The Showman

A few nights ago, I took to the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., to watch the “lost” interview Steve Jobs gave to Robert X. Cringley for a 1996 PBS television series, “Triumph of the Nerds.” The series included ten minutes of the interview, the rest of which was never seen, and feared lost, until Cringley discovered the mastertape following Jobs’s death last month.

The interview shows Steve Jobs at 40, ten years into his career as head of NeXT computer, 9 years into his position as co-founder of Pixar, and a few months before he would sell NeXT to Apple, the first stop in a process that would end with Jobs as CEO of Apple Computer.

If you’re familiar with Apple’s history, nothing in this interview should surprise you. Jobs goes over the well-worn stories of Apple’s founding by himself and Steve Wozniak, its initial successes with the Apple II and the Macintosh, his ejection from the company in 1985, and Apple’s failure to keep up with Microsoft in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What’s more, if you’ve seen any other interviews with Jobs or have listened to his Stanford commencement address, his stories and lessons will ring familiar. “Humans are tool builders. We build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities,” he says as he answers a question about what drives him. “We ran an ad for this once that the personal computer is the bicycle of the mind. I believe that with every bone in my body.” Likewise, he repeats the Picasso quote –- “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” –- when discussing the things that made Apple great in its heyday.

Of course, he also had plenty of unkind words for the men who have been a thorn in his career, like John Scully –- the former Pepsi CEO who had pushed Jobs out of Apple –- and Bill Gates. Though, again, if you’re familiar with Jobs in any regards, these are things that you’ve probably heard already.

What was interesting about the interview, more than anything, is the degree to which it was a showcase for Jobs’s passion and chrisma. Watching the screen was like living in Jobs’s famed “reality distortion field.” Audience members, myself included, hung on to every word that came from his mouth, so much so that when he offered strained explanations for things like his callous behavior –- Cringley asked him what it meant when he said, “That is shit.” –- it was easy to let them slide. Throughout the interview, it was as if Jobs were putting on a show — unveiling a new product, which happened to be the story of his career.

This is a long way of saying that if you’re looking for new information about Jobs, there’s no need to watch Cringley’s interview — at most, you’re getting a 70-minute summation of information that is widely available, albeit from the horse’s mouth. But if you want a glimpse of Jobs as a person and a showman, it’s worth your time.

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