For those who have been on television from its infancy to its present senility, a live appearance for a brief interview is possibly not the earthshaking and knee-knocking event it was to an average husband and father like myself.
From the time I was asked to present myself at high noon for exposure between a coffee commercial and a detergent lyric until my portion of the program concluded with a vibrant swelling of the pipe organ, I was in a tizzy.
Had it not been for my continuing one-sided love affair with a magazine that shall be nameless, I would not have broken my vow never to appear in public on behalf of anything whatever. Break it I did, and I shall never be quite the same.
To begin with, I had all sorts of witty and provocative epigrams written in fine print on the palms of my hands, which gems were promptly disallowed by Mary, who conducts Coffee with Alary.
“We want this all ad-libbed,” Mary said. She was a lovely, charming, and articulate girl, but she could not be made to understand my need to come off as a sort of latter-day Oscar Wilde.
“I can ad-lib these,” I said. “Just keep the camera off the palms of my hands.”
“No. We want this to be folksy and informal. You can’t be witty at noon on television. People resent it, people who are ironing and washing and scrubbing floors.”
We then spent a few moments with the director and producer, who was also a charming and articulate girl. The problem here was, should I go on first and fascinate everybody, or should I go on in between the two goats up for adoption from the S.P.C.A. and the man who was going to go out in back of the transmitter and show everyone how to kill dandelions?
I explained, modestly, that frisky goats were awfully attractive and I would hate to follow them, especially if I wasn’t allowed to be frisky. The thing was settled in my favor, because at the moment the show was to start, the goats hadn’t showed up yet.
The director, Ethel, then decided that my wife ought to go on with me. “Our viewers are really more interested in the wives than the celebrities,” Ethel said with a pretty smile. Now, I have no objection to my wife. If I did, I wouldn’t be married to her. But it confused me a little to have to split the billing, so to speak, with both goats and my wife. Being a gentleman, boxed in by three women, I couldn’t very well protest.
The show began after I was settled on a divan with a coffee table in front of me. I had been told to sip the coffee and remark about how good it was. I sipped the coffee and winced. Everybody waved in annoyance, and I said, helpfully and with a grin, “It’s hot!”
I stared at the monitor and saw a ghoulish creature holding a cup of coffee, grinning inanely. I put down the coffee and shuddered. “Good!” I cried loudly, as if I had found a pearl in it.
Then the interview proper began, and as I recall it, it went something like this:
MARY. You are what they call a free-lance writer? What is that?
ME. Well, a free-lance writer sort of free-lances.
MARY. I see. He just writes anything he wants to and sends it to a magazine and they publish it.
ME. Well, usually the magazines don’t publish it. Usually they send it back.
MARY. And your lovely wife here, does she give you assistance? (Closeup of my wife biting her fingernails.)
ME. Not if I can help it.
MARY (brittle laugh, watching the clock). I see. Well, it certainly sounds fascinating. I mean, it’s certainly thrilling to have a nationally known writer living right here in town!
ME. Well, it’s not very thrilling for me, because, you see, I have to work.
MARY. And your lovely wife here, I suppose she keeps house while you work?
ME. Well, somebody does, I imagine. I never paid much attention.
MARY. I’m sure (taking up a bottle of detergent) she keeps house beautifully. (Close-up of my wife waving at me to pull down the legs of my trousers.) And I’m sure that she must use this, too.
Here Mary went into a beautifully ad-libbed, nonwitty story about the detergent. She then planted the bottle firmly in front of me, and I nervously poured a little into my coffee.
MARY(brittle laugh). You writers are certainly unpredictable. Tell me, if you don’t mind a personal question — and I’m sure the thousands of housewives watching us will want to know — do you think you are difficult to live with?
ME. I’m very easy to live with. It’s other people who are difficult to live with. Weeks go by when I am in a writing trance and I don’t even speak to anyone in the house. So how should I be difficult to live with?
MARY. I see.
Off camera somewhere I could hear two goats groaning. They had arrived !
MARY. Well, it certainly has been fascinating, examining all the facets of an author’s fife. Thank you for being with us.
ME(picking up the coffee-with-detergent and sipping it). Good!
MARY(hastily). And now I see our time is up. . . .
After the camera had wandered around and settled on the man and his two goats, my wife and I silently tiptoed out into oblivion. We drove a long way in peace.
At length my wife said, “You didn’t seem a bit nervous. I bet once it started you didn’t even think you were on TV.”
“No, I didn’t,” I admitted. “I thought I was in the death house at Sing Sing.”
“I enjoyed it,” my wife said blithely.
“Sure,” I said grimly, “you didn’t have to drink the detergent.”
As a result of this experience, my advice to those about to be interviewed on TV is: Don’t.
Playwright and author of light prose, ROBERT FONTAINEmakes his home in Springfield, Massachusetts.