All summer, I had been dragging my desk into the living room, dragooning musician friends into coming over and, any time an unwitting delivery person came through the door, I’d forcibly sit them down and commence to talk. It was only when I got a small applause machine, and timed it for right after the nightly news, that the neighbors demanded a moratorium.
But I wasn’t to be stopped. I wanted a talk show. And why shouldn’t I--everyone else in the country was getting one. Of course, I didn’t want just any time slot. I had to have the big bawana: late night.
Chat-fests are at their zenith and I knew why--they are all style and no substance, the ultimate in “Talk is cheap.” And that makes everyone happy.
Guests love them because are virtually infomercials for themselves. Viewers love them because they could pay no attention--just like a real conversation--but suffer none of the consequences. Programmers love them because they are only slightly more expensive than test patterns. And hosts love them because they get phenomenal money for something everyone learned to do at age 2.
But that was my problem: As a host, I didn’t need a skill, I just needed something unique. I had no pedigree from “Saturday Night Live,” no gap between my teeth and, though I was nice, I wasn’t that nice. So I sat down with my staff and said, “Honey, how can I be different?” Of course, I had some ideas.
I’d never have Ross Perot on. That’d be unique. I’d ban all ex-hosts as guests and I wouldn’t call Goldie Hawn for the first five years.
But I wouldn’t change guest-patterns, I’d herald a whole new standard in sets. Something of the people--for a populist host feel. First, I’d throw out that exclusive desk thing. Everyone would get a desk, the entire audience would have their own gigantic desk.
Instead of a city painted behind me, I’d have a check-printing company do “Pastel America,” “Teddy Bear Love” or plain old “Blue Safety.” And given these uncertain times, I would never tell viewers, “We’ll be back right after this.” I’d say, “Maybe we’ll be here, maybe we won’t.”
Then there was the whole issue of the in-house band. If my old Sex Pistols albums were rejected by Standards and Practices, I’d go for something atonal: Philip Glass, Pierre Boulez, possibly Roger Clinton. And, once a month, just for good measure, I’d do a show with all the electricity off--Talk Show Unplugged.
My staff just shook her head and said, “Why can’t you just fall asleep on the couch a like normal husband?” But I was not to be put off. I was on the verge of a revelation. This was no time for a commercial break. Thus began my vigil--24 hours a day--nothing but talk.
Oh, it cost me. My musician friends stopped calling. My staff left me for a day job. Federal Express refused to send anyone over. In six days, I consumed 30 times the recommended government daily allowance in talk shows. Rodents that mainlined saccharine couldn’t have had it any worse. But I was going strong.
Until it came to a screeching halt. On the 149th straight hour, I cracked. I ripped out the TV cord. All I could do was stare at the blank, mute screen, gelded by the gabbing of gasbags. That’s when it struck me. I was just experiencing what all of America would experience in six months: backlash.
Now I saw my path to host clearly. I raced to my former staff and blurted out my idea: Eliminate talk altogether, have a Listen Show. Each night, I’d invite a star to take phone calls and nod. Or at most say, “I hear you.” For my piece de resistance, at the show’s end, I’d propose the unimaginable--having a conversation with someone at home.
I rejoiced, I danced, I spiked my pen and pencil set. Like so many others, I had forgotten that communication had been the original intent of talk. Now, there was nothing between me and a late night job--but a network that would listen.*