky, track, Langley owns a vineyard in Argentina. Urraca Wines is named after Langley’s wife Maggie, whom he calls magpie, which is urraca in Spanish.
“I also heard that you can sell more wine if you put a bird on the label,” Langley laughs. “I used to get down there three or four times a year, but now maybe only once. It’s just too far.” Langley says that 2008 was the vineyard’s best year. That year’s malbec received a rating of 90 from Wine Spectator.
All of this, of course, was made possible by the success of “Cops,” especially syndication and DVD sales. And “Cops” was successful by staying true to its formula. There are always three acts. “It’s the action piece, the lyrical piece and the think piece,” Langley explains.
The action piece is the chase, be it on foot or in cars. The lyrical piece is the one in which emotion dominates and might feature a domestic disturbance and tears. The third act makes you think. Maybe.
“I do shows that are entertaining that happen to be real,” Langley says, adding that he’s not preaching with “Cops,” but that he doesn’t mind if the audience considers more seriously what they’ve just seen. “Usually that’s about the drug laws or things of that nature that maybe people will think about and go, ‘Wait a minute. Why do we keep arresting these people over and over again who are users? Why don’t we just send them to rehab and stop that problem and decriminalize it?’ ”
“Cops” is often criticized for showing a lot of the suspects shirtless. “Well, you might think these suspects were booger-eating morons, but warm climates are best for shooting,” Langley says. “There’s more activity in warm climates.” Not much happens in the dead of winter. Even the bad guys stay inside.
And the nature of the show is to deal with street crime. “It’s not dealing with Kenneth Lay [of Enron fame] and white-collar crime and computer fraud and those things that are very difficult to film that you have to do on “60 Minutes.” You don’t get your most sophisticated criminals. They’re not cat burglars. They’re usually crack addicts.”
Over 25 years, Langley has seen a lot of what he calls “garden-variety crime.” He has arrived at clear conclusions about the system of criminal justice in America. “It’s not working. It’s harshly moralistic. Old Testament biblical,” Langley states, saying even the police and prosecutors believe the same. “They’ll all admit it in private. Anybody that has seen the system and seen what happens and deals with it up close and personal realizes there’s a tremendous waste of resources, of manpower, of human opportunity too.”
Langley clarifies that he’s all for keeping violent offenders “in jail forever,” but believes that criminalizing petty drug use, homelessness and other low-level offenses is counterproductive. “We have more people in prison than anywhere else in the world,” Langley explains. “In the land of the free!”
Keeping “Cops” on the air has provided a very comfortable life for John Langley and his family. He has received numerous awards, including the 2013 Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award, from the National Association of Television Programmers and Executives, for his “extraordinary passion, leadership, independence and vision in the process of creating television programming.”
“It’s nice to get awards. It’s better than not getting them. You know, all that stuff’s lovely, but it just means you’ve been around long enough,” Langley half-jokes. “They’re running out of recipients. I don’t take it too seriously.”
One prize that has eluded Langley is an Emmy for “Cops,” easily one of TV’s most successful programs ever. “With the Emmys, I’ve been nominated several times, but never got one. I think the Emmys are highly political, to be honest with you. I stopped submitting. It’s not gonna happen now. There’re too many new flavors on the landscape. I have an old show. People forget. That’s life. I get over it.”
Langley is philosophical about the snub. “Look, I’ve had a show on for 25 seasons. That’s enough gratification. It’s very difficult, as you know, to have anything on TV for that long.” Langley wants to keep working, and racing for “maybe another five years.” It’s no longer about him, though.
“It’s mostly for legacy stuff and for my kid,” Langley explains about his son Morgan. “He wants to keep working. He grew up on ‘Cops.’ He knows the medium pretty well.”
Langley, whose company had five different series on TV this past season, does not want to do the kind of reality show that is popular today. The man who is often referred to as “the father of reality TV” has no patience for it. “If that’s true—that I’m the father of reality TV—and I’m not sure it is, I am not responsible for the bastards that have been spawned since.”
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