A few years ago, I was introduced to this guy at a bar in Chicago. Exit was the name of the joint, and it was late and loud. My friend introduced me as a producer for Oprah, and the guy smiled and said, "Hey, I work in TV, too ó I work for Springer." When I asked him what he did for the show, he didnít miss a beat. "Iím a freak wrangler," he said.
Three hundred bucks a head was what he got. His discoveries had to be quick-thinking, adaptable, and up for anything. Usually that meant lots of swearing, always some brawling, and sometimes a little partial nudity. Full set of teeth optional. If your booking actually had a compelling, sad-sack story, all the better. The freak wranglerís name was Dave Stube, I think. Iím sure he doesnít work for Springer anymore. The freak-finding subcontractor FW Dave worked for stiffed him one time too many, and FW Dave walked. Iíd like to think heís now lining up babes for the next Joe Millionaire but, unfortunately, careers in television are rarely that seamless. I ought to know.
Iíd been writing TV columns for the NewPaper for several years when I was at a party at a fancy house on Blackstone Boulevard. A guy approached me and complimented my work. He said he was even using my columns to teach his students at URI. A woman, listening in on the conversation, asked me if I would consider writing for television instead of about it. I handed her my number, thinking it was typical party talk. Liz Cheng was a big shot at Channel 5 in Boston, and the next day her morning show producer called. A couple of weeks later, I had a gig.
I still remember the first copy I wrote for television. I stared at the typewriter and the six-ply script paper, trying to come up with a four-second promo for a segment on, get this, women with really large breasts. I think the promo ran something like:
COMING UP NEXT ó BIG BOOBS, BLESSING OR CURSE?
Later, I watched in the control room as the "talent" looked at my promo in the TelePrompTer, laughed, and said, "Who wrote this shit?" I knew I had arrived.
I knew I was getting the hang of it when, several months later, promoted from promo writing to segment producing, I watched in the control room as a guest Iíd booked started weeping uncontrollably as she was being interviewed. The director called for camera three to go in tight on her, and the senior producer wheeled around with a satanic grin and said, "Tanaka, youíve just hit your first home run."
Since then, Iíve been hired and fired, promoted, demoted, jumped ship, rehired, had shows cancelled, been laid off, been out of work, you name it. And nothing in my previous life as a television critic could have prepared me for any of it. Because when you write about television, you are basically trying to understand how viewers relate personally to what is essentially a strange puppet show. Sometimes itís an easy call. Some shows are, letís face it, really bad. Itís a simple matter of taste or quality, or a howling lack thereof.
Being a part of it, however, is another thing entirely. Once I started working in television, I realized that itís never a simple matter of taste or quality, because when youíre making bad TV, youíre usually the last one to know. Even FW Dave, who was clearly in on the scam, was proud of some of the righteous freaks heíd managed to wrangle for Jerry.
That explains the single most frequently asked question I get when people are told I work in TV. I always hear it. People ask me, "So what is _______ really like?" You fill in the blank. Sometimes itís someone Iíve worked closely with. Other times itís completely random.
Take Oprah, for example. Everyone, without exception, asks me what sheís really like. I am, unfortunately, prohibited by law from disclosing even the smallest detail of my employment at Harpo Studios. And that includes any mention at all of what O is "really" like. Everyone who works there signs a document that promises a tsunami of costly litigation if the stony code of silence is broken. Itís a security measure that is as unnecessary as it is egotistical. Believe me, when all is said and done, you donít need to know.
The problem is, people want to believe that what they see on TV is either an exact mirror of reality ó "Oprahís a saint, lookit, she gave that homeless family her own 60-room condo" ó or totally fake ó "See? Oprah doesnít even talk to anyone during commercial breaks ó what a bitch." You pick. I canít say, or Iíll get sued.
"Whatís Rosie OíDonnell like?" people ask me. I donít know. I never worked with her, although Iíve heard lots of stories and I know several people who worked on her talk show and got fired. She makes people sign a waiver, too. You figure it out.
But when people ask me what someone on TV is really like, I often think of an unlikely example ó not someone on your top 10 celebrity list, but a story that still speaks volumes about why you canít completely fake it to make it in this business.
When I worked for Good Morning America, one of my colleagues, still in her thirties, was fighting a losing battle with cancer. Due to go into the hospital for major surgery, she decided to spend the night before in a plush hotel room overlooking Central Park. She threw a small party in her room that night, inviting friends and co-workers. It was, in many ways, typical of how she handled tough moments ó by taking something scary and sad and turning it into something to celebrate with friends. Many people showed up that night, but the most unexpected guest was the showís co-host, Charlie Gibson. Morning show hosts never make the scene at night unless itís a major event. They typically have to be in for work by 3 a.m. But there was Charlie, saying good-bye to one of his writer-producers, and staying out much later than he should have. Iíve never forgotten that simple, selfless, heartfelt gesture. And Iíve got plenty more Charlie Gibson stories.
Watch Charlie Gibson on Good Morning America, on 20/20, or when he fills in for Peter Jennings on World News Tonight and I assure you, what you see is what you get. Itís the one good answer to the one question I always get when people find out I work in television. As for anything else you see on TV these days ó if itís the real deal, or the work of a freak wrangler, thatís anyoneís guess.
Mike Tanaka is currently employed at MSNBC.
Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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