If you haven’t caught “The Charles Grodin Show,” you should. It is talk-show theater, full of raw emotion — usually Grodin’s — fueled by acid-tongued wit and left-of-center insights — also usually from the host. In fact, this is one talk show that could probably thrive with just one person talking — Grodin.
Remember his classic appearances as the angriest man in show biz on the Letterman, Carson or Leno shows? “You’re wondering, ‘How’s this guy going to come out (on his own show) and be a nice guy? He’s like, angrier than hell!’ ” Grodin says, laughing at his own conundrum.
As comedian Jon Lovitz’s character, Master Thespian, would say, “Acting!”
“I was playing a part, a guy who was always mad about something,” Grodin says, insisting it was all a put-on. “I always came on as though I was irritated about something because I felt I needed conflict to create some interest. One time I came on and said, ‘I was told I’d be paid before we began.’ And people believed that stuff.”
Grodin says his reincarnation as talk show host is the real him.
“This is who I’ve always been off-camera,” he insists. “Not the issues-oriented part — I never talked about issues off-camera. Friends now say, ‘I didn’t know you knew anything about that.’ I would never talk about stuff like that in life. It’s too heavy for social conversation.”
That Grodin wound up on TV — let alone hosting a talk show — is odd. After two decades of acting in movies big (Catch-22, Beethoven, Dave, Heaven Can Wait, King Kong, Midnight Run) and small (So I Married An Axe Murderer, The Couch Trip, Ishtar), the irascible actor wanted to stay home and provide a stable environment for his son. For most movie stars, that means a TV sitcom or drama with regular hours, vacations, etc. Anthony Edwards, for example, who co-starred in Top Gun with Tom Cruise, found small-screen success on “ER.” And Lea Thompson moved from Back to the Future to “Caroline in the City.”
“I just really didn’t want to be an actor anymore,” Grodin says. “I don’t know why that happened. The whole idea of playing another person suddenly seemed very weird to me. It’s partly that and partly that when you’re speaking what you think, as against what you would act in a movie, it’s such a pronounced difference in what your sense of who you are as a person is. Imagine instead of talking to me as you are, you were pretending you were someone else. I mean, which would you rather do?”
Of course, Grodin’s show didn’t always hammer social and political issues the way it has since O.J. Simpson became Grodin’s and Geraldo Rivera’s poster boy. In fact, the former actor’s program was conceived as anything but serious.
“The original conception was to be dessert, a light, fun thing at 10 o’clock after Geraldo did a serious show,” Grodin says. “The O.J. Simpson case changed it. I became more serious because that was so out there.”
Some would say Grodin also became more “out there”; his obsession with Simpson — not unlike Rivera’s — gave viewers a two-hour nightly block of O.J. speculation that started during the former football star’s murder trial and continuing unabated through the current civil trial. Grodin even made headlines when he engaged in on-air name-calling with Simpson attorney Alan Dershowitz.
“For the first time,” Grodin says of his switch from chatty celebrity-oriented shows to left-leaning, social pot-boilers, “I was able to release a very strong, serious side of me that I had never found a place to express. I was surprised I could do it, but it turned out that I’ve got this memory where I can remember everything I’ve ever heard. That’s been a blessing.”
You can be sure that Grodin won’t forget the way he learned in December that his show was being pushed back an hour to make room for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” repeats.
“I think in the long run, this new time slot will be a good idea,” Grodin says in a veiled diplomatic tone, “because issue-oriented shows of this nature are always on in this timeslot. It’s around that time people figure they’ve been entertained enough and they’ve got a half-hour to focus on something. And I’m no longer on against the biggest shows in television, ‘Prime-Time Live,’ ‘ER’ and ‘Homicide,’ stuff like that.”
But did he know the change was coming?
Now Grodin laughs that familiar, diabolic laugh.
“I would say I was blindsided,” he admits, not amused at all. “They let me know after the fact. They didn’t ask me, they told me.
“I’ve been there for two years,” Grodin continues, “been nominated for best talk show twice (CableACE) and the ratings have tripled. And if that’s all the respect you get in my position, anybody who’s not in my position shouldn’t feel so bad.”
On the other hand, he didn’t mind that early overnight ratings for O’Brien reruns were lower than Grodin’s show in the same time slot. And Grodin is attracting more viewers at 11 o’clock than the show he replaced.
“I totally enjoyed that,” he says and this time the laugh is real. “You always want to enjoy that you were great there and you’re great here.”
Each Grodin show begins with a rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologue reflecting whatever has gotten Grodin steamed. But unlike his comedian counterparts, Grodin’s 10-minute spiel is unscripted, unrehearsed. Sometimes that shows; sometimes it’s masterfully intricate.
“I know what it is I’m going to say, the ideas behind it,” Grodin says. “But it’s not like I’ve already said it in the office or at home. I don’t rehearse it in any way. It’s the first time I’m speaking it, the same way you would in conversation. The challenge is to talk for 10 minutes and be interesting.”
“And yes,” he adds jauntily, “I am surprised that I’m that mad!”
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Copyright 2007 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman