Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"What's My Line?", Alan Alda and other lessons I have learned...

Pull up a seat and order whatever you'd like. I'll buy the first round if you'll listen to a little story.

Gotta tell you about one of my heroes, the late, great publisher, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf. There is no explainable reason that a guy crowdin' 31 should even know Cerf's name. What can I say? I'm a crazy kid.

I've been in love with books -- and words -- since an early age. I think I've told you about that before. A neighbor gave me a "Hardy Boys" mystery when I was about 8 and I've never been the same since.

Anyway, it was through reading about the literary life that I first came across Cerf -- his professional relationship with troubled author Truman Capote, his founding of Random House with Donald Klopfer, his reputation as the epitome of the New York literati during that scene's 1950s golden age.

Then, it was a flu back in the winter, and the inspiration of my friend the Rat, that got me watching the re-runs of the classic game show "What's My Line?", on which Cerf was a regular panelist. Yes, I thought. This is the life I wish I had led -- that of an urbane New Yorker, publishing books, hobnobbing with celebrities, appearing weekly on a popular television series in which I could show off my sophisticated wit.

Alas, I'm merely a somewhat educated feller from Halls who likes to read books. It took me a long time to become comfortable -- and, indeed, happy -- with that fact.

(By the way, I read a fantastic review highlighting a new oral history of the life of another famous literary personality, George Plimpton, that I'm going to try to find during the holidays. It looks great.)

So as the sun goes down on a busy Monday, I'm fighting my usual battle with the inability to unwind, reading Alan Alda's first memoir, "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed." (I just typed "Never Have Your God Stuffed" before hitting the backspace key. Wonder if that is dyslexia or a Freudian slip?)

Alda has long been a favorite. He is witty. He is a multi-talented actor, director and writer. He played another hero, Hawkeye Pierce, on my favorite TV sitcom, "M*A*S*H."

And, believe it or not, Alan Alda once taught me something about women.

Alda made a name for himself in the 1970s for his staunch feminism. Critics complained that the later episodes of "M*A*S*H" became so bogged down in his personal philosophy that it lost its way. Too preachy, they said. Here's why I disagree:

The episode was called "Hey, Look Me Over." I believe it aired during the last season. Hawkeye keeps ignoring Nurse Kellye. She sends him some not so subtle hints of her interest in him, but Hawk keeps his eye on the more nubile, but somewhat vapid, nurses.

Kellye finally lets him have it. Afterward, Hawkeye observes a tender moment that shows Kellye's personality, in which she lovingly cares for a wounded soldier. He realizes what a fool he's been and goes to Kellye's tent to ask for a date.

But, guess what? She's got another man -- and leaves Hawkeye with his foot firmly planted in his mouth.

"Hey, Look Me Over" taught me a valuable lesson. It's a cliche to describe it this way, but the gist is don't judge a book by its cover -- or, perhaps more appropriately, everything that glitters is not gold.

Life experience should have told me this is true. But it took a 30-minute episode of a popular but thoughtful television series to throw my worldview at that time on its ear.

I don't know what Bennett Cerf and Alan Alda have in common, or even why I was thinking about them tonight. But, I think in their own way, they taught me two things I needed to learn.

One is not to spend so much time envying someone else's life that you fail to realize the richness of your own journey. The other is to never fall into the trap of seeing only with your eyes at the exclusion of your brain -- and your heart.

Not bad for two famous people I've never met, huh?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Jake:

A new reader here. I became a big fan of MASH in the early '80's when it first went to syndication. I remember that episode well. Two others toward the end of the run stand out: Where There's A Will, There's A War - Hawkeye goes to the front and writes out his will, and we get to see some great new scenes from the other cast members. The other one was where a nurse is killed by a mine, Hawkeye learns more about her from her diary, and decides to let others close to him know how he feels about them during the memorial service.

I'll look for his book.

The tv guy across the river

2:06 PM  
Blogger Jake Mabe said...

TV guy,

Thanks for reading -- and also for your "M*A*S*H" comments. I well remember the episode about Hawkeye learning about the nurse from her diary. Can't recall the name of it -- but it's a great one. I also really like the episode in which Hawk kind of flips out and starts building things with tongue depressors. Very moving episode of a great show.

2:25 PM  

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