So there I was, sitting under the hot lights, when suddenly Vicki Lawrence leaped to her feet and started yelling at me about the death penalty. This happened in Los Angeles, on the TV show Politically Incorrect. People yell a lot on that show. One time I was on there with Micky Dolenz; he yelled at me, too. Back when I used to watch The Monkees on TV, I never dreamed that one day, one of them would be yelling at me personally regarding current events. This is a great nation.
Guests are encouraged to express strong views on Politically Incorrect, because it makes for better entertainment. The host, Bill Maher, could name any topic at all—say, monetary reform in the 17th-century Netherlands—and we guests would immediately be at each other’s throats over it, even if we were not totally certain what “Netherlands” are.
I was on Politically Incorrect because I was on a book tour. You go on whatever show they tell you to go on, in hopes that the host will at some point hold your book up to the camera, causing consumers all over America to rush to bookstores to purchase it. You will basically do anything to get your book on TV. For example, a few days earlier, I let a total stranger commit a major act of gel on my hair. This was on The Today Show, in New York. I was sitting in the makeup room, drinking coffee, trying to wake up, and the makeup person, after studying my head, called the hair person over, pointed at my hair, and said: “See? This is exactly what I was talking about.”
Then they both laughed, and the hair person, before I knew what was happening, applied 37 pounds of Industrial Concrete Strength gel in my hair, and thus I appeared on national television looking like Eddie Munster. This would have been fine if the reaction of the world at large had been to rush out and purchase my book, but the actual reaction, to judge from the people I know who saw the show, was to ask: “What happened to your hair?”
But getting back to Vicki Lawrence: She was yelling at me about the death penalty, and I was yelling back at her, while simultaneously—and I am NOT proud of this—holding my hand over the mouth of another guest, Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals who got into trouble over a woman and went to jail and, needless to say, wrote a book. I was silencing him so that I could better express my very strongly held views on the death penalty, although now I honestly cannot remember what those specific views were.
I do remember that before the show, when I was in the waiting room with Vicki Lawrence, somebody brought up her hit song, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” which has an extremely complicated plot. I have never met anybody who understood what that song is about, so I figured this was my big chance to find out.
“What is that song about?” I asked Vicki Lawrence.
“I have absolutely no idea,” she said.
Here’s a coincidence: Vicki Lawrence was once a regular on The Carol Burnett Show, and earlier that same day, I met: Carol Burnett! Yes! A comedy goddess! A star who, in my mind, is bigger than all the ex-Monkees combined. She and I were waiting to appear on the early-morning news show on Los Angeles TV station KTLA. I still don’t know why Carol Burnett was there; I don’t think she has a book out. I do know that we were both preceded on the show by a lengthy live news report in which the reporter wound up stripping down to her bathing suit and—I am not making this up—taking a shower with a live iguana. I don’t know whether the iguana has a book out, but I would not bet against it.
The next day I was on a show called Home & Family, which is broadcast from a house on the Universal Studios lot, just a short distance from the house where Tony Perkins stabbed Janet Leigh to death in Psycho. I found myself sitting on a long sofa with—these are just some of the people who were on that sofa—two co-hosts; Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner; an Italian cookbook author; two large spherical home-improvement contractors wearing matching bright-yellow overalls that would be visible from Mars; two women who wrote a book about something like how to feed a family of 117 people for 23 cents a day; and a complete set of quintuplets.
We did not, to my recollection, discuss the death penalty, but we did change locations a lot; every now and then, for no apparent reason, we’d all jump up and move, herd-like, into another room, where we’d watch somebody show us how to do some Home and Family thing such as baste a turkey. For all I know, that show is still going on. After a while, without being formally excused, I just sort of drifted outside and left, moving briskly past the Psycho house.
Yes, the book tour was a lot of effort, but it definitely increased the overall public awareness of my name. I know this because my last appearance was on The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, and at one point, when we came back from a commercial, Tom Snyder, who was not joking, introduced me to the audience as “Chuck Berry.” I was not offended; I’m a big fan of Chuck. But if he has a book out, I want a piece of the royalties.