clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert Taught a Generation to Argue

In this excerpt from “I Must Destroy Him,” the first episode of The Ringer’s new narrative podcast series ‘Gene and Roger,’ host Brian Raftery explains how two megastar movie critics created media as we know it

Every week, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert—movie critics and Chicago newspaper rivals—sat in an empty theater, showed a few clips from the latest releases, and talked. That’s it. No big-star interviews. No goofy trailer reactions. Just two smart, middle-aged writers … from Chicago … debating whatever movies they’d seen.

This was a very unusual formula for a hit television show—especially in the ’80s, when prime time was full of dopey sitcoms and glitzy soaps. But millions of viewers tuned in to watch Siskel & Ebert. Brian Raftery was one of them: Every Sunday, he’d rush home to catch the bald guy and the big guy.

Mostly, he watched Gene and Roger to learn about film. They talked about cinematography. And the pleasure of a good performance. About old movies, and why they’re so important to understanding new movies. And they did so in a way that didn’t make you feel intimidated or uneducated about film. Instead, Gene and Roger brought the movie conversation out of the theater lobby and into your home—and invited you to listen along.

At the end of each episode of Siskel & Ebert, Gene and Roger would deliver their verdicts on the week’s big movies: thumbs-up or thumbs-down?

If that sounds quaint now, remember that back then, there was no internet. No Tomatometer. So Siskel and Ebert’s votes had power. If they gave a film their trademark “two thumbs up!”—whether it was My Dinner With Andre or Anaconda—moviegoers would take it seriously. And if they went thumbs-down? Woof. Burt Reynolds, who starred in several poorly reviewed movies, called Gene and Roger “the Bruise Brothers.” Eddie Murphy once noted that a two-thumbs-down verdict could kill a film.

You could gripe about Siskel and Ebert’s decisions—and they made some truly strange calls over the years. Like when they both gave Reservoir Dogs a thumbs-down. Yet even if you disagreed with them about a movie, you always wanted to know why they voted the way they did. They could boil down big observations into just a few quick, cutting sentences. And while they got heated at times, they were never mean to each other. Most importantly: They were able to sound smart without ever coming off as show-offy.

It was such a simple approach to movie reviewing. But when they first teamed up, no one else was doing it. “They were the only game in town. And this was sort of a new thing,” recalls Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife and business partner for more than two decades. “Two Midwestern guys sitting in movie chairs, reviewing the movies—people went a little gaga over it. When Gene and Roger were both really high on a movie, it was so much fun to sit and talk about it with them. Because they’re like two little boys going back and forth ... ‘Wait a minute, what about this part?’”

You probably have a Siskel in your life. Or an Ebert. It’s the one friend you can debate anything with and never have to worry about being impolite or incorrect. Gene and Roger simply had those same conversations on TV every week, for decades. That banter would make Siskel and Ebert famous. And it would change the way people in media talk—or at least, how they try to talk. And not just about film, but about sports, politics, television, fashion, or even history. Some of your favorite talk shows and podcasts are indebted to Siskel and Ebert’s style.

It’s been more than two decades since Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed a movie together. Gene Siskel died in 1999; Roger Ebert passed away in 2013. But in a weird way, Gene and Roger are just as influential now as they were in their heyday. They taught an entire generation how to argue. And, for better and worse, created the blueprint for modern media. Any time you see two sports nerds going at it via a Zoom screen, or listen to a pair of movie podcasters bemoan the Oscar nominations … well, they’re just doing Siskel and Ebert, whether they know it or not.

For Gene and Roger, becoming Siskel & Ebert would be a battle at times, both on screen and off. But in the years to come, the two men would form a remarkable partnership—one that would make them as recognizable as the actors and directors they covered. So how did Gene and Roger become TV superstars in the first place? And why do their opinions—and the way they shared them—still hold so much sway, years after they’ve been off the air? Find out this season on Gene and Roger.