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Zany Advice Columnist Jeff Zaslow Dispenses Laughs to the Lovelorn : All That Zazz

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poor Jeff Zaslow. In high school, some bully stole his favorite sneakers and wouldn’t give them back. In college, his dream date confessed that there were only three guys she’d ever been interested in--and he wasn’t one of them.

He’s painfully insecure. “All my life I’ve wanted to be liked,” he confessed. “I’m not Willy Loman but I’ve always wanted people to think I’m a nice guy.”

This guy needs some advice. This guy needs Ann Landers. No, wait a minute, this guy is Ann Landers. Well, sort of.

Zaslow is the brash, wisecracking one-time star feature writer for the Wall Street Journal who caused something of a media splash a few years ago when, at the age of 28, he replaced Landers as the advice maven of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Ever since, armed with an arsenal of clever shtick and off-the-wall approaches to counseling his readers, he’s been fiddling with the shopworn question-and-answer format made famous by Landers (real name: Eppie Lederer) and her advice-dispensing twin sister, Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Phillips).

There was, for instance, Paul from Detroit, who went fishing for dates by faxing his photo to women. Zaslow championed Paul’s cause and printed his fax number. More than 1,800 eligible high-tech women zapped their own mug shots and messages back.

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There are also house calls, periodic home visits to loyal readers. During one such session, Zaslow suffered the embarrassment of tracking dog droppings into an immaculate Chicago apartment while a television crew that happened to be trailing him captured his horrified expression on videotape. Hard to imagine such things happening to Ann or Abby, which is the whole point. The irreverent, self-deprecating Zaslow, part schlemiel and part rising media golden boy, has carved a niche for himself in the crowded advice field by daring the outrageous and unearthing a few personal nightmares for readers to compare with their own.

Monday’s column, for instance, was more Dr. Ruth than Dear Abby. A reader complained that Zaslow had printed numerous letters from men about breast sizes but had not given equal space to women. So he compiled comments from women about how they sized up male sex organs.

“I’m trying to be innovative. I’m trying to separate myself from Ann and Abby,” he says. “Whatever they do, I try to do it differently.”

This week, Zaslow will hit the talk show and interview circuit touting a new book, published this month by William Morrow, that chronicles his first 30 months as a counselor to the lovelorn, bewildered, sexually confused, sexually frustrated, bigoted, henpecked, maritally shaky, inadequate as to etiquette and terminally weird.

“My post office box became a window into people’s innermost feelings--and the secret absurdities that rule their lives,” Zaslow writes in “Tell Me All About It,” a report card on one man’s initiation into a corner of the newspaper world long reserved for women.

Zaslow’s new career began in 1987, when Landers defected from the Sun-Times, for 31 years the flagship of her popular column, to the rival and far more profitable Chicago Tribune and a new distribution syndicate owned in part by Times Mirror Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times.

Trying to rebound from an embarrassing competitive setback, the Sun-Times management staged a massive publicity stunt: a nationwide “replace Ann” contest. Nearly 12,000 people entered, including Zaslow. He wasn’t shooting for the job, just a fresh angle on the contest story for the Journal.

As a lark, his application included such off-the-wall ideas as the creation of a “Regular Joes” advisory board composed of common-sense working stiffs named Joe and Josephine. He also pledged a lifetime guarantee on advice. If “leave him, the rat,” didn’t satisfy a reader, Zaslow said he’d gladly change it to “marry him, the swine.”

Flippant or not, he won and became the male half of a new advice duo that the paper hopes will eventually fill the Landers void. His partner is Diane Crowley, a lawyer and the daughter of the woman who created the Ann Landers column in 1942 at what was then known as The Chicago Sun.

By traditional standards, Zaslow’s “All That Zazz” column and Crowley’s more traditional “Dear Diane” have not exactly been rousing successes. Though other factors are involved, Sun-Times circulation has nose-dived since Landers left. Ann and Abby appear in about 1,200 publications apiece, Zaslow and Crowley in 50.

Still, capitalizing on his gender and a gift for zippy wit, Zaslow is catching up to the advice sorority veterans on the self-promotion fast track. An acknowledged “wise-guy,” he cracked to journalism buddies the day that he won the job that someday there would be a book. Next, he vowed mockingly, would come “Zazz, the Movie, then Zazz Two.”

So, Zazz fans, brace yourself for--you guessed it--the movie. Last week, Zaslow said, he signed a deal with Paramount to develop a film version of his experiences on the advice circuit. “They’re going to totally fictionalize it,” he promised. “They’ll probably end up with Whoopi Goldberg playing me.”

And then, of course, there’s television. Not long ago, he taped a pilot for a proposed syndicated daytime feature called “The Regular Joe Show.” If it goes into production, the program would feature Zaslow and his panel of Regular Joes fielding questions and dispensing advice in front of a studio audience.

Why not wait to cash in until he has more experience under his belt? “I wasn’t sure that anyone would give me a contract three or four years from now,” he said, betraying a dose of practicality that would make an Ann or Abby proud. “The interest would probably wane as the years progressed.”

As much as his job revolves around woe, Zaslow’s life--his print persona notwithstanding--seems charmed and unconflicted by comparison. He grew up in suburban Philadelphia, the son of a real estate broker father and publicist mother who by all accounts are still together. At the age of 1 he won the baby parade on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. He delivered newspapers as a kid, was editor of the Carnegie-Mellon University student paper and sold hot dogs at Phillies games in the summer.

From college he went to the Orlando Sentinel. His major journalistic coup in Florida was an expose revealing that the people who portrayed Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Grumpy and other characters at Disneyworld were pretty grumpy themselves about what they claimed were lousy working conditions, bad pay and abuse from patrons.

For another assignment, Zaslow interviewed Ann Landers when she passed through town on a speaking engagement. Thrilled with his article, she later sent him a note that gushed over his talent as a writer and concluded: “All the best to you Jeff. I know we shall meet again.”

At the age of 23, he moved to the Wall Street Journal and its Chicago bureau. There, between coverage of pork belly futures and the hog markets, Zaslow squeezed in sensitive and highly praised features such as one that traced the background of a reclusive homeless man found set ablaze in a tony Chicago neighborhood.

In Chicago, his unorthodox style as a journalist carried over into his love life. When it came time to pop the question, he did it in a Chinese restaurant with a fortune cookie that had been doctored to read, “Say Yes.” She did.

For more than two years, Zaslow has been married to Sherry Margolis, a TV newscaster in Detroit. The couple have one daughter and live in a Detroit suburb where Zaslow writes his column in the basement. He flies to Chicago once or twice a week to pick up letters.

If anything sets Zaslow’s column apart from more traditional advice givers, it’s what he calls “reader participation.” On most days, like Ann, Abby or Diane, he’ll air reader problems, consult experts and throw out suggestions. But he also has a bag of gimmicks, like using the column to play “Jeopardy!.” As in the TV quiz show of the same name, he’ll print an answer and ask readers to supply the question.

“It sounds like you want to go for it,” he wrote once. “Well, be sure. Be brave. Be careful.” The question, as supplied later by one reader, was how she should pick between competing desires to be a bread-baking, floor-waxing “Suzy Homemaker” and an adventure seeking “Greenpeace Guerrilla.” She concluded: “I’ve prayed to God to help me decide, but he told me to write you.”

Despite the often-light touch, Zaslow’s mail is far from being all frivolous. Women write him, he says, pleading: “You’re a man. The men in my life make no sense to me. Maybe you know the answer.”

Men write expecting automatic loyalty, he said. “They assume, ‘You’re a man. I’m a man. Of course you’re going to agree with me,’ And when I don’t they don’t like it one bit,” he explained.

“Do I have a lot of power?,” he asked, sitting amid stacks of unanswered mail in the old office suite that Landers once occupied. “Sort of and not really. Some people write to me and say they’ve asked 50 people for their opinion on something already and now I’m just 51.

“I’m more bothered by the fact that somebody will write me a 10-page letter and I don’t have the time to get back to them. That bothers me more than the fact that I can’t help them. Because some of these people need 10 years of therapy. Ten sentences does not equal 10 years of therapy. My expectations are very low. I know my limitations. If the reader doesn’t know them, that’s his problem. But he’s already got problems.”


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