By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Hello, my name is Michael and I am a soundbite whore. I'm one of those talking heads you see on cable TV giving college-educated opinions about Winona Ryder's meltdown, Britney Spears's lost virginity, and the Hilton Sisters' flair for tabletop dancing. I help grease the wheels of the entertainment-television industry, providing innumerable free quotes that allow them to fill endless hours of eternally repeatable, low-budget airtime. In exchange, I get to promote myself and my paper and become vaguely familiar to the millions who care about Donald Trump's comb-over or J.Lo's ass. The modest celebrity fallout from spewing these nonstop dicta is less amazing than amusing. People regularly chase me down the street to say stuff like, "Hey, aren't you that guy from VH1 All Access: Awesomely Bad Girls?" or, more likely, "I've seen you somewhere. Didn't you once fix my clogged toilet or something?"
The joys and sorrows of being a windup nattering head in medium demand? Well, the live shows are the most fun to do because they're blissfully immediate and, satisfyingly enough, every single word you say gets on. But with pre-tapings, you leave the outcome to editing and chance, so a 90-minute interview can result in just three chopped-up soundbites, airing aeons later. (It's happened. Try to find me on MTV's Celebrity Love Affairs.) Still, you have to act as if each taping is your star opportunity and sparkle like Kelly Ripa on crack. You must look directly at the interviewer, incorporate the question into the answer ("Sean Penn is belligerent because . . . "), and make your reply short and unbelievably pithy. (An involved story will be axed or shredded.) What's more, don't come in wearing something that strobes, and never let your hairline look shiny; leave the strobing and shining to your short, impeccably worded answers to questions like "Is the disco glitter ball an American icon?" and "Why Demi Moore now?"
For all the ego gratification they supply, the live shows have their own demandsin fact, you're generally made to cartwheel through fiery hoops to do these people the favor of a free appearance. First, you're routinely pre-interviewed by an assistant producer who grills you for 25 minutes for a segment on which you'll probably get to say two things. This is their big momentthey've got you captive and are suddenly playing with themselves and fantasizing that they're the hosts. But their even bigger moment comes when you call back later to confirm and they bouncily announce, "Sorry, we're going with someone else. We'll call you again." Little regard is paid to your scheduling concerns; once you're on their whore roster, they know they've got you by the balls. Typically, Bill O'Reilly's show recently wanted me to discuss the tawdry state of MTV (the levels of irony here are pretty enormous), then told me the segment was canceled, though I watched the show that night and found out it wasn'tthey'd just dumped me for an angrier guest. Worse, no fewer than three other gabfests this year booked me, then ended up murmuring, "Sorry, we're using Gloria Allred instead." Even a gag order can't stop that woman from chatting up a lens.
If Gloria's somehow tied up (literally) and her fellow pundits Alan Light and Emil Wilbekin are suddenly abducted, you might actually get on. If so, you should know that panels are the worstyou have to lift a rifle just to get a word inespecially when you're debating right-wing nightmares. (Use humor; they'll never know what hit them.) And whoever you're on with, live shows have entirely different rules: Smile at the camera as you're introduced, even if the topic is "Remembering the Titanic." Have a first statement ready, no matter what the question is, so you don't start off by going "Ummmm." Use specifics (say "Kerry Kennedy Cuomo," not "the wife"), don't bob your head or flail your hands, and don't pause for effect; on talk TV, silence equals death. Alsothere's morenever say "as I said before"; that's unpardonably boring. And be sure to save your best zinger for last; people will remember you fondly. But most of all, just relax and be yourself, honey!
I was doing so well with this formula that Greta Van Susteren had me on seven times in a row last year, until the D.C. snipers and the war annoyingly eclipsed talk about Rosie O'Donnell and American Idol. (Stunningly, I never met Greta, though. Even when you're in the same studio, they put you in a separate room where you chirpily talk to a blank screen. This gives a more international feel.) Since she dumped me, I've gone on other shows, any other shows, and blabbed about nudity in videos, Lisa Marie Presley's marriages, and Hollywood catfights. I even agreed to discuss the pros and cons of a 12-year-old model on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, hosted by an arch-Republican. "But he won't interrupt you," a producer assured me. Well, he interrupted the very first thing I saidthough he ended up being surprisingly inoffensive. Was I getting so hooked on cable exposure that anyone who gave me a chance to be glib for a mass audience was suddenly my best friend and fame dealer? (If you want to answer that, by the way, please do it succinctly and without strobing.)