Competing with Midgets: A Tall Order

When the next book appeared, an 820 page biography of the Huston family, I was invited to do a reading at a bookstore in Santa Monica. There were two people waiting for me, one of whom was hard of hearing, and the other insisted I didn’t write the book, “because nobody can write a book that big.”  Book Soup in West Hollywood put up posters for a signing of my third book, about Marlon Brando. Six people were waiting, leaving 24 empty chairs. Of those six, one was my daughter, another, her boyfriend, another, one of my paddle tennis players. Of the three remaining, one bought a book.

By the time my fifth book appeared, a collection of pieces I’d written about movie people, I was told that a radio talk show host in Chicago was eager to talk to me about it. I should have known better when I heard his name—Mancow—but like every writer who has a book to sell, I thought maybe someone might actually buy my book if they got to hear about it.

I agreed to talk to him by phone at 6 A.M., which is not the time I normally wake up.

On the morning of the interview the phone rang at the arranged time. A cheery voice came on saying would I hold for Mancow? I didn’t know what she was talking about. I had forgotten all about it! I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom to slap some water on my face. Then I ran up the stairs to my office, trying to get my adrenaline going, as I made funny vocal sounds to get the sleep out of my voice. When the woman came back on the phone she said that her boss was just finishing up with his guest and would get to me next; then she plugged me into the show so I could hear what was going on. I sat in my chair listening to this inane chatter that had to do with some apparent regulars talking about masturbation. Actually, they weren’t really talking, they were yelling at each other. I was still trying to collect my thoughts as this guy Mancow was screaming at his different phone guests. Okay, I thought, I see what kind of show this is. When he gets to me he’s going to ask me for Hollywood gossip. He isn’t going to probe me about the in-depth interviews in my book, but use the fact that I talk to celebrities to riff on what morons famous people must be. I didn’t want to be put in the position of defending or putting down the movie stars I’ve covered and figured after five minutes with me Mancow would get bored and move on to callers more willing to give up their most perverse thoughts on the air.

But I never got the five minutes. The producer got on the phone to apologize that things seem to have gotten out of hand in the Chicago studio and rather than put me on for just a few minutes, could they reschedule me? I asked if they were really sure they wanted to talk to me. “Oh yes, Mancow loves the movies, and he really liked your book, that’s why we’d like to give you more time.”

The next week on Monday morning they called again at 6 A.M. “Mr. Grobel, are you ready to talk to Mancow today?” Absolutely, I said. This time I had given more thought to what might be discussed and had figured out a way to give Mancow some dish without it coming from me. I had gone through my book and marked where producer Robert Evans had bad-mouthed Francis Coppola, Sylvester Stallone, and Dustin Hoffman; where Oliver Stone took on Gore Vidal, John Grisham, Joe Pesci, and Michael Douglas; where Anthony Hopkins scoffed at Marlon Brando and George C. Scott; Lily Tomlin had taken a shot at John Wayne; Sharon Stone had put down Gwyenth Paltrow and Steven Seagal. When Mancow asked me to tell him some dirt, I would refer to the book itself—a good way to plug what I was there to promote.

But once again I never had a chance. This time Mancow had Keanu Reeves as his guest and in one of those rare Reeves appearances, the actor/musician was willing to hang around. Would I be willing to reschedule?

I was polite when I expressed my doubts that Mancow was really the right show for me, but the producer was very persuasive. “He really liked your book; he wants to give you adequate time.”

Four days later they called for a third time. I was up, I had my notes, I was ready to quote Sharon Stone saying that Gwyenth was “very young, and in that rarified air that’s a little thin, it’s like she’s not getting enough oxygen.” To tell how Robert Evans had cursed out Stallone and hung up the phone on him; and how hiring Francis Coppola to direct The Cotton Club was “the biggest error” in Evans’ career. To show Oliver Stone defending his lawsuit against John Grisham, saying that “Grisham’s world would be a nightmare for everyone, not just me.” And to give Anthony Hopkins’ disapproval of Brando and Scott’s refusing to accept their Oscars. “We only have one guest, and Mancow’s finishing up with him now,” the producer told me. “You’re next.”

Again, I got to listen to the show as I waited to go on. His guest was a 41-year-old midget named Ray who was being castigated by Mancow for buying an eighteen-inch cuckoo clock for $900. The clock, according to Mancow, couldn’t have been worth more than thirty bucks. Ray was a troubled little guy, apparently, and he insisted on keeping the clock. Mancow offered to buy it from him for fifty dollars. Ray screamed he would never sell it, he loved his cuckoo clock. This went on for ten minutes before Ray revealed he had made another purchase over the phone, but this was something he couldn’t refuse because the caller was William Shatner. Mancow started yelling at Ray that William Shatner did not call him, it was a rip-off, and when was Ray ever going to learn. Ray became even more defensive and screamed back that it was Shatner. I looked at my clock; it was now 6:30 A.M. I had been holding for a half hour, thinking, this is the third time I’ve had to get up to be on this guy’s show, and I’m trying to wait patiently until he concludes this really stupid conversation with the most-likely inebriated midget Ray. But Ray wasn’t through, he returned to his cuckoo clock and Mancow just went with it for another ten minutes before he took a call. The caller had just three words to add: “Awesome show, man.” And I knew, right there, that I wasn’t getting on once again.

“I don’t know what’s happened to him,” the producer said about her boss when she came back to me. “I know he wants to talk to you. I know he loves your book. And he loves the movies.”

“I understand all that,” I said. “But I think this should be the last attempt, don’t you? If he can’t get to me today, I don’t think we should reschedule.”

“I’ll go in and put another note on his desk,” she said.

But the note didn’t spur Mancow to change directions. He didn’t really want to talk about the movies or about my book when he could pull out “Yelling Man” to make Ray feel even smaller than his size.

“I’m really sorry, Mr. Grobel,” the producer said at 6:50, fifty minutes after she first called me, “but we have to go to commercial and we’re not going to be able to get to you. I know you don’t want to reschedule, but we’d like to send you a prize anyway.”

A prize? What were they going to send, a Mancow-in-the-Morning t-shirt? Maybe Ray’s cuckoo clock?

When an excerpt from my latest book on interviewing appeared in a magazine I received a call from someone I didn’t know who wanted help placing an interview he had conducted with someone he said he couldn’t name. I told him it was inappropriate to call me cold this way. He then wrote me a letter: telling me he cancelled his order for my book.

So why do I even bother writing books if I don’t want to fill out the publisher’s questionnaires or go to book signings or speak to radio jocks with names like Mancow, who talk to angry midgets and stoned listeners? It’s a question I ask myself after I finish each one. And the only answer I have, as I begin the next one, is this. I can’t help myself.

I just love books.

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