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?

"Just remember," a Tonight Show booker, Bob Dolce, warned me once, after I too comfortably assured him that a long story I had in mind telling would work, "this is a performance, not a visit." A late-night host may feel like a boredom-dreading, atrocity-fearing head of household trying to be witty himself while keeping deranged or soporific relatives confabulating cheerfully around the Thanksgiving dinner table, but to the guest, the host is one facet of a multiplex audience that also includes other guests, the band and the crew, the live studio gallery semi-visible through the lights, and the prospective home viewers who will begin to receive the show across the country -- westerly from time zone to time zone -- within the next couple of hours.

And my first inclination, when the host asks what I'm up to lately, is to blurt out the truth: "Well, right now I'm sitting here on national television and omigod I can see myself on the monitor and omigod my hair is sticking up in some kind of bizarre way and now omigod I'm frantically smoothing it down and it won't stay, and meanwhile you may be interested to know that on one track of my mind I'm saying to myself, 'Drop this line of talk right this minute and start saying "As you know, my latest book is titled This Should Appeal to Everyone From Nine to Ninety,"' and on another track I'm telling myself, 'Oh, no, no, no, don't tell me you're going to tell that mouse-in-your-hat story again ...'"

It's a mistake to see yourself on the monitor. Especially when you're live on CNN. What you see on a CNN monitor, because of the way the signal is relayed by satellite, is yourself an instant ago. It's bad enough to see yourself as the world is seeing you now. To see yourself as the world saw you in the immediate past is to see yourself tantalizingly just beyond any hope of redemption. Once I saw a guy reporting live from the field on CNN and you could see the monitor behind him, showing him as he was in the previous moment. Presumably within the image on that monitor was another monitor, and within the image on that monitor ... If I'd had a big enough screen and a strong enough magnifying glass, I guess I could have looked all the way back to an afternoon in 1927 or so when Philo T. Farnsworth, of Beaver, Utah, got his "dissector tube" -- the first working model of what we now know as television -- up and running.

MY first television exposure was local, in Atlanta: the Woody Willow show. Woody was a puppet, who was entirely up-front about being made of wood. His friend, oddly enough (perhaps there was some implicit lesson about disparate types getting along), was Tillie the Termite. Then, too, there was Officer Don, a human being. Officer Don was good. I believe the only reason he never went on to the national level, aside from there perhaps being room in the culture for only one Buffalo Bob and one Captain Kangaroo, was that he chose to put down roots in the Atlanta area.

I watched the Woody Willow show every afternoon, I ate Peter Paul's chocolate-covered coconut-almond bars because of it, and one year my mother arranged for me to have my birthday party on it. My friends and I, and another party of kids, were all visible on the set. Are there TV shows like that anymore, or has Barney taken over? Woody called me up to one side of his little booth and asked how old I was. I answered (how distinctly, we will never know for sure -- there was no taping back then), "Nine."

"Nine rhymes with just fine," said Woody.

Then he hopped over to the other side of his little booth and asked the show's other birthday celebrant, "And how old are you, Sharon Lynn?" or whatever her name was, and she said, "Eight."

"Well," he said, "you're not hurting yourself much either, are you?"

She blinked. An odd thing for a puppet to say to a child. As if whoever did Woody's voice (I have no recollection of the mechanics involved) had drifted out of kiddie-show context for a moment. It occurs to me now that Woody and Tillie picked on each other a lot. Tears welled up in the birthday girl's eyes and she ran to her mother. Some of the kids in the peanut gallery tittered. I felt a measure of sympathy for her, but I was a year older, and furthermore it seemed to me that she might have risen to the occasion. I was accustomed to obscurely inappropriate vibes. At home my mother shared with me more of her life's tensions than I would ever know what to make of, and my father kept too much to himself. At school I had trouble figuring out what the social deal was. Here you could deflect ironies toward an impartial audience.

My father was good at addressing groups, and my mother had introduced me to performance when I was five. At her behest I had memorized recitations -- "The Night Before Christmas," "Life Gets Teejus, Don't It?" -- and delivered them at church-lady gatherings. To good effect, I believe: I don't recall any heckling. Later I lost confidence in my mother's production values, when she talked me into wearing one of her blouses as part of a Three Musketeers costume. But I never stopped feeling comfortable -- relieved, in fact -- in front of an audience, as opposed to one-on-one with, say, a woman wanting to discuss our relationship. As I returned to my seat on the set among the other kids, I was thinking that I was one of those people who would always be better on television than Sharon Lynn.

My next appearance was thirty years later -- on Dick Cavett's show, when he was on public TV five nights a week. It was 1980, and I was promoting my book Crackers. We had a brief, odd, sidelong conversation before the taping (he liked my book, I remember him saying, but he hated the tie he was wearing), and then I made my national television debut. Went quite well. You might have thought we'd been chatting like this for years. At the end, when the cameras pulled back, and the credits were undoubtedly rolling over us as we leaned toward each other confidentially and no one could hear what we were saying, what I said was, "I always wondered what the guest and the host were saying at this point."

"Frequently," Cavett said, "this."

PEOPLE who saw me chat with Johnny got the impression that I had influence. A man in Nashville urged me to find out from Ed McMahon how one might go about getting one's girlfriend on Star Search, the new-talent showcase Ed hosted. So one evening as the credits rolled, I turned to Ed and popped that question -- without the girlfriend reference, of course. He didn't look directly at me, but he did vouchsafe one of his patented chuckles before allowing, "You'll notice they give a phone number at the bottom of the show." Then, boom, he was gone from the set. Once, when Johnny asked me on the air what I had been up to, it occurred to me to tell the impromptu truth: that I'd just come from watching my daughter teach a class of variously challenged toddlers in a rough neighborhood of San Francisco. "They were celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday," I said. "My daughter wrote a little pamphlet about Dr. King for the kids."When I reached into my pocket for this unassuming monograph, the producer Fred de Cordova snapped, from somewhere to my right, "No!"

But. Yes. Sometimes during the breaks Johnny actually seemed to want to talk. At one of our first breaks together, after the supposedly live house had scarcely responded, Johnny observed, "There should be a chill factor for comedy." At first I thought he was criticizing my intensity (he hadn't laughed much either -- the show's various layers of audience tend to synergize or not), but on reflection I decided it had to do with maintaining your feel for risibility in the presence of blank faces, and I found it comforting. By that time I was out in the parking lot.

Yet another time, when I had been talking about my book about hair, he pointed to his, all white, and mentioned something about getting old. Still pumped from addressing so many Americans at once, I said, "Uh," in surprise.

Another show, when I had been taking off on various semi-personal woes, Johnny murmured, just to me, during the break, "So often, comedy is rooted in sadness."

I was astounded. I couldn't think of anything to murmur back. We had only a few seconds. I didn't think I ought to start telling him about my mother.

By a year or so before Johnny's last show the intervals between my appearances had decreased to three or four months. I had been on the show with Teri Garr so often (the first time, she gave me a wary look when I introduced myself; the second time, I nodded to her coolly; the third time, we were cordial) that I mentioned it to Dolce, who said, "The same thing happens with Buddy Rich and Angie Dickinson." Flattering as that association was celebrity-wise, it left me feeling a tad subliterary. And the plant-lady bump still chafed. When people asked me what it was like to be sitting there between Johnny and Ed and Joe Namath or someone, I would say that it was "like being one of the faces on Mount Rushmore, except all of us are capable of some movement." I went so far as to write something to that effect in one of the edgy-or-snide columns I was writing for Spy magazine in those days. Tonight stopped inviting me, and I doubt I will be mentioned in the same breath as Angie Dickinson again.

One night not long ago I dreamed that I was on the show with Johnny, relishing the sensation of sitting in an electric chair whose charge I could keep down to a stimulating buzz as long as I stayed funny, and the first break came, and he looked over at me and murmured, "We will never see each other again. You may ask me one question about life."

And I blurted out, "Johnny! Quick! My father never gave me pointers. Tell me what to say to a woman when she asks me how something intimate felt! Tell me what to say that won't make her look at me askance!" And Johnny looked at me sadly and said, not with that Nebraska-droll on-screen expression of his but with the rooted-in-sadness-during-the-break expression: "Just say, 'You can imagine.'"

Roy Blount Jr. is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for The Oxford American. His article in this issue appears, in somewhat different form, in his memoir, to be published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.

Illustration by Robert deMichiell

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; That Was Me on TV; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 34 - 38.