By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
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By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
As a recovering TV-soundbite whore, let me once again take you inside the world of human bobbleheads, where esteemed journalists are called upon to give 12- to 18-second utterances (25 seconds if it's live) about the latest celebrity marriage, divorce, breakdown, or botched hairstyle.
It's all so wildly glamorous and exciting, but you quickly find that as a professional talking head, you're the world's only whore who doesn't get paid. What's worse, you have fewer rights than an American war hostage. I've been booked and canceled, put on hold then never gotten back to, and dragged to the studio then bumped for a hailstorm in Indianaall because I was malleable enough to be willing to offer some soundbites for free in the first place (and I still amplease book me, people!).
You can try to fight the system, but generally you're helpless against the heartless quirks of live TV. Once, when a cable news show bumped me for someone else, they appeased me by asking for my available dates in the following two weeks. That was really considerateexcept that they didn't pick up the phone on any of those dates! When they did call on anotherday, I eagerly rang back, pathetically willing to change my plans to be on TV. But they had already gotten some other free whore! As I squealed like a stuck pig, they responded, "Sorry, we can't possibly bump the other person," which I found sadly poetic in all of its absurdist glory. The bumping processmuch like alternate-side-of-the-street parkingcan never seem to work in your favor.
Once, though, I forced it to do so out of sheer will. A producer called to book me about that day's big gossip story and I was thrilled, but halfway through the conversation she murmured, "Wait, the other line's ringing." My heart raced. My palms sweated up. A whore knows when he's about to be had. Sure enough, the woman came right back and ballsily announced, "Oh, sorry, we got someone else. We'll take a rain check." I started my now familiar screaming and geschreying routine. Smoke was pouring out of my anus. I threatened international kidnappings and other drastic acts. She canceled the other person.
Producers will also use the old bait and switch, emitting straight-faced utterances like "We have to bump you, but to make up for it, we'll have you on next week with SARAH JESSICA PARKER." They don't. They don't even have you on with HOWIE MANDEL. Or they'll book you, then call the next day to saytrue story"Sorry, we're going for a more comedic approach. Instead of having a commentator, we're getting a comedian." But excuse me, I take a comedic approach! I have no real information! Alas, the more you scream that, the less hilarious you seem. Another popular dumping line is "Sorry, I didn't realize other producers were working on this segment too. They already booked someone else." The old "they did it" routine clears everyone of any wrongdoing, uniting the dumper and the dumpee in distaste for a common enemy. But the truth is that theyor whoeversimply got someone better.
HO-HO-HO YOUR BOAT
If you miraculously do get on, you have to think more quickly on your feet than a serial killer's love object. Once, I was all set to do a segment reminiscing about a dead screen legend and was told by the producer, "Be your usual wildly funny and outrageous self. Be zany!" I prepared all sorts of crazy quips, which wasn't easy considering we were discussing a world-famous suicide. But when the show started, the host was all solemn and respectful, wanting some serious analysis and probing pathos. I promptly slapped on a dour face and changed my tone to utter reverence! Honey, I'm a slutI mean a proand have learned to use my mouth as a doggie paddle to get my ass to shore within three and a half minutes any night of the week.
Another time, I was pre-interviewed about one ROSIE O'DONNELLrelated topic, but the on-air host asked detailed questions regarding a whole other one, which I knew bubkes about. I hemmed and fudged my way all through it, sweating like KATE MOSS going through customs, but again, I sort of made it, even if I inadvertently wrapped with an unappetizing look from an Edvard Munch painting.
Live shows like that are terrifying, but the pre-taped ones areeven worseannoying. For a shoot at your home, it takes them 90 minutes to set up, 90 minutes to interview you, and an hour to break down. In other words, it takes the whole freaking dayand while they're at it, they turn off your heater and phones to minimize the background noise! You're suddenly held hostage in your freezing apartment where no one can reach you, just so you can robotically recite the details of OWEN WILSON's early life for a mass audience! (Works for me.)
What's more, after grilling you for so long, they'll sometimes end up using only two of your bites while making time for 100 utterances from some 19-year-old cluck from Ding Dong Weekly. And the whole time they assault you with offensive questions about why certain curvy actresses are so attractive "to the opposite sex." I always answer, "Well, not to me! I think I'm probably the wrong person to ask that question." They laugh nervously, then go right back to their black-and-white world of boy-meets-girl, which is so fucking obsolete and boring.
BLAH BLAH BLACK SHEEP
But here's a handy hint: If the show is The Splendid Life of Lindsay, gush about how sublimely sophisticated she is. If it's The 25 Tackiest Celebs, moan that she's so resolutely skanky you'd need ice tongs to even shake her hand. But please don't say anything you really can't live with. In one pre-taped interview, I gurgled that TOM CRUISE "is up there in the pantheon with the great old-time stars." I instantly regretted the comment and pleaded with them to take it out, saying I'd been embarrassingly hyperbolic and would be deeply ashamed of myself if that quote actually ran. They said, "OK, no problem," but not only did they leave it in, it was the very first soundbite in the show! Which has now run for three years!
But sooner or later you don't have to worry about mishaps like that because they won't want you at all. On the road to chopping your monologues into monosyllables, these shows eventually decide you don't even merit getting booked and canceled anymore. Your having been so good for so long means that one mild trip-up can seem catastrophic. It doesn't matter that you did 40 fabulous appearances in a row for them. If you then come in with one unamazing one, whether it's the result of dental surgery, a brain tumor, or a dull topic, you're off their list for at least the next decade.
There are other limits to your stardom too. If you're on one series a lot, the channel heads won't let you do too many others because they feel each show should have its own talent pool. But then they suddenly decide they don't want you on that one series anymore either because specific talent shouldn't be too associated with any one program. All at once, every producer in town decides you're overexposed and simultaneously drops you without even telling you. There is no consideration, gratitude, or apologyyou are simply as over as a volunteer at ground zero. You're abruptly fired from a charity gig, blackballed from helping their struggling asses fill airtime without compensationand your biggest crime was that you were so good at it that everyone wanted you!
Why did you do it? Because it can be enormously intoxicating, especially when the process clicks and you actually get on and don't humiliate yourself. In those cases, the chance to be a human bobblehead can be even more addictive than heroin or Swedish fish. In fact, I got so hooked on the instant gratification of it all that when the offers dried up, I started calling around, begging to be put on again. The result was something never allowed on these showsdead silence.
But suddenly, by some cable miracle, I got sizzling again. Countdown With Keith Olbermann and other MSNBC shows can't seem to get enough of my blathering skills, and I'm absolutely loving having a second wave of head time. I'm a superstar for the next three and a half minutes! But wait, the other line's ringing . . .
Web extra: The low-level celebrities coming out of the woodwork to say they might be the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby are providing an onging gossip saga that's both sad and hilarious. The whole crazy scandal should be turned into an even worse version of Mama Mia! ("Which one of you three dingbats is my father?") I've even heard sick murmurs suggesting that Anna Nicole's departed son could be the father! Aren't they confusing this with Susan Sontag? And there's also the theory that her dead husband may have left his sperm in a jar. Wouldn't she have rather he left the keys to the safe? While we're wondering, let me throw my own hat into this perverse ring: I think I might be the father too! (Yes, Anna Nicole was that promiscuous.) Oh, wait the kid might not be worth all that money after all? OK, count me out. Not the father. Nope, not at all.
Other topical thoughts: Even if Dannielynn doesn't get the dough, won't she eventually nab the world's most whopping book deal? Don't you love all the media critiquing the key players picking at the corpse of Anna Nicole? Aren't they doing the same? Does that include me? Will Zsa Zsa suddenly think, "Gosh, darling, I hope that fake prince hasn't impregnated me too!?? Doesn't Anna's Svengali/hanger-on Howard K. Stern remind you just a tad of David Gest? Whose hate is more validStern's for Anna Nicole mother or Anna Nicole's sister for Anna Nicole? And, finally, will Elton John now have to update "Candle in the Wind"?