That Was Me On TV

Life in the last, or next-to-last, slot

OVER the years, I have been hosted, or guest-hosted, by Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, Dick Cavett, Larry King, Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder, Bob Costas, Conan O'Brien, Bill Maher, Dr. Sonya Friedman, Forrest Sawyer, Al Franken, Pat Sajak, Richard Belzer, Jon Stewart, Robin Leach (on the food channel, not Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous), Tom Brokaw, David Hartman, Charlie Gibson and Joan Lunden, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric, Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin (a short-lived "Studs and Bud" cable show), David Susskind, and Helen Gurley Brown. (I was supposed to jet to the Coast to "bounce off Shelley Winters" on Merv Griffin once, but weather stranded me in New York. I was scheduled to do Chevy Chase, but the show was canceled.)
What were they really like? you're wondering. I don't know. Some were terrible company, but I'm not going to say which ones, because they might not invite me back. And now I'm worried about the order I've listed them in. I mean no disrespect to the ones toward the end. But, hey, how close to the top of the show have I generally appeared? On the nighttime shows I am almost always dead last, in the author's slot.

I can remember when normal people could be expected to appear buttoned-up and awkward on TV. Even newscasters didn't seem to feel at home, exactly. (Dan Rather still doesn't, of course.) Nowadays no one would be surprised to turn on a daytime talk show and find six or eight salt-of-the-earth types sitting around together quite comfortably showing each other and the world their chigger bites and patches of athlete's foot, scratching themselves and each other and saying to the host, "I'm glad you asked me that, Jenny. This inflamed place over here on the back of my leg, I've had that for, oh, gee, I'd say ..."

But for a thinking person, it's not always as easy as it looks. The first thing you have to deal with is whether to tell friends that you're going to be on. If you don't, they'll hear about it afterward and look at you as if you must perceive your relationship with them as awfully superficial. "Seems like you would have told us, so we could watch and not hear about it secondhand. So what did you say?"

"Oh, I don't know," you say. There is nothing less entertaining than trying to tell people what you said on television. They look at you like "They let you go on television to say that?"

But if you notify them ahead of time, they say, "Well, uh, that's kind of late for us to stay up, with the kids to get off to school and all, but if you really want us to watch ..."

And if you do give them notice, chances are you'll rub your cheek on the air and smear your makeup dramatically ("You have very nice skin, let's just cover up a couple of little red spots," the makeup artist will have told you, before covering your entire nose -- and believe me, you do need makeup, or you'll look like the only dead person on the show), and that's the only part they'll remember. Or else you'll get rescheduled or bumped, and people will be calling to say, "What happened? We stayed up till two in the morning, and Toni Tennille went on and on and we kept waiting for you, and ..."

One of the differences between being a guest on someone's talk show and being a guest in someone's home is that in the latter case you are not likely to get bumped. Once, at the show's expense (they always wanted my publisher to pay for my travel, but I didn't have a book out at the time), I flew all the way from New York to Los Angeles, rode in a limo to the Tonight studio in Burbank, got made up, heard myself announced as a guest, and then cooled my heels backstage while the hour ticked away. I've forgotten who the famous guests were, but I remember that Johnny gave an extraordinary amount of time to an elderly woman from a small midwestern town who tamed wild squirrels, I believe. No, some less interesting animal. It may even have been plants. It was. I remember sitting in my dressing room thinking, "I'm being bumped by plants." I guess she didn't tame them -- she sang to them, maybe. Someone -- not Johnny -- offered me a brief apology, and then the limo took me to the Burbank airport and I flew back to New York. More people of my acquaintance happened to catch that show than any of the ones I actually appeared on.

"The worst green room I was ever in," Art Buchwald told me once, "there was a chimpanzee in there with me, and a woman was changing its diaper." My favorite green room was Letterman's, the second time I was on the show. I was sitting between Lash La Rue, the old cowboy-movie star, and Larry "Bud" Melman. "I want to read my poetry," Lash was saying, "but they want me" -- he gave his trademark bullwhip a morose twitch -- "to do a whip act." Larry "Bud" wasn't saying anything at all. A woman in an Ice Capades costume was skating circumscribedly on a piece of Plexiglas. It was the closest I have come in life to being in a George Price cartoon. I felt a bit giddy and made the mistake of introducing my daughter and her friends, whom I had brought along, to Letterman himself, who was in the hall conferring with someone. He gave a wince -- an auteur can't afford to make room in his head for a minor character's entourage.

Leno was more jovial backstage than I could readily respond to, having been conditioned by other hosts' reticence. When he asked me what kind of car I drove and I told him an eight-year-old Volkswagen Jetta, he blinked as if I'd said I was dating an eighty-year-old Presbyterian. But the only remark Letterman ever directed to me off camera was a sort of bashful aside: "Did read the book." He seemed to dread wasting any precious conversational fluids.

LETTERMAN and Leno are younger than I am, but Johnny was such a long-term household name (and was so unassailable and provocatively distant) that he stirred Oedipal feelings. After I was bumped for plants, I reacted only semi-professionally. On the one hand, I knew that it was business, and that remaining wholeheartedly available to Johnny's summons was good for sales of my books. (In theory, at least -- you haven't had the full authorial experience until you leave a Tonight taping thinking you have really set the welkin ringing, only to find that the nearest bookstore has yet to receive word of your book, never mind copies of it.) On the other hand, I took it personally. Had he been trying to teach me not to take him for granted? Had that column I had written years before in The Atlanta Journal finally reached his attention, that column in which I mocked him for responding lamely to a lengthy, intellectually interesting observation by Norman Mailer, "Interesting concept, Norman"? (I recall Mailer once observing, "One of the things I sometimes distrust about myself is that I am fairly good on television.") How about not taking me for granted?

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In