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I Like It Better When You're Funny: Working in Television and Other Precarious Adventures
by Charles Grodin
Random House, 2002
A Horse Who Can Type
In the early 1970s, after two brief appearances with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, I was asked if I'd like to be under exclusive contract to Johnny as a late night talk-show guest. I was startled, recovered quickly, and said yes. I was told it had been done twice before, with David Steinberg and Joan Rivers.
I thought about what I might have done with Johnny Carson that would have made him want to put me under contract.
I specifically remember one question and answer. The movie The Heartbreak Kid, where I had my first starring role, had just opened. Johnny asked me what my family had thought of me in the picture. I said they hadn't seen it yet. They were waiting for it to open in the neighborhood theaters. That really made him laugh. It wasn't all that funny, but Johnny seemed to respond to the "sincerity" with which I said it.
That "sincerity," of course, was exactly the kind of thing that would later get me into difficulty. Actually it still does.
Over the years I watched several of Johnny's guests-David Letterman, Jay Leno, David Steinberg, and Joan Rivers, among others-be invited to that next exalted level of guest host. In a twenty-year period of appearing with Johnny, I wondered from time to time if that invitation would ever come for me.
One day after an appearance, I was standing in the hall with the talent coordinator, Bob Dolce, an unusually intense fella, who was always championing me on the show, as well as trying to shepherd me through its minefields. Bob would offer advice like "Let Johnny speak first," which I often didn't do, because that kind of minute planning could make you self-conscious. Bob said to me more than once, "I have no idea who you are once you're out there." I didn't know if he meant that as a compliment or a criticism, and I decided not to ask.
One day I was with Bob when the executive producer, the legendary Freddie De Cordova, approached. Freddie defined smooth. "Why shouldn't Charles Grodin be a guest host on The Tonight Show?" he thundered. "I always wondered about that myself," I said. Everyone chuckled, but not another word was ever said about it. Not that it was the most pressing question in my life, but I was curious. Why not? When I later asked Bob why the call never came, the answer was, "The unexpected thing they like about you as a guest might make America uncomfortable with you as a host."
It's not that easy to make America uncomfortable, but I had evidently succeeded to an alarming degree. I had even made my friends uncomfortable when they watched me on the show. They would tell me they'd leave the room when I came on, or stay and watch peeking through their fingers. What was I doing to cause such discomfort? I was kidding around. The problem was that only Johnny and a minority of viewers seemed to know it. So when Johnny would ask, "How are you?" and I would refuse to answer, because I said I didn't believe it mattered to him how I felt-millions shuddered at the rudeness of it all. Plenty laughed, but more shuddered. Sometimes the audience would hiss, and Johnny would try to pacify them by holding up a hand and saying, "It's all right, I'm used to it."
Since being the host of a television show didn't rank in my top ten goals in life at that time, I didn't give a lot of thought to not being asked to guest host and continued on my merry way as an annoying guest. It's not that I'd wake up on the morning of an appearance and decide to be annoying. It's just that I didn't have a lot of faith in the alternative: "I'm very excited about my new movie." "She was a joy to work with." Right beneath all that, "Who cares?" screamed back at me. On the other hand, if I walked off the set, as I once did on The Tonight Show, saying, "The unfunny environment that preceded me out here makes it impossible to get laughs," at least it wasn't boring.
Actually, after that appearance I was told that Freddie De Cordova had said, "We won't be seeing Mr. Grodin for a while." I had earlier written that after being under contract, I was regularly banned, not from the show but from appearing with Johnny. Guest hosts could still book me, and they did. I particularly remember being with Bill Cosby, because of what happened.
I was on for two segments. In the first, Bill got into a riff about my shoes. I don't remember anything weird about them, but of course, Bill can do a number on anything.
During the break, Freddie De Cordova came over to Bill and said, "Ask him a question. He'll know what to do." The Coz shot Freddie a look I won't forget. The atmosphere was such that about halfway through the second segment, I was wishing Bill would go back to the shoe riff.
Years later, when I had dinner with Johnny, he told me he'd read that I said he had banned me from appearing with him, and he absolutely denied it. He went on to say that a number of things had been done in his name over the years he only later became aware of, my being banned among them.
Personally, I believe anything Johnny tells me, because he has never been shy about letting me know what he thinks. Once, when he knew he wasn't on camera, he shot me a look that made Cosby's look to Freddie De Cordova seem like a smile.
In any case, I never became a guest host on The Tonight Show.
It was in the early 1980s, while I was no longer exclusive to Johnny but still regularly appearing on The Tonight Show, that I also began to appear on The Tomorrow Show hosted by Tom Snyder. One week, Tom was going to Egypt to interview Anwar Sadat and someone said, "Why not have Charles Grodin guest host?"
This time the offer came to host the show for a week. I immediately began to think of whom I would book for guests. My first thought was my friend Nick Arnold. I knew no one had ever heard of him, but he was about the wittiest person I'd ever met. He was a highly successful producer/director of television comedy and also as smart as they come. There was a catch. He had cerebral palsy and was not going to give any elocution lessons. In fact, it might be fair to say that a portion of the audience might not be able to understand what he was saying. Those who could would be repeating his lines the next day. When I suggested him as a guest, there was a long silence on the other end of the phone. A day later, I got a somewhat angry message that if I didn't sign my contract immediately, "We're going to get Kelly Lange!" Kelly was, and is at this writing, a newswoman from L.A. who definitely wasn't going to book someone with palsy who might not be comprehensible. I quickly said, "Contract? What contract?" (I hadn't even seen one.) Guesting or hosting a TV show always seemed like a party invite to me. Anyway, I immediately signed something, and the show went on. Nick Arnold was brilliant. The commentator I. F. Stone was pithy, and the surprise appearance of the week was Tom Snyder himself, who is as uncomfortable as a guest as he is marvelously at home as a host. It turned out that the Anwar Sadat interview had fallen through, and Tom was available to host after all, but he generously said that since they already had gotten me, go ahead and let me do it. That was the first of many kindnesses Tom Snyder bestowed on me over the years.
There was an extra value to all of this that I didn't know at the time. The executive producer of The Tomorrow Show was a man by the name of Roger Ailes, and it was he, almost fifteen years later, who would play a key role in my finally emerging as a talk show host.
It was around ten years later, in the early 1990s, when I began to think about hosting a talk show again. It wasn't a career move. In fact, it would have to be considered an anticareer move. I had made the movie Midnight Run and the Beethoven movies and was in the best position I'd ever been in the film world, but I also had a young son, and I was often on the road. In Midnight Run, there were about fifteen different locations, including New Zealand. My family was almost always with me, but my wife and I felt that when our boy entered school, something had to change. He couldn't be constantly uprooted, and I had no intention of not being there regularly as a dad. That meant working in New York.
Only two options seemed possible-doing a television series or a talk show. For me, the choice was simple. With all due respect to the plus sides of a television series, it was the talk show that held out something unique to me. The reason for this was very simple. I would, if given a choice, rather speak in my own voice with my own words than in the voice of a fictional character saying lines from a script. With all the talk show guest appearances I had done over the previous twenty years or so, that too was almost always a fictional character. Here, really for the first time, that would not be the case.
Unknown even to the people who were considering hiring me, I've always had strong feelings about a lot of things without really having a venue where it would have been appropriate to express them.
As far as the audience is concerned, when I'm approached by people in public settings, about half of them cite work I've done as a character in movies, and half talk about what I've done as myself on television.
I appreciate all of it, but there's no question the comments on my television work resonate more, because it feels more personal.
There's a complicating issue to the movie feedback. It doesn't really feel appropriate to tell someone who's complimenting some movie I did that I might have liked it less than they did.
The Heartbreak Kid comes to mind. I thought it was a brilliant movie. However, I find my character of a young man who leaves his wife on his honeymoon more frightening than funny. Of course, in fairness, some people find me frightening.
I got in touch with Jim Griffin, an elfin figure who heads the William Morris television department in New York, and together we began a saga that lasted years to finally find a talk show for the annoying Charles Grodin to host. Sweet and kind are not words that first come to mind when describing an agent, but that's Jimmy. He also seems to have a friendly relationship with most people in show business, who are probably as surprised by his personality as I was.
I remember particularly a lunch meeting Jimmy and I had with some people from ABC. There were people there representing nighttime talk, and there were people there representing daytime talk. They were all very complimentary. They had seen me over the years as a guest on various talk shows, and thought I absolutely had what it took to host a show, but as the afternoon wore on it became clear that the daytime people thought I should be on at night, and the nighttime people thought I should be on during the day; so of course I wasn't on at all. (I wonder if they planned it that way.)
Next came a long dance with the people at Westinghouse. I met their families. I watched their kids play basketball. I told them I didn't need to be across America-one station in Buffalo (which they owned) would be okay with me for a start. After many meetings and a great deal of enthusiasm, a deal was to be negotiated the next day to do a syndicated show for Westinghouse. They never called. Later they wrote a letter explaining why, but I honestly can't remember what they said.
Finally, there was King World, the biggest syndicator of them all (Jeopardy; Wheel of Fortune; Oprah). Michael King was a fan and was ready to move toward a syndicated show with me.
My idea for the show was not dissimilar to Politically Incorrect. This was a couple of years before that show debuted. Bill Maher, the host of Politically Incorrect, and I are worlds apart in the sensibility department, but the idea of sitting with four or five people, preferably, in my concept, to avoid the familiar, not journalists but bright entertainers, seemed like it could be entertaining and have real value.
I now had to find someone who would run the whole show. After meeting with several people I ended up picking a producer who was extremely experienced and came well recommended. Unfortunately there was something else about him that quickly revealed itself. If anyone in any way didn't fully embrace everything he said, he would point his finger at you, as though it were a gun, and pretend to shoot you, and when he wasn't shooting someone, he looked as though he was considering blowing up the entire building.
Little by little, fewer meetings were held. The show was going forward. It's just that people tended to stay in their own offices as much as possible. I spoke to the producer once about the gun thing, and he seemed genuinely amazed that anyone would be put off by his "sense of humor." They don't call it unconscious hostility for nothing. It quickly became clear it wasn't going to work with this producer.
Excerpted from I Like It Better When You're Funny: Working in Television and Other Precarious Adventures by Charles Grodin.
Copyright © 2002 by Charles Grodin. All rights reserved.
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