Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 13, 1961, Vol. VI, No. 38
Steve Allen Answers 10 Questions
By John Wilcock
I don’t watch much television and never did. But I recall with considerable nostalgia the old “Tonight” show, with Steve Allen at his whimsical, witty best, so the fact that Allen returns to television in the fall is good news. I first met Steve while doing a magazine piece on him six years ago, and we’ve kept vaguely in touch ever since. On a recent visit to California I spent seven straight hours in conversation with him at his home, a wide-ranging discussion which touched on almost every conceivable topic. I didn’t take any notes at that time, but last month I sent him a batch of questions and last week his answers arrived. Unedited, they follow below:
What satisfaction do you get from television (or is it just the money?)
The money does provide a great deal of satisfaction but I am sure that if entertaining had never become an actual profession there would still be thousands of entertainers. The thing that initially drives a man to act or sing or to be funny is probably a combination of two factors, one a plus, the other a minus. The minus is some lack within himself, some form of insecurity that sets up a powerful demand for approval. The plus factor is a talent. There are millions of people all over the world who are insecure, but a very tiny minority of these have real talent.
What satisfaction you receive from television (of, for that matter, radio, night clubs, or what-have-you) is emotional. If you do a good job, audiences will quite literally feel a form of love for you. This, unfortunately, is counterbalanced by the fact that if you do a poor job they feel something very much like hatred for you. Listen to a group of civilized people next time they are discussing a performer of whom they disapprove. You would think they were talking about Hitler.
Do you recall a specific turning point in your life when you weren’t satisfied with merely being an entertainer: when you decided to bring to people’s attention some of the things they should know about?
I don’t believe I was ever satisfied with “merely being an entertainer.” This is partly because I originally started out to become a writer and became a comedian by accident and partly because of my awareness of the precariousness of the human condition. I have learned that I am considered unusual because of this attitude, but frankly it seems to me that I am “normal” and that those who do not share my attitude are “peculiar.” In a democratic republic each citizen is supposed to concern himself with public business. If Americans ever really decide that all important social questions ought to be left to the experts, then they will have decided that Lincoln was speaking nonsense when he referred to “government of, by, and for the people.”
What are today’s most important issues that you think are not getting the attention they deserve from the general public?
To tell you the truth, I can’t think of a single important issue that is getting the attention, in degree an kind, that it deserves. We are in big trouble right down the line and it’s about time we awakened to the fact. You find a sort of awareness of this situation in that many thoughtful citizens are giving their time, energy, and money to help with the solution of one particular problem (mental illness, prison reform, narcotics addiction, juvenile delinquency, the plight of the American Indian, the Cold War, urban blight, segregation, and so on — God Help us — ad infinitum). If you look at this situation for a moment, you suddenly realize that as our life becomes more complex, so do our problems.
SANE is an organization you devote much time and energy to: What are some of the others?
I am doing what little I can to assist in the campaign against mental illness, the plight of migratory farm workers, narcotics addiction, capital punishment, an our nation’s struggle with the forces of Communism.
You answer all mail don’t you; how many letters do you write a week?
I really don’t answer all mail. No entertainer does unless he’s just starting out and is just receiving five or six letters a week. Those of us who work in television frequently receive thousands of letters a week, and of course it would be a physical impossibility to personally answer all of them. I have written a number of form letters and form paragraphs with which my secretarial staff can construct answers to many of the letters we receive. But I do make it a point to answer as many letters as I can simply because this seems to me the courteous thing to do. If I wrote to someone I should certainly like to
have an answer to my letter. Working fast at a dictating machine I probably average about 10 letters a day or 300 a month.
What questions do interviewers ask you the most?
Do you feel you are getting old?
Since I am only 39, the answer is no. But I suspect when I am 59 I will still have a youthful outlook. This, by the way, is characteristic of comedians. They hold their youth much better than, say, bankers, salesmen, dentists, or TV critics.
You once said you wanted to quit television, etc., some day and settle down and write; are you nearer to that goal — if you still have it — and where do you propose to settle?
I am not really sure if this is actually a goal of mine or merely an idle, pleasant day-dream. My eighth book (a novel) will be published this year, but there are four others that my schedule has prevented my getting deeply into. Perhaps what I really meant was that when that day comes when the public tires of me (and it’s happened to many entertainers more talented than myself) I will retire quite contentedly to my typewriter.
Why did you appear at a night club in gangster-run Las Vegas, feeling as you do about the grip that hoods have upon this particular segment of show business?
I suppose it’s impossible to work night clubs regularly anywhere in this country without, in one way or another, doing business with either gangsters or their affiliates. You might look upon my month-long engagement in Las Vegas as a sort of Robin Hood arrangement in which I robbed that rich city of an enormous amount of money and contributed a great deal of it to the public welfare in the form of taxes.
You have strong principles which have often cost you both sponsors and money. Do you find, however, that EVERYONE has to compromise their principles sometimes, and can you think of any special examples in your own experience?
Certainly everyone makes compromises. And not just in certain rare instances but time after time, practically every day of his life. The reason for this situation is that each of us lives by not one set of values but by many separate sets. Our values, as, say, Catholics or Jews frequently conflict with our values as, for example, salesmen or football coaches. Our standards as Christians may conflict with our standards as Americans. You take a man who believes it is a very bad thing to drink Coca-Cola (as the Mormons do); lose him in the Mojave Desert with a case of ice-cold Coke but no water an he will drink the Coke until it comes out of his ears. Man is constantly faced with situations of this sort.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. John Wilcock is still going strong at ojaiorange.com]