The book tour blues

Oct 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Someone once said, or might have said, “You see one green room, you’ve seen them all.” OK, nobody to my knowledge did say it, but I do feel as though I have seen them all. The reason is simple, as are most things about this column: I have a book out. And even though one may still run into people who think television is the enemy of the book, try selling “the book” without going on “the television.” You might as well have it printed in invisible ink and distributed at nunneries.
This book, written with my friend James Andrew Miller, is about television: “Live From New York,” an oral history of “Saturday Night Live” culled over a period of three years and with great difficulty-largely because I am easily discouraged and kept wanting to quit.
I’d always known show business had its share of creeps creeping around, but never before had I been forced to grovel and supplicate and humiliate myself before so many of them. Not the stars themselves; they aren’t the problem. It’s the squadrons of lackeys, toadies and bouncers they hire to keep journalists and other troublemakers away from them. Luckily for authors Miller and Shales, the book was sanctioned by “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels himself, and many a door was flung open at the utterance of that name. Others, however, were not. How demeaning to have to suck up to a pea-brained publicist or agent or other gatekeeper to get an audience with some semi-talented geek whom fate had quixotically selected for stardom.
After you turn in the manuscript and the book is published, a new regimen of self-debasement and degradation takes hold: Selling the book by going on radio and TV. Many of the personalities one encounters during this process are kind, generous, even mildly interested in your book. But mostly the ordeal is dehumanizing and depressing in the extreme.
You find yourself being trotted into a cold empty room, having an IFB jammed into your ear and soon chattering away with as much fake animation as possible into the dark hole of a robotic camera’s lens. You feel as though you might as well have walked out to the end of the driveway and started shouting into your own mailbox. Is anyone there? Does anyone care? Is this microphone on my tie actually connected to anything?
There were many pleasant stops along the way, however, and one in particular that was perversely entertaining: a visit to “The O’Reilly Factor,” the nightly tantrum thrown by Mr. Fox Populi himself, Bill O’Reilly. His very talky talk-show is currently trouncing such competition as Connie Chung and Phil Donahue in the nightly cable wars.
After my eight or 10 minutes opposite Mr. O’Reilly on the set of his show, I walked into his crowded green room-filled with guests waiting to appear on his and other shows-and announced, “Well, he is genuinely psychotic.” That elicited a good deal of approving laughter, even from some of the make-up people. O’Reilly is consistent; you’ve got to hand him that (it would be more fun to hand him a lighted stick of dynamite, the way the Road Runner does to Wile E. Coyote in the Chuck Jones cartoons). Having pegged me as a “liberal,” which in his view is the rottenest, stinkingest thing a person can be, he maintained an aura of disdain and contempt off the air as well as on.
That is, when I left the set and said, “Bye, Bill,” there were no niceties or pleasantries on the order of, say, a friendly handshake or a cheerful “toodle-oo.” Whatever else O’Reilly can be called, hypocrite is not one of them. He really does seem to believe that baloney he so eagerly serves up on his show.
O’Reilly began the segment by quoting things I’d written about him and Fox News Channel here in Electronic Media: that FNC is a mere propaganda mill, that O’Reilly is “an empty-headed blowhard” and-the sentence that seemed to irritate O’Reilly the most-“If there is anything more sickening than a George W. Bush grin, it’s a Roger Ailes smirk.” Ailes runs FNC.
O’Reilly hammered away at this sentence as if it were the only thing on earth preventing him from experiencing happiness. Or maybe an orgasm. “Do you regret the George W. Bush `sickening grin’ remark?” he asked. And a little later: “Why would a television critic of your stature put a president in that kind of position-`sickening grin’? Do you have anything against him personally?” And a little later still: “I didn’t like the President Bush remark. I thought that was uncalled for, beneath you. … A `sickening grin.’ It’s just disrespectful, and there’s no reason to do it.”
No reason to do it? How about if you think Bush really does have a sickening grin? O’Reilly said my criticism was colored by my “ideology.” I was baffled. Doesn’t every critic operate from a set of values and standards, a philosophy toward the medium in question that might be called an “ideology”? No, O’Reilly meant a political ideology. And so we were back to Square One, O’Reilly’s favorite square in the universe, the notion that evil “liberals” run riot throughout the media and poison American minds with their pernicious propaganda and I am one of them. Good God, what do these right-wingers want-absolute and unchallenged domination of all the airwaves 24 hours a day?
Conservatives own the media for the most part anyway. O’Reilly’s employer Rupert Murdoch, the mega-mogul,would buy up every transmitter and printing press in the world if he could. And he almost has. Congress and the White House aren’t likely to utter a peep of protest as Rupert adds DirecTV to his holdings. Just to stay on the president’s good side, though, Murdoch’s Fox network was the only one to carry Bush’s recent address to the nation on the alleged necessity for an attack on Iraq. The White House didn’t even bother to ask the other networks for time. Maybe the thinking was that if Bush aired only on Fox, it would look like those evil “liberal” networks were intentionally ignoring him.
That’s balderdash, of course. If Bush had wanted the time and had asked for it, it would have been his. Bush’s people may not be smart, but they are cunning. It was predicted in this column many months back that Fox News Network’s pro-Bush bias would be likely to land it the occasional exclusive or singular White House leak; instead, Fox ended up with an exclusive on what was supposed to be an address to the whole nation.
Apparently, Bush only wants to speak with people who already agree with him.
The O’Reilly green room seemed tackier and more crowded than most I’ve visited on the tour. There was only one bathroom, and it was unsavory. When I was seated across from O’Reilly on the set, I realized that my chair was pushed back all the way to the edge of the platform, and I wondered if this were intentional-a way of making guests feel intimidated and anxious. Somebody’s going to topple off that platform one day, break his or her neck and hand Mr. O’Reilly one helluva lawsuit.
Alarmingly enough, after my mic was attached to my tie, the floor manager told me to move back. Move back?!? Like, off the platform and onto the studio floor? No, he wanted me to move back in the chair, not move the chair back.
In spite of all the tactics of intimidation, I wasn’t frightened of O’Reilly. It was really kind of fun doing that show with him, kind of electrifying to be in his hot seat. No, he didn’t seem any more interested in what I had to say than many other talk-show hosts had been, but he did seem passionately interested in what he had to say. Hey, it’s a beginning.