Ebert closes TED conference with emotional talk - and a laugh
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the final talk at this week's TED conference.
March 4th, 2011
10:04 PM ET

Ebert closes TED conference with emotional talk - and a laugh

In the end, Roger Ebert’s computer voice passed what he called the ultimate test. It got a laugh, which was no easy thing given the emotionally wrenching talk Ebert, his wife and two friends gave to close the TED conference Friday.

Ebert, the film and culture critic, lost the ability to speak and much of his lower jaw after operations for cancer four years ago.

Taking the stage at the conference in Long Beach, California, he wore a newly designed facial prosthesis. Ebert spoke through "Alex," a computer voice from his MacBook, and was accompanied by his wife, Chaz, and friends John Hunter and Dean Ornish. The four took turns giving the talk, as Ebert told the story of his illness, which turned a self-described "motor mouth" into a man who can't have a conventional conversation.

TED, which originally stood for the subjects of technology, entertainment and design, is a high-profile conference run by a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas Worth Spreading." Its conference this year was titled, "The Rediscovery of Wonder."

"When you see me today, I look like the Phantom of the Opera," Ebert said, as Chaz immediately broke in to say, "No, you don’t!" She had to pause in the midst of the speech to regain composure.

"It is human nature to look away from illness," Ebert added, explaining that making friends for him is now much easier online, where his blog and Twitter feed draw wide readership. "I become uncomfortable when separated from my laptop."

Ebert began by playing a clip from the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," in which the eerie voice of the computer HAL 9000 says repeatedly, "My mind is going." The critic likened some of his computer voices to HAL, but pointed out there has been immense progress in technology used to simulate voices. A company in Scotland was able to create a computer voice that sounds like Ebert before he lost his ability to speak. The voice was generated through processing many hours of tapes of Ebert talking.

Still, the voice he put to the test was the impersonal "Alex."

"The ultimate test of a computer voice is whether it can tell a joke like Henny Youngman," Ebert said.

He told the audience, some in a somber state, a story that changed their mood:

"A guy goes to a psychiatrist, who tells him, 'You’re crazy.'

"He says, 'I want a second opinion.'

" 'You’re ugly.' "

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Filed under: Health • Technology
soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Karen onCape Cod

    A very brave man dealing with a wretched situation. I applaud him for his courage and sense of humor!

    March 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • John R

      I had a scare regarding a strange shape in my jaw...and in my very lucky case, was benign. You go Roger! And by the way, an amusing story wording issue that Roger might like...as I read ahead this sentence from the article...

      "...is a high-profile conference run by a nonprofit..."

      I read it as "...is a high-profit conference run by a nonprofile..." Got to love speed reading. Take care Roger.


      March 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Thomas

    Watching Roger Ebert comport himself despite all of the struggles he's had to go through over the past few years is truly inspiring. It's a testimonial to his strength of character.

    March 4, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve

      i really have to say i agree with you Thomas as i see a lot of people who post these days make fun of others misfortunes and i see a few sometimes that make perfect sense you are right and he is a real strong man for what he is doing i do not think i could ever of survived what he went through

      March 5, 2011 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  3. Tanya

    This man is awe-inspiring. Intelligent AND a survivor...Beautiful in mind and spirit! God Bless!!!

    March 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shannon

      FYI, he's an Atheist

      March 4, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • bigboxes

      FYI, you can still bless someone even if they are an atheist. Good people come in all faiths and even the faithless.

      March 4, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharoom

      Roger Ebert is an incredibly candid guy. I highly recommend his blog entries. They are a great read.

      March 5, 2011 at 12:50 am | Report abuse |
    • godisimaginaryandyouknowit

      The "faithless"....I love you try to make it sound like a bad thing. So it's ok to bless an athiest? Isn't the point that...it's pointless. I suppose it's all with good intentions, but has about as much meaning as me saying "May the power of the magic toaster be with you and give you strength!"

      March 5, 2011 at 3:41 am | Report abuse |
    • BB

      You can bless an athiest, buddist, Jew, Christian, Rock, Banana, anything. The outcome is always the same.

      March 5, 2011 at 3:50 am | Report abuse |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      Atheism isn't "faithlessness" it is simply a faith-based belief system to which the lack of a deity is central.

      March 5, 2011 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
    • lance corporal

      being non christian or non religious is in no way the same as being "faithless" calling someone faithless is an intentionally derogatory put down and if you ever wonder why the non religious get so uppity maybe you should take a look at how you REALLY treat them, one of the abilities the non dogmatics have over the religious is the ability to step out of a singular world view and appreciate the sense of others, it is a valuable skill

      March 5, 2011 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
  4. alauter

    I really wish CNN would be more responsible with their choice of headlines.... you cannot use the phrase "ended on an ugly note" when you are actually talking about a joke that happened to contain the word "ugly." That COMPLETELY misrepresents the story. Anyone who sees the headline but does not click on it, will be under the impression Roger Ebert did something unpleasant or misguided at the TED conference. And the quotes around ugly don't make it any less ridiculous. You cannot post such nonsensical headlines and call it news.

    March 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      I agree completely. Many people undoubtedly saw the headline, didn't read the story, and are now left with the impression that Ebert said something rude or distasteful. But some lamebrain at CNN thought the play on words was cute.

      March 4, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kelly

      calmdown...deep breath...LOLLOLLOL

      March 4, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zack

      CNN's been doing a lot more of this lately too. Very unnecessary and makes people lose some respect for them.

      March 5, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Flopsweat McGee

      If someone comes up and says "Roger Ebert did something ugly!" and I say "what?" and they say "No idea. I only read headlines," then I'm not going to think "well, I guess he set fire to an orphanage." I'm going to think "don't ask that idiot about the news any more."

      March 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  5. seriously

    i dont expect responsible from CNN. they're entertainment.

    March 4, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dave

    the headline proved to be inappropriate & cnn took it down. It happens. There'll be another story to eclipse this, sadly. Let's admire his strength and courage...and encourage.

    March 4, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gene Siskel

      It's still the headline on the newspulse section – Roger Ebert closes TED conference on 'ugly' note

      March 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tom

    I'd jump off a bridge before choosing surgery that made me look like Howdy Doody. If you get into an accident and come out looking like this - them's the breaks. But to accept such a result when you could just end it all? I say live with dignity, die with dignity.

    March 4, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jose

      How thoughtless and inconsiderate can you be.

      March 4, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • jondoe888

      I have sleep apnea, and must wear a mask at night. Previously, I hadn't slept right in maybe a decade. I feel great, but it's as ugly as sin. I don't have to look at it, but my wife does. Maybe I should jump off that bridge, too, for her sake?
      What an ass!

      March 4, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • sockpuppet

      that's fine if you couldn't live with a disability, but what's your problem with him choosing to go on with his life? A$$

      March 5, 2011 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark C

      Tom, I'm sure if Ebert were as clueless and worthless a tool as you are, he'd have ended it long ago.

      March 5, 2011 at 3:36 am | Report abuse |
    • BB

      I see. In the face of adversity, a challenge, hardship; YOU would just give up. I've seen 5 year old kids with more backbone.

      March 5, 2011 at 3:55 am | Report abuse |
    • lance corporal

      thankfully for our species your lack of strength is not common, overcoming adversity is our best quality and if our ancestors had been so focused on looks ....... whatever you won't understand, enjoy the next episode of jersey shore

      March 5, 2011 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Karen onCape Cod

      You comment is viscious and mean-spirited. Better watch your words, they do have power!

      March 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Annie

      No doubt spoken by someone who is nowhere near dying. Mr. Ebert is the epitome of dignity as he continues his life with courage and grace. He also helps us all look inside and see the things we might rather "look away" from. I'm sure he'd rather not have this situation, but he is living, breathing example of what you do when life hands you hardship. I respect, admire, and enjoy him.

      March 5, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mary

    just saw the CBS interview of him and his wife OMG made me envious of their love wish i had a real man like him

    March 5, 2011 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
    • lance corporal

      try being a real woman

      March 5, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  9. goat

    I have no compassion for him. He seems to think video games are not art. How can someone be so ignorant?

    March 5, 2011 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
    • sockpuppet

      so you hate a guy for not agreeing with you? That makes you sound like a keeper.

      March 5, 2011 at 3:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark C

      Goat, you are a true piece of garbage.

      March 5, 2011 at 3:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      I believe Ebert retracted his blanket statement.

      March 5, 2011 at 4:17 am | Report abuse |
    • someoneelse

      That's because most video games aren't art. Hell, most 'art' nowadays isn't art. But to hate someone for disagreeing about something so pathetic is, well, pathetic.

      March 5, 2011 at 6:59 am | Report abuse |
    • lance corporal

      I don't like games, can't stand them, don't get it, a complete utter waste TO ME, I have friends however who love them, I wish them well when they get sick or injured tho, it is hard to imagine why you wouldn't have compassion for someone based on their opinion of your hobby, IMO your hobby is akin to continuous pointless masturbation but if your hurt I will certainly want the best for you

      March 5, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  10. kazz

    Ebert rocks.

    March 5, 2011 at 1:57 am | Report abuse |
  11. M.K.

    You folks that are critisizing CNN for what to me is just a good, light hearted way to break the ice, are just plain daffy. Go and get a life.

    March 5, 2011 at 1:59 am | Report abuse |
  12. patsie whipplesnach

    Ebert droops

    March 5, 2011 at 2:14 am | Report abuse |
  13. TRAVIS

    You would almost swear his new deformity is painted on. I haven't seen a picture of his new look without a smile. It is quite enduring.

    March 5, 2011 at 2:29 am | Report abuse |
  14. Robert G, Erhart

    Reading this article made my day. I love stories of people in such a state loving life like this and being so inspirational to others. Good for him.

    March 5, 2011 at 2:29 am | Report abuse |
  15. MickeyMudTurtle

    Ha ha, that joke is as old as the hills! 😀

    March 5, 2011 at 3:13 am | Report abuse |
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