Tom Shales is on vacation. The following column originally appeared in the Oct. 27, 2003, issue of TelevisionWeek.
I was kidnapped at knifepoint a few months back, by a fat guy who looked like Roger Ailes and a thin guy who looked like Bill O’Reilly-though I certainly do not mean to state, imply or even raise the possibility that these distinguished gentlemen were actually involved.
Anyway, one day a volunteer for the Rush Limbaugh Defense Fund came to the door. My captors, who’d been busily bumbling around trying to move a piano, became so fascinated with the visitor that they seemed to forget I was there. So laying a finger aside of my nose and giving a nod, up the chimney I rose.
Bleeding profusely from contusions contused in the chimney and severely dehydrated from lack of water, I rushed to my car and, finding the cellphone still fully charged, did what I had to do: called an agent on Sunset Boulevard and asked him if he would represent me. An ambulance came roaring up with siren wailing, and I told them, “Stop that racket. Can’t you see I’m on an important call?!”
The crucial matter, the agent said, was getting everything properly coordinated for maximum medium overkill. There would have to be a book, he said, but not just any book-a book by an experienced ghostwriter who would command a record-breaking advance on my behalf to tell my thrilling and terrifying story. Not much had really happened to me during those months of confinement; I had been forced to watch the Fox News Channel all day, I remembered, plus the first two seasons of “24,” which makes 48.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t really been abducted at knifepoint but rather at penpoint. It was one of those felt-tip markers. Once somebody starts scribbling on you with a Sharpie, they can make an awful mess that takes several minutes of arduous scrubbing to remove. Anyway, under the circumstances or lack of them, we decided to frame the story in a way to bring out its true moral: The triumph of the human spirit.
The agent explained that the publication date of the book would have to be coordinated with the TV interview schedule. I said, “Oh gee, Manny, I don’t want to schlep from show to show telling my story about the triumph of the human spirit over and over. It will interfere with my sleep schedule.”
But Manny said not to worry. We would get Katie, Oprah, Barbara, Larry, Paula and Diane to wrestle for an exclusive.
When Barbara heard Diane was trying to horn in on the negotiations, she went storming off to the president of the news division, David Dustbin, urging him to intervene. But he was courageously hiding in the closet and could not be reached. Meanwhile, Paula threw a conniption fit when she heard Larry was trying to wrangle the interview away from her. Larry was fit to be tied, but let’s leave his sex life out of this.
My agent eventually decided on Katie because he thought we would look cute together. I said, “Anybody looks cute with Katie. Osama bin Laden would look cute with Katie.” My agent said yes, and if only Osama bin Laden realized that, he might come out of hiding and make some multimedia deals of his own, the big dumb jackass.
A bidding war developed even though network news divisions have strict, strict rules against paying for interviews. Fortunately, network entertainment divisions do not. NBC Universal was willing to offer not only an exclusive five-part interview on the “Today” show but also a movie-of-the-week to be produced by Dick “Mad Dog” Wolf (or was it Dick “Mad Wolf” Dog?) plus a spot on the “Tonight” show and a signed agreement that Jay wouldn’t tell any jokes at my expense. ABC countered with all the same-Diane interviewing me instead of Katie-plus they would build a new ride duplicating my nightmarish ordeal at Disneyland and I could guest host “The Jimmy Kimmel Show.”
Leslie, not one to be caught napping, is one to be caught leaping; so he leaped in with a handsome package (but let’s leave his physical particulars out of this). Anyway, the CBS deal included an exclusive with Dan on “48 Hours” in prime time and “CSI: FCC” as a lead-in. I would get to appear in Rupert’s Deli on Dave’s show, and Dave would pretend to be angry that the network had foisted me on him even as his World Wide Pants was preparing a new sitcom based on my life and experiences to be called “Nobody Loves Fatso.”
Unfortunately, things started turning ugly. Before I knew it, everybody was suing everybody else and then countersuing everybody else and even suing the lawyers who filed the suits and countersuits on their behalf.
It seems that somebody at CBS leaked it to the trades that I was going to go with NBC, but someone at ABC leaked it to the trades that Katie went to Haiti and Matt had been assigned the interview, thereby violating a clause of the contract and permitting me to appear first with Oprah, who had agreed to hold up the book jacket for no less than 49.5 seconds at the start and 34.6 seconds at the conclusion of her program. She also agreed to make the book a special selection of her book club, right between “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Color Purple.” All we had to do was change the title to “Boy, Is My Face Red.”
But then the two kidnappers sued, claiming rights to 50 percent of all revenues on the grounds that if they hadn’t kidnapped me in the first place, there would be no story to sell. Quietly I agreed to let them kidnap me again, only this time I would bring along my beloved kitty, Kelly, and Sonja Olga, a gifted 15-year-old Olympic skating hopeful.
Sonja kept asking in her Jennings-like accent, “What in hell this is all aboot?” and I told her not to worry and that when this was all over it would be a triumph for the human spirit and her bank account.