I’d wanted to be on TV since I was young. I’d lived on a farm then, mired in peace and quiet, and my sole exposure to urban glamor was The Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson. I thought the dazzling streetscape behind his desk was a view through an actual window, not a photo, and I thought his regular guests were his best pals. I loved how he kidded them, loved his smoker’s laugh, loved how he leered at the women in their dark stockings. I suspected his guests met for drinks before the show, and afterwards too, in their limos, their private clubs, and on night flights to “Vegas,” where they kept hotel suites and sang and told jokes in showrooms on the Strip. Here was adulthood as I would have designed it, if only it would have me.
Three days into my New York City stay, early on a Friday afternoon, a black SUV arrived at my hotel to drive me uptown to tape Gutfeld! at Fox News. When the driver texted me in my room, I pulled on the pair of scuffed brown cowboy boots the audience liked to see me wear, patted my hair into place, put on my jacket, and slipped two pain pills into its vest pocket. On waking that morning, I’d calmed my screaming toothache with a smear of drug-store benzocaine, but it numbed my whole jaw and seemed likely to slur my speech if I reapplied it before the show. Would viewers notice if I took the opiates? I remembered the case of the singer, Paula Abdul, who’d appeared as a judge for several seasons on American Idol, the network talent show. People were always saying she was bombed, loaded on pills. It became a running joke. I couldn’t quite see it—to me she just seemed mellow, a rich entertainer stupefied by fame—but to others she seemed a flaming wreck. It worried me that my blindness to her condition meant I was liable to misperceive my own.
Light traffic. Thin rain. Shreds of clouds between the buildings. The limo rides were the best part of these trips. I always opened the small bottle of water provided in the backseat armrest and rarely wore a seatbelt. My drivers had no idea who I was, only that a major media company deemed me important enough to pay my fare. I sat up straight, ignored my phone, made light conversation, praised the driver’s skills. Today’s fellow, sixtyish, with a graying ponytail, cultivated a snappy, streetwise manner and grouched about certain new traffic regulations he felt were aimed at discouraging private car use. Everywhere I went these days, men of his age who were working to save money and win for themselves a respite in the tropics or the means to restore a classic motorcycle believed the authorities had it out for them. Their grumpy paranoia wasn’t new, of course, and I even found it soothing in certain ways, a sign of civilizational continuity.
The benzocaine wore off during the ride. When I stepped out of the car, a breath of cool air electrified my tooth. The shock made my eyes water. I wiped them dry. At the security desk inside the building, I showed my ID and obtained a printed pass that admitted me to the area near the studio where the show’s cast and guests relaxed before the taping. Greg Gutfeld, the buzzing, wise-guy host, was sitting at a computer touching up his opening monologue. Kat Timpf, his screwball sidekick, was texting on her phone. Rob Long, the episode’s other invited guest, a comedian, TV writer, producer, and friend of mine was watching the news on a screen hung on the wall. I nodded hello to them, straining to hide my agony, then sat on a couch and unfolded a sheet of paper listing the news items we planned to chat about. I’d already read it that morning with my wife Amanda and together we’d written several jokes and bits of which I couldn’t recall a single one now. Worse, I’d forgotten the news items themselves.
The steady ingestion of even modest doses of pharmaceutical narcotics—a class of drugs I’ve never found alluring because the high they induce feels dull and boggy, like the early stages of a cold—eventually creates a second self, careless, insensitive, a little smug. It turns out to be perfect for going on late-night television. Following the usual protocol, my name was announced to the audience, it clapped, and I entered the studio waving and took my chair, deliberately showing off my cowboy boots by setting my right ankle on my left knee. We sit in a circle on Gutfeld! facing Greg, who is backed by a photo of Manhattan at night that emphasizes the shimmering East River. The image held me captive as I sat there waiting for the cameras to turn on. Gazing across at the rippling dark water, which actually moved through some process of animation, I felt I’d achieved my adolescent dream of goofing around with my pals for all to see. Years ago, Greg, a stranger to me then, had yanked me off Twitter to appear on his show Red Eye, a wee-hours exercise in improvised absurdity. Now, his show beat the Tonight Show in the ratings. I may as well have grown up to be Don Rickles.
Away we went. I announced as soon as I was able that I’d taken a pain pill or two before the taping; in case my condition was obvious, I wanted cover. The audience seemed to welcome this offbeat news, which put me at ease. Or even more at ease, I ought to say. From my bubble of warmth and acceptance I launched a joke, written in bed that morning with my wife, about the removal of a statue of Teddy Roosevelt from its place at the entrance of The Museum of Natural History. I know better than to retell it here because certain jokes are only funny once, the way certain faces are only beautiful once, depending on the occasion and the setting. My next joke, about yet another silly act of virtue-mongering political overreach, also hit home. A golden light flowed through me. The devilish spirit of Oxycodone, so damaging to the welfare and morale of great blighted stretches of our hurting nation, had chosen to play an antic trick on me and grant my vain wish to entertain.
An hour of television, if you’re a part of it, and particularly a successful, amusing part, feels more like ten or fifteen minutes. The human ego, being infinite, gulps the experience like a chocolate milkshake. And then it’s done. You’re back out on the street. I walked for a few blocks with my friend Rob, then turned around and headed toward my hotel, passing people who might well see me on TV tonight and laugh at remarks that, until then, would be my secret. I found this an exotic thought.
The drugs I was on revealed profundities everywhere, some of them quite real, it seemed, and this one spoke to the nature of the future, to the way it already exists, unseen, unborn. Around me, passersby were wearing masks, attempting to hold off an airborne pathogen whose life cycle was on the wane, but in no time the world would be face to face to face again, the emotions it was having now exposed. Hidden loves, hidden jealousies, hidden disappointments, disguised for all this time, would stand revealed, their consequences unfolding in a great rush. Relationships would form and some would break and some that had broken already would be restored. I looked forward to these events. Let them come soon! And let the whole world see me on TV tonight, half blotto, a little sad, but very funny.
I watched and remember that night! I don’t remember the jokes, but I do remember you saying you were on pain meds! I wish you guys would have met for drinks before or after. That would have nailed your childhood dream! Loved this essay!
Well done narrative, as always. Thanks for the color. I vividly recall an abscess that the drugs couldn't get me through and the immense relief once the tooth was out. Please, never again!