Saturday, November 19, 2011

Craig Ferguson vs. The Vast Wasteland

My relationship with television has always been spotty. I grew up in the Middle East, in a country where there were only three television stations. All three were government-controlled. They generally didn't start their daily broadcasts until early evening, and went off the air nightly between 11PM and midnight. The programming was broadcast in any of three languages -- Arabic, French, or English -- and the two languages not spoken (or dubbed) on a given show were scrolled simultaneously across the bottom third of the television screen in something like close-captioning. If anything juicy happened in the bottom third of the screen during a show, only the most attentive watchers noticed it behind the endlessly scrolling captions. If that sounds annoying, it was, and so my friends and I found many other things to do with our time in the 1960s and '70s than while away hours in front of TV sets. Some of those things were even fairly wholesome, though not nearly as many as our parents vainly hoped.

When my family moved from the Middle East to London, England, in the mid-'70s, British television was somewhat more palatable to an American teenager. Still, back then in the U.K. there were only three television stations. Two of them were owned and operated by the government, and one was independent. Something I remember vividly was an uproar in the late '70s about whether the manifestly benign American program, "The Bionic Woman," was too violent for what remaining British sensibilities weren't yet benumbed by The Sex Pistols and their punk rock cohorts. This debate occurred at a time when it wasn't uncommon for the artsier of the two government channels to broadcast what could only be described as unedited French softcore porn in the early evenings. Despite whatever allure such televised French cinema may have held for us, again my friends and I spent the vast majority of our free time engaged in activities far removed from our families' televisions.

Now I live in the States, and I have cable. The good folks at my local cable monopoly pipe scads of channels at me every minute of every day. Perhaps because I grew up thinking of televised entertainment as more of a last than first resort, I watch almost none of them. I watch news, sports, or an occasional movie, though I confess anything involving ghosts or aliens stands a strong chance of grasping my attention. If someone can clear the broadcast rights and invents a sport where ghosts play aliens in the Otherworld Series, I'm all over it.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not one of those snobs peering down my nose at people who watch television. I watch TV, and some of the programs are very good. I was a big fan of "The X-Files" and "24," and with all its trippy ghostly weirdness I'm partial to the new show "American Horror Story." But those are exceptions. There's a good reason why Newton Minow, then the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, opined publicly in 1961 that television "is a vast wasteland."

And that was before august fare like "Jersey Shore," "Khloe and Lamar," "Toddlers & Tiaras," and "Teen Mom" oozed out of our televisions.

As an author, my relationship with television is even more tenuous now than it was when I was growing up. I've no general opposition to machines with screens full of moving pictures. Every day all over the world millions of people use laptops and tablets and even smartphones to read and enjoy books. I'm thrilled with that. But despite its insatiable appetite for "content," television itself spends scant time lauding books and authors. I suppose that makes some sense, given that someone delving deeply into a book isn't paying attention to the TV commercials.

Incidentally, I know there's at least one channel where the foregoing is untrue. C-SPAN2 dedicates a fair amount of weekly airtime to a program called "Book TV," featuring nonfiction authors and their books. I haven't seen the Nielsens for C-SPAN 2, but I'd have zero hesitation betting they're relatively microscopic compared to HGTV, Spike, or even the Home Shopping Network.

I'll put it another way: Do you watch a lot of C-SPAN2?

Yeah. Me neither.

That's why I have to give due thanks to "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." In a television landscape that seems practically antithetical to things literary, Ferguson regularly chooses to shine scarce network limelight on authors and books. Presumably, Ferguson's appreciation for authors sprouts at least in part from his own status as one of them. He has written two books -- a novel titled Between the Bridge and the River, and more recently a memoir called American on Purpose. I'm unaware of any other major American television entertainment program that makes a sustained effort to book authors. A list of all the authors Ferguson has had on his show would make for long and tedious reading, but just a handful of them are Dennis Lehane; Michael Connelly; Lee Child; Neil Gaiman; Amy Tan; Whitley Streiber; Laura Lippman; Lawrence Block, and James Ellroy. Note, this list is comprised of actual authors, not celebrities hawking their vapid and ghostwritten "tell-all" spiels to expand their "brand." While Ferguson has those types on his show from time to time, you're far more likely to find those quasi-literate celebrity airheads on countless other shows, where equally you'll be far less likely to find yourself spending a few sanguine minutes with real authors.

As one author to another, then, I give a sincere and grateful tip of my ink-stained hat to Craig Ferguson. He's not only very funny and a little strange, but he frequently lends his huge stage to support and promote the labors of hard-working authors of both nonfiction and novels. See for yourself.

(Full disclosure: I have nothing to do with Ferguson, his TV show, or CBS. I'm not hawking Ferguson's program, and I don't owe him any money. He has no compromising photos of me that I haven't already bought back from him at competitive prices. I merely want to recognize him for being generous to authors. If you're a fellow author, you should want to do the same.)

(That said, if Mr. Ferguson or any of his people happen across this blog post, don't be shy about booking me on the show. I promise I won't go for the Big Cash Prize at the end of my segment.)

"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, 
I go into the other room and read a book."
~~ Groucho Marx ~~


  1. John Stewart also has a few good authors sprinkled in among the media whores, and he actually interviews them (unlike Colbert's inanity). Also, I _do_ occasionally watch CSPAN2's BookTV, so the ratings are not quite zero. :-P

  2. +1 for not going for the The Big Cash Prize. If I ever got a chance to be on the show, I'd learn the mouth organ and try for The Golden Mouth Organ.

  3. Craig Ferguson's depth and his profound talent for writing outshines any novel i've read. the honesty behind what he says is something the world needs more of. He honestly questions life and the meaning of it, and i feel that's an important quality of a person that is often overlooked. his writing style is one that makes you step back and feel as if you are in the presence of a genius, which i said to myself several times as i read the book. Between the bridge and the river is my favorite novel and will keep me interested no matter how many times i read it. It's not a comedy shtick and it's not a celebrity trying to write a book, it's a genuine person telling one hell of a tale.

  4. I have begun to wait for authors to appear or be mentioned on his program so I can search out who to read next...sometimes it is a current author or a classic I might have missed...such as P.G. Rodehouse. I don't ever remember hearing of Rodehouse before Craig.

  5. I started reading the Lawrence Block "Matthew Scudder" series because Craig spoke about them so much on the show, as well as had Mr. Block on the show a few times.

    I've read both of Craig's books, as well and they are great reads!

  6. It's PG Wodehouse- creator of Jeeves and Wooster

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