Ask Al

by Jack J. Miller

Jack Miller is the author of numerous essays and fictions, many of which are available, totally free to everybody, on the Web. He has written about life and statistics. He currently resides in Seattle but has previously lived in New Jersey, Washington, DC, Southern California, and Romania. He considers himself 2-for-5. Right now he's probably sleeping, but maybe he's actually working on his first novel, a loose adaptation of this story, "Ask Al."


i.

I always wanted to be famous, to be a celebrity or a personality, ever since I was a kid. I dreamed about getting on "Star Search." I wished I was a woman so I could enter Miss America, and sometimes I'd sneak into my sister's room and get all gussied up and parade around in front of the mirror, singing in my best Burt Parks: "Here she comes, Miss America..." I imagined I was a game-show host, which is like the most abstract form of celebrity in the universe.

I was totally obsessed, and I got my ass kicked a lot during recess 'cause I wasn't interested in sports. All I wanted to do was practice my moves: motioning to the board, beckoning contestants over to the winner circle, that sort of thing. I guess it looked a little fruity out there on the playground, and I got a lot of bloody noses and black eyes, but I kept it up. Suffering for my art and all that.

ii.

I studied communications in college, but I didn't really apply myself. I was more interested in getting laid, and when I graduated, the only job I could get was as a night manager at a Kinko's. I took it. What the hell else was I gonna do? I spent my days plotting my rise to fame. The whole Kinko's thing had made me a lot more realistic. I knew I had to pare back my dreams a little, be more methodical, more calculating. You don't just walk into Hollywood or New York and scream out, "Make me famous!" You need some sort of gimmick.

So I started watching a lot of TV, to help me take stock of the current media situation. I made an analysis. I determined that the time was ripe for a new advice columnist, someone masculine, rugged, meat-and-potatoes. I thought out the whole concept. First I'd need a good name. My real name is Richard, but "Richard," thanks to Richard Simmons, has an effeminate sound that wouldn't help me crack the female-dominated advice market. I hate "Ricky," "Richie," "Rick," and "Rich," and "Dick" was out, for obvious reasons. I thought "Al" had the kind of down-to-earth, blue-collar sound I was looking for and that "Ask Al" would be the perfect name for a male advice column. It was even subtly evocative of "Ask All," giving the impression that I wanted to hear every detail, no matter how shameful or embarrassing.

But I needed more than a good name. I had to have some kind of shtick, a concept. I made another analysis and settled on two simple editorial rules: 1. Never directly respond to a problem; and 2. Never exceed four sentences per reply. This way, people would have to write back in order to get the total advice satisfaction they crave, and I could weave a real-life web of intrigue and advice that combined the best features of soap opera and horoscope, adding a dimension of interactivity pleasing to today's demanding media consumer. It wouldn't be like traditional media, where the audience is totally passive, just waiting to see what's going to happen next. Because anybody could write in and participate, it would be like getting to suggest to the writers of "General Hospital" that Laura go back to college, or like being able ask an astrologer what, precisely, they meant by "accentuate romance this week, but don't go out of your way looking for love."

I was excited. I knew "Ask Al" could be big. Sure, it was a far cry from game-show host, but it was going to be my launching pad. I went around to a few of the local papers with my pitch, and I managed to convince the editor of the Somerset Courier News to give me a shot. He liked the name and he loved the concept. We gave it a big kick off, and after only a few weeks, people started writing in, just like I'd expected, asking for clarification. I was raking in bags of follow-up letters, and because advice columnists are judged by the volume of reader mail they bring in, I was considered a raging success.

Nobody seemed to care that I was writing vacuous nonsense. They had a deep, instinctual trust in the printed word, and I played on that, some might even say "abused." I answered follow-ups with even more vague and open-ended advice, a technique that may have been annoying, but it sucked people into the daily haiku of "Ask Al." It gave people exactly what they wanted. They turned to the column every day, not just looking for advice or the usual affirmation that others have shitty lives too. They wanted to see how their favorite stories were progressing and maybe get into the fray.

After only a few months, I got picked up by a few of the bigger papers, left the Courier News, and got hired on by a syndication agency. I got an agent, a publicist, and an assistant to sort the mail. I moved to Manhattan and started wearing expensive suits. Within two years, "Ask Al" was being run in dailies from coast to coast, and I was the first male advice columnist to be syndicated nationwide. My readership rivaled that of Ann Landers and Dear Abby combined.

Everybody was satisfied. Editors called me "genius." Readers said I was "a godsend." I appeared on morning talk shows, did radio spots, and published a book, "Women Who Hate Sports and the Men They Love." I got a contract for two more, and the advance moved me uptown about fifty blocks and into the suit price-range of $1,500-2,000. I bought a red Ferrari. I liked all that power, and on weekends I'd cross the GW Bridge and roar around the windy north Jersey parkways for the raw thrill of it.

iii.

When women began soliciting me through the mail, the syndication agency hired me a second assistant specifically charged with culling out these inappropriate submissions before they ever reached my eyes. They didn't want to take any chances. Occasionally, though, those seeking my advice and those seeking my body couldn't be so easily separated, and a suggestive missive would sneak through the lines. Generally, I would burn these letters in the trash can and pour myself a stiff drink from the desk drawer. The occasional cold shower was called for, but I was pretty much in control of myself.

Until I started having relationship problems myself. Advice columnists aren't immune, you know. I began paying off my special assistant for the pictures and phone numbers of those who wrote in offering themselves to me. I paid through the nose for this information, and in the end I should've just used the cash for prostitutes. These women were offering themselves body and soul when all I really wanted was the body. Unfortunately, you can't choose in these situations. You get everything: body, soul, emotional baggage, the whole package. I should've known the whole thing was a bad idea. When you work all day reading other people's problems, you don't need more of that shit at night, especially when you're being blackmailed by a subordinate and the syndicate is on your ass about increasing your readership.

My whole life was filled with neuroses, phobias, job troubles, money worries, and sexual dysfunctions. I was supposed to be the sponge, sucking it all up and making everybody else happy, but I just couldn't do it. Dealing with the psychologically walking-wounded is a major drag, and remember, I'm not a trained psychologist or social worker. I'm just a hack with a good media-distribution deal and about as much sensitivity and empathy as your average traffic light. I was probably the worst boyfriend in the world, worse than I was at giving real advice. I couldn't get away with my usual shit, because there was someone else right there, an actual live human being, talking back, interrupting, asking for real answers, demanding something concrete. I couldn't just edit out the stuff that didn't work for me and dash off some vague bullshit about personal courage or putting your internal house in order.

So even though I was making big bucks and getting laid a lot, I was basically miserable all of the time. I started feeling like it wasn't worth the trouble, especially the sex. Sex, not worth the trouble?! I scared myself with that one. That's, like, one of those things a guy can remember from when he's sixteen: "I'll know it's over when I think sex isn't worth the trouble anymore." Shit. I tried rededicating myself to cheap, meaningless sex, but the libido is a fickle mistress. I found myself right in the middle of an otherwise excellent lay wishing I could just get it over with and go home.

iv.

I let my publicist convince me to do a book tour. I figured it'd be good to get away from all these women and the office and New York in general, but I hated it. Suddenly, the faceless masses were right there, in my personal space, asking for autographs and advice, telling me in person all of those things I usually tuned out in letters: you're so insightful, you're so sensitive, you're so right, you're a saint. It was nauseating, being confronted with these people. They were my bread-and-butter, but I couldn't stand it. I finally understood why celebrities hate public appearances so much. People are repulsive.

By the time I got back from the tour, I was totally flipped out. I started doing things like dressing up as a woman, wig and all, and going into the office, demanding to see "that angelic 'Ask Al'," screaming that my life depended on the intervention of "that saintly man". Everybody knew it was me, but I felt sort of like Superman going into the Daily Planet asking to speak to Clark Kent. People would think, "Look Clark, we know it's you, those glasses never fooled anybody, so just stop fucking around and come clean." But they wouldn't say a thing. They'd just sit there and go, "Golly, Superman, he was here just a minute ago." It gave me a weird thrill, and it seemed pretty harmless.

But then I got out of control. I was arrested for indecent exposure. A month later, someone came up to me in a restaurant and asked my advice on something, in response to which I got up and pissed on the table. I threw drinks at people in bars, verbally abused my coworkers, and tried running down pedestrians with my Ferrari. I kicked the homeless. It was pretty much the standard decadent-celebrity-run-amok tale, and I would've been able to pull it off, like every other celebrity, if my job performance hadn't started slipping. I was aggravated with people all the time, particularly women, and I started getting ornery in my column. The line between my personal feelings and my professional demeanor just totally evaporated, and I began laying into the dumb-asses who relied on my sanity and sensitivity. My readership was declining steadily.

But the real death blow came when I appeared on "Letterman" in drag. I tried to play it cool, like nothing unusual was going on, and it started out okay. Dave was just going through the motions, reading those blue cards of his and making goofy faces all over the place. He had no idea who I was or why I was on his show, and he didn't seem particularly interested in finding out. But then he looked up from his cards and noticed my outfit, and that's when he must've realized I shouldn't be wearing a dress on his show. I mean, a guy like Dennis Rodman can get away with shit like that, but not a heartland favorite like myself. Letterman got a whiff of the prey and went in for the kill. "That's a really beautiful dress you've got on there, uh, Al. Is it some kind of designer job?" I should've been ready for it, but those wiggly eyebrows sent me into a panic. I got totally defensive and lost control, imagining that the viewing audience at home was watching one of those nature shows where you see a lion taking down a caribou or something. It was one of the worst nights of my life.

After that, I was pretty much done for as an advice columnist. I'd totally betrayed the whole concept of "Ask Al" by appearing in a dress. It didn't matter that it was a stylishly cut sheer black Yves St. Laurent exclusive. There're certain things you don't do, no matter how tastefully-appointed you are. My publisher called to tell me they were ripping up my contract (some clause I'd never read about public spectacle or scandal or something like that). It was almost a relief, because I'd more or less given up working on the next book, "Women are From Venus and Men Don't Know Where That Is." But they were also canceling the book that was just about to go to press, "Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Ask Al," a "Best of" collection from the first five years of the column. Newspaper after newspaper dropped my column, and eventually the syndication agency fired me.

v.

I pleaded for my job back but was denied on the grounds that success had warped me to the point where I could no longer write sensible or marketable advice. They advised me to try something else. I had no idea what to do, so I just stayed in my apartment, ordering porno videos and Chinese food. I was relieved in a way to be rid of the whining imbeciles and their ridiculous problems. It wasn't all bad.

After about a month of wallowing in my own shit, FOX-TV called, offering to do a made-for-TV-movie about me. They were pioneering a new entertainment concept, a sort of combination of America's Most Wanted and America's Funniest Home Videos that used both staged dramatizations and actual footage. They were calling it "Reel-Life Docu-Dramatization." They said it was going to be the next big thing in network television, and they wanted to give it a trial run with "Don't Ask Al: The Richard Granville Story."

I agreed to do it and straightened myself up enough to go in and sign the contracts and releases. They hauled Danny Bonaduce out of some remote desert rehab to play me, which wasn't a very good likeness, in my opinion, but the network whiz kids said, "It's more about feel, and Danny has, like, the perfect feel of guys like you," which is sort of an insult, but what're ya gonna do? They slapped the thing together in about two months and aired it during Fall sweeps. All in all, it was a decent flick, even if it did rely overly-much on "Natural Born Killers" style cinematography and editing, which is only to be expected, I suppose. I felt pretty good about the whole thing, and then my agent up and migrated South, taking all the money from the deal, which was a tidy sum.

He didn't leave me totally in the lurch, though. I'd been thinking about doing a talk show, one of those afternoon things like "Oprah" or "Rickie." He thought the market was totally saturated, but I bugged him about it every once in a while, and apparently he'd been working on it while "Don't Ask Al" was being made. The day after I got word that he'd skipped town, a guy from CBS phoned, offering me a talk show deal. They had a daily slot at 3pm and at least a month's worth of themes and guests already in the can. I hopped on it, of course. It was exactly what I needed at that point. All that remained was to find a good name for the show. We considered "Talk to Al," "All About it with Al," and "On the Air with Al," but we finally settled on just plain "Al!"

vi.

Suddenly, all was forgotten. No one really cares what kind of past a talk-show host has; in fact, the more checkered the better, it seemed to me. And just to let the public know I had a sense of humor about the whole "Letterman" thing, I kicked off "Al!" with a show about non-homosexual men who like to wear women's clothing, appearing in a classy, tight-fitting dress. I was fabulous. I was born to be on TV. People loved me, and the ratings were astronomical. I moved out West and bought a condo in Malibu.

But the show was a lot more stressful than the column had ever been, and I needed to play hard to make it bearable. I was surrounded by beautiful LA women all the time, but my experiences back East had put me off women, and I went elsewhere for my sensual pleasure. I guess you could say I fell in love with food. I starting eating like a pig. I gained almost a hundred pounds in the first year of the show, another eighty after six more months. It was like Oprah was channeling all her fat through me, and as she got thinner, I got fatter. I tried every diet imaginable, but nothing worked. I started doing the show in a muumuu, which, believe me, was like the best thing I could do for the ratings. I had a problem most of my viewers could identify with, and my popularity soured.

But I was really unhealthy, and I had a minor heart-attack just a week before the second-anniversary special. I got really desperate after that. I did a marathon month, taping a half-year's worth of shows so I could take time off to lose weight. I checked into a fat farm in the Arizona desert, some super-serious long-term program I'd seen on a late-night infomercial on one of the local LA channels. The basic philosophy of the place was that you would lose weight if you could take all the enjoyment out of eating. That way you'd only eat enough to satisfy basic nutritional needs. This wasn't, of course, so easy to accomplish. The first half of the treatment involved a gradual removal of taste, texture, and smell from the food we ate. We could have as much as we wanted, but they were turning our food into a grey, unrecognizable pulp that you'd only eat enough of to stave off hunger. After eating this stuff for a while and learning that food is about nourishment, not physical pleasure, the cuisine was made more appetizing again, so you'd be able to cope with the outside world, where you might encounter toothsome dishes instead of this Gulag fare.

It seemed like a good idea, and it might've worked, too. Who knows? But I was always sneaking off to Las Vegas to the all-you-can-eat buffets, gorging myself on platefuls of fried shrimp, lasagna, roast beef, scalloped potatoes, you name it. That made it a lot harder to go back to the slimy much we got served in the program, and I knew I'd've been better off just sticking it out. I finally got caught and washed me out of the program. No mercy there. They didn't care about my money; there was something like a two-year waiting list to get in, which made it easier to severely punish even minor infractions of the diet.

I went to Vegas for one last binge before returning to LA, and while I was there, I saw on TV that the new Planet Hollywood Casino and Resort Hotel was going to be bringing back the old game-show favorite, "Hollywood Squares," broadcast live daily from the Paul Lynde Memorial Ballroom Stage, just off the main casino floor. They were holding open auditions for host and squares the very next day, and you can bet I was first in line, staying up all night outside the casino like some kid waiting for Aerosmith tickets. Well, I didn't get to be the host. They picked Dennis Miller, who didn't even audition, as far as I could tell. There was probably some deal already in the works, and they held the auditions just for the publicity.

They did like me, though, and gave me the consolation of calling me "first runner up," for which honor I was offered the center square. How could I refuse? I was facing endless years of discussing people's problems on afternoon TV, and here I had the opportunity to be the center square, which is like the most strategically important space on the whole board. Paul Lynde himself occupied the center square for years. I had some big shoes to fill, but weighing in at 375, I knew I could do it. I think maybe they chose me because of the endless opportunity for fat cracks, especially from the chair right below, which, presumably, was the most dangerous seat in the house. Hardy har. I didn't care. It wasn't game show host, but I was going to be the next best thing, and if Dennis Miller ever dies, they might let me take over the show. It's a long shot, I know, but it could happen. Anything's possible in show biz.


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