Jewish World Review March 13, 2003 / 9 Adar II, 5763
Stood up by Oprah
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Brrriiinnnnggg. "Good morning, Mr. Lederer. My name is Jane Johnson (not her real name), and I'm a producer with The Oprah Winfrey Show. We've been seeing your bloopers all over the Internet and we'd like to do a show about them. Wednesdays is when we do our tapings at Harpo Studios, here in Chicago, and we're looking at November 6 for your appearance."
"Well, sure," I agree, as I peel myself off the ceiling while still managing to clutch the telephone. "I'll be happy to be interviewed by Oprah. But I'm wondering. You've apparently been reading bloopers from my two earlier Anguished English books, but are you aware that a third book of fluffs and flubs, "Fractured English", is just about to be published?"
"No, Mr. Lederer. We didn't know that, but we'll be happy to feature your current book on the show."
My heart leaps up when I behold a life-altering, career-changing chance like this. A producer calls on behalf of the woman who has the hottest finger on the hottest button in the book publishing industry. And she phones up at the very moment when the presses are about to give the world the only kind of book I write that can actually be a national best seller. It's simply the grandest opportunity to publicize my books that I can ever have -- worth more than all the other serendipitous chances that can ever enter my life.
Literary Market Place has called Oprah Winfrey "the most powerful book marketer in the world." When your book appears on her show, you are practically assured bestsellerdom. Even a Nobel Prize for Literature couldn't get Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon into the pantheon of best sellers, but exposure from Oprah caused the golden doors to fly open.
We live in a country in which, in a given year, the average family does not buy a single book -- not even a cookbook or a cat book -- and 65% of writers don't make a dime. But if Oprah Winfrey -- Oprah, who stays home day after day poring over book after book -- says something is a good book, then the least we can do is stampede the book stores. Seems a little loopy to me, but, what the hey, I'm flexible. As a midlist author, I'll be delighted to accept Oprah's knowledgeable endorsement of my words about words.
"Here's the plan, Mr. Lederer," Jane explains. "For the taping that will lead into our studio taping, we're going to have some elementary school kids in Chicago act out and illustrate some of your bloopers."
And I'm thinking, Kids that young? How can they relate to my bloopers? Smacks of the screwy to me, but what the hey, these Oprah folks are professionals and they know best. "Sounds like a terrific idea, Jane."
"Jane," I ask. "That's a lot of stuff. How much time are we talking about on the program?"
"Seven to ten minutes."
"Is that with or without the lead-in taping?"
By all the gods of writing. Seven to ten minutes in conversation with Oprah Winfrey. "O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" I chortle in my joy.
I call my editors and publicists, and they practically leap through the phone wires. "Congratulations, Richard! Let us know immediately how the taping goes. If your segment gets aired, we'll start by printing 100,000 additional copies of Fractured English, and we'll be ready to run off a lot more instantly. You're going to be a best seller!"
So, on November 5, I fly out to Chicago. A fellow named Rudolph, pale from his sunless existence, meets and greets me at O'Hare and walks me across the airport to the stretch limo. I am whisked to the Omni Hotel, where I stay, sup, and breakfast courtesy of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The next day, another stretch limo takes me to Harpo Studios for the taping.
Jane Johnson greets me and escorts me to the green room to wait to be on the show. Hardly have I arrived when she, now ashen faced, tells me, "Mr. Lederer. We're terribly sorry, but we won't be able to use the lead-in tape that we made. I thought the tape was so cute, Mr. Lederer, but the senior producers say that the segment makes it look as though the children themselves have perpetrated the bloopers, and they're concerned about parental reaction."
"But don't worry," says Jane, through a pasted-on smile. "This is just a taping, so we'll reshoot the lead-in for the actual airing and be just fine."
Woe is I, I think. Now we've lost the chance for the content of the lead-in tape to energize Oprah and the studio audience. Human nature and the media grind being what they are, the tendency is going to be to shrug, "We messed up. Get thee behind me Lederer, you aberrant blip on our computer screen." Not good, not good.
When troubles come, they come not singly but in legions. Next Jane informs me that on that morning Oprah's stepmother, the central woman in her childhood, died. Of all the days I could have been called to be on the show of all shows, I have to appear on the very day that the unfortunate woman slipped her mortal coil. For perfectly understandable reasons, Oprah is tired and flat that morning. And -- the horror! the horror! -- the first two segments go overtime!
"Don't worry," says the producer with the pasted-on smile. "Your segment is not thematically tied to the others. We'll put your interview on another show, just as long as Oprah is wearing a red dress for that one."
Finally, the time arrives, and I enter stage left and I sit down. Out strides Oprah, and here is the first sentence I hear her speak to her staff:
"What! We've got another segment. I gotta get outta here to the funeral!"
I understand her having to rush off to her stepmother's funeral, but what does "What we've got another segment?" mean? Does she know anything about my work? Is she prepared?
Here is the second sentence I hear Oprah speak:
"Okay. So we're doing a feature with Richard Lederer." The problem is that she pronounces it Leed-er-er, rather than Led-er-er.
Hoo boy. Oprah Winfrey, Queen of Talk Show Queens, doesn't know how to say my last name! Could it be that she hasn't been briefed? That giant sucking sound I bgegin to hear is what could have been my career going down the you know what. Oprah, I grieve for your loss, but you make more than $50 million a year. You're here on the set, so please, please give me five minutes, and you will change my life and you will get my books of language fun into the hands of a gazillion readers.
Mind you, I would have gladly changed my name to Leederer and instructed all my progeny and their progeny to do the same if that would have helped the distribution of my books. But, in the name of truth, I rise up and correct her: "Excuse me, Oprah. It's Lederer!"
Now some of my headline howlers are flashed on to the screen:
FRIED CHICKEN COOKED
Oprah and I banter a bit about those howlers. I wait for her first question: "So Richard, what is your favorite headline blooper?"
But no question forthcomes. All is silence.
I fill the dying air with "Yes, Oprah, I love capturing two-headed headlines, and my favorite is one that led off a golfing story: GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE!"
A burst of laughter from the audience. Some energy flows back into the room. I wait for the next question: "So Richard, give us examples of other kinds of bloopers that you collect."
But Oprah doesn't have any questions, and all the air a solemn stillness holds.
"Well, Oprah. I collect all kinds of goofs and gaffes," I chirp. "A parent once wrote this excuse note to school: 'My son is under the doctor's care and should not take P.E. today. Please execute him.' And my most famous student blooper may be 'Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a hundred-foot clipper.'"
More chuckles, followed once again by the echoing well of silence. Oprah closes the casket lid on the interview, which has been slowly suffocating. It expires in two-and-a-half minutes.
"Fabulous, Mr. Lederer!" jubilates the producer with the pasted-on smile. "You did great. We'll call you within two weeks, by November 20, to let you know when in December we'll air your interview."
I depart Harpo Studios, feeling that I've just been ensnared in the ultimate blooper.
A week goes by, and it's November 13. Nothing from The Oprah Winfrey Show. No news is good news. If the staff had thought that my interview was listless and useless, surely they would have called right away.
Then the November 20 deadline, arrives. No word from The Oprah Winfrey Show. The rest of November crawls by, and then December (punctuated by a signed form letter: "Thank you for being on The Oprah Winfrey Show") -- and then January. No news is bad news.
Finally, I call my publicist at Pocket Books. "Cheryl (not her real name), can't you call Oprah's staff and ask for a definitive answer?" I ask. "Tell them that we're quite aware that they make choices about what to use and what to discard. But for reasons beyond anyone's control, they were completely unprepared, and I had no chance to generate a lively tape. Ask them to do the right thing and fly me back so that we can conduct the interview fairly."
"Richard, Richard. I can't do that," explains Cheryl. "We're talking about The Oprah Winfrey Show here. We're talking the biggest. We wouldn't want to jeopardize any future opportunities for our other authors. You do understand, don't you?"
And of course I do. Who could blame her?
Well, it's been more than a year since that fateful day in Chicago, and I have never been informed of any decision. My two-and-a-half minutes of aborted fame are sealed tight somewhere out there in videotape limbo. Call me crazy, but some eerie feeling deep inside my being whispers to me that this poor player's hour upon the Oprah stage will ne'er be heard.
So how do I feel about the experience? Sad that my work will not receive an endorsement from the face that launched a thousand scripts. Glad that I did my very best and came so close to feeding on honey dew and drinking the milk of authorial paradise.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. Oprah, if you happen to be taking a little time off from reading all those books that are piled around your library and night table and you chance to see this article, please know that I forgive your staff for throwing me overboard in an emergency. All you have to do is give me a call, and I'll fly back to Chicago, without benefit of airplane. You're a great woman, Oprah. But please remember that the name is Lederer.
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Editor's note: The incident described above took place in 1996. Oprah, who has just relaunched her "book club," has still not made good on her invitation.
JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.
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