Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Watching Steve Allen on pot: Mailer's vision

Regular viewers of the show and readers of this blog will know of my affection for big Norm (see right below) Mailer. Viewers of the show will know of my utter worship of the inimitable Steve Allen, who remains sadly un-enshrined on DVD at this moment. And while I know I just did a blog entry concerning Mailer, it’s my birthday today, so I’m going to share one of my discoveries, a fascinating piece by Mailer in which he recounts his marijuana-enhanced viewing of Steve’s show back in the 1950s and the perceptions he gained from it.

I will only excerpt a few lines of the piece here; to read the whole thing check out Mailer’s Pieces and Pontifications, or better yet get a condensed version of it in his sort-of patchwork but always engaging book on writing The Spooky Art (2003, pages 192-7). 

What’s interesting to me is that Mailer wrote this well, well after the fact — it comes from a piece he wrote in the late 1970s called “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots” about the medium of television (he was no mean titler, that Norm). Perhaps this was just too weird for publication back in the Eisenhower era.

While I might dote on Mailer’s presence as a TV talk show provocateur, a bizarre actor, or wildly uneven filmmaker, the guy was a master writer, and so I was more than intrigued to read his pot-take on Steve’s audience interviews on the Tonight Show and the previous (and succeeding) shows he hosted. Mailer begins by talking about two commercials that fascinated him, and then notes
He would watch Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen late at night and would recognize that they knew what he knew. They saw how the spiral worked in the washing machine commercial, and why Dynaflow did it in oil….
Steve doing audience interviews
(innocent enough...).
He goes on to discuss how television reflects American society, and helps deaden it. He uses Allen’s interviews to illustrate a point about subliminal sex on the tube (and how the mind can travel when under the influence…):
Or: studying the tourist, he learned much about American fellatio. TV was scintillating for that. Next to the oil of Dynaflow and the spiral in the washing machine came the phallic immanence of the microphone. A twinkle would light up in Steve Allen’s eye as he took the mike and cord down the aisle and in and out of the impromptu interviews with his audience, snaking the rounded knob right up to the mouth of some starched skinny Middle West matron, lean as whipcord, tense as rectitude, a life of iron disciplines in the vertical wrinkles of the upper lip; the lady would bare her teeth in a snarl and show a shark’s mouth as she brought her jaws around to face and maybe bite off that black dob of a knob so near to touching her tongue.
A high school girl would be next, there with the graduating class on a trip to New York, her folks watching back home. She would swoon before the mike. She could not get her mouth open. She would keep dodging in her seat, and Steve would stay in pursuit, mike extended. Two nights ago she dodged for two hours in the back seat of a car. My God, this was in public. She just wouldn’t take hold of the mike.
A young housewife, liberal, sophisticated [is next…] She shows no difficulty with [the mike], no more than she would have with a phallus; two fingers and a thumb keep the thing canted right. There can be nothing wrong, after all, in relations between consenting adults. So speaks her calm.
After that, he turns to the male audiences members and it’s a whole different story. One can’t be sure what the later, more conservative Steve would’ve thought of Mailer’s take on his show, but I’m sure the vintage, experiment-prone Steve would’ve completely understood….

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