Geraldo, Minow, and Mike Teavee: the Time My Buddy Turned Down a Free Trip to New York.

My friend is a television and movie lover. No one knows more about Hollywood’s Golden Age and the movies and movie stars that made it golden than a friend I will call Mike Teavee (because that is not his name). Best Example? He has not only read (and memorized without trying) books filled with James Bond trivia, but has also read all of Ian Fleming’s original novels. He knows every Academy Award winner in every category that matters from 1930 to 1980 — and he knows all the nominees who did not win and why not. He knows who played every starring role, and who turned those roles down during casting. Mike knows the silver screen.

But he knows television equally well, both the mindful and the mindless, from the legendary anchors of the Big Three to the roommates of Three’s Company (“Come and knock on our door…”), from Norman Lear to Norm MacDonald, from Roots to Wild, Wild West, Centennial to Lonesome Dove to The Day After. Mike even knows the amazing pedigree of parent shows and their spinoff children: Love, American Style led to Happy Days led to Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy and Joanie Loves Chachi, (and two cartoons).

In the 1990s, Mike’s job was to take calls in a bullpen full of customer-service representatives at Houston-based Continental Airlines. One year, the airline sponsored a Go Texan Day to celebrate the opening of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Not unlike the Mike Teavee from the 1971 film, Mike loved to Go Texan. He had more cowboy duds than anyone I knew: boots, hats, shirts with pearl snaps, you name it. He could never skip Go Texan Day; the contest was irrelevant. But it is the contest that makes this story interesting. Because the good people at Continental Airlines had decided that the winner — the employee with the best cowboy getup — would collect two all-expense-paid tickets to New York City to attend a taping of the Geraldo Rivera Show.

The thing is, Mike knows movies and television, but he does not like every show. There’s the boring, the offensive, the badly written, and — worst of all — the shows that are so busy taking a stand for this or that, they forget to be entertaining. Sometimes the shows themselves are as self-consciously activist as the actors giving speeches at awards shows. Mike hates shows that push an agenda, and he loathes award shows because everyone — winners, losers, and presenters — is pushing an agenda. His favorite line sounds like a Henny Youngman bit: “I never miss the Academy Awards. I never watch it, and I never miss it.”

Even during the 80s and 90s, I understood Mike’s feelings about whiny actors wearing ribbons for a dozen causes. Some people annoy you. For me, it was Phil Donahue. His final episode aired in 1996, and twenty-odd years later he’s still on my list. That’s how much he bugs me — not his politics, but his cavalier effort to offend everyone, to attack every sacred cow. After all, I’m from the South. We kill cows too — but we kill them with kindness. Kindness and manners. Not Donahue. But it was not Donahue that irritated Mike. It was Geraldo Rivera.

The Geraldo Rivera Show became infamous after the 1988 brawl in which a tinder box of white supremacists, black activists, Jewish activists, and “anti-racist skinheads” burst into flames in a fight that destroyed the studio and left Geraldo with a broken nose. Bringing these people together was never going to promote reasoned discussion (or racial harmony), but it did promote ratings. It was just the sort of freak show that Newton Minow might have had in mind when (in 1961!) he described television as a “vast wasteland.”

Mike, a lifelong TV lover, was amused by the prize being offered at his office. When he talked about it, I thought I heard Bob Newhart in his voice and manner (Innkeeper Newhart, not Psychiatrist Newhart):

“First place gets to go to a taping of the Geraldo Rivera Show? What’s second place? NOT getting to go to a taping of the Geraldo Rivera Show?”

Still, on Go Texan Day, Mike donned the black snakeskin boots, the Wranglers, the belt with the buckle as big as Texas, the shirt from the George Strait Collection, the full-length black duster, and the black felt Stetson hat.

Of course, Mike won the contest. When his name was called at the catered Go Texan barbecue luncheon, Mike rose, put on his hat, and walked toward the front of the room. This was his chance. After a lifetime of study, he had accumulated an amazing collection of facts and trivia. He knew the TV business, the film business, the stars, the gossip, the intrigue. He had degrees in history and political science and Spanish — he knew so many things. But he had not yet been to the taping of a television show. He could go and see this thing firsthand.

Sure, it was “trash TV.” But Geraldo was a better host than some: born “Gerald Rivera,” he was an attorney (near the top of his class) who was recruited away from a successful law practice after a news director saw how he handled himself while being interviewed. Soon “Geraldo” was doing the interviews and learning journalism on the fly. Clearly the half-Catholic, half-Jewish attorney-turned-reporter-turned-celebrity was more interesting than some of the talking heads on television.

But was his show worth the trouble? Mike knew the schedule. Would it be fun to get up at four a.m., drive to the Houston airport, fly to New York, take a cab to the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street, watch the taping, take another cab back to the airport, fly back to Houston, and drive home late that night? Would he enjoy it? Would he learn anything? (Does anyone learn anything watching the Geraldo Rivera Show? Is it anything more than a vast wasteland?)

Mike joined the manager at the front of the room. He looked back at the room full of coworkers as his boss repeated her announcement. Everyone was clapping for him.

“You won! You won a free trip to New York to see Geraldo Rivera! Isn’t that exciting?!,” she pointed the microphone at Mike Teavee. This was his chance to speak, to say something profound, to utter a few words that might forever be remembered in television lore. But he was speechless.

“Come on! How’s it feel? You won, Cowboy!”

Mike’s mind went blank. He hesitated. This man with a photographic memory filled with ten thousand of television’s funniest gags and classic one-liners drew a blank. After a beat, he repeated what he’d been saying for weeks:

“First place gets to go to a taping of the Geraldo Rivera Show? What’s second place? NOT getting to go to a taping of the Geraldo Rivera Show?”

Mike laughed. The boss laughed. Everyone laughed, although some of those present thought he didn’t sound very grateful: Heck, let me have the trip. I mean, if he doesn’t want it. Just ’cause he wore a duster…

The boss put the tickets into Mike’s hands. He hesitated.

“No, thank you.”

“What?!”

“No, thank you. I’m not interested. I mean, it’s Geraldo, right?” Mike laughed out loud. “No, thank you.”

Mike gave the tickets back and put his palms up and backed away, the universal gesture for ‘I’m not getting involved.’

The boss was stunned.

“Wait, what? Are you kidding me? Get over here, you nut. You won, fair and square!”

Mike shook his head.

“I’m not interested in Geraldo Rivera. Someone else can go.”

“Wait, what? Seriously? It’s New York. Get back over here.”

Mike walked to his seat. His head was spinning. He was an Academy Award winner who never thought he’d win, so he had no speech prepared. He sat down.

The boss was stunned. Co-workers were stunned. Mike Teavee’s mother was stunned. I was stunned. I am still stunned twenty years later. I remain perpetually, forever stunned. Who turns down a trip to see Geraldo? (I mean, it’s not like this was the Jenny Jones Show.) What kind of people am I choosing for my friends anyway? Can I really trust someone who would turn down a free trip to a taping of the Geraldo Rivera Show — in New York?

But the activist for non-activist television had taken his stand. He said no. He would not lend his tacit approval to the Geraldo Rivera Show.

The thing is, Mike, a formidable intellect, not only understood television better than anyone else at the office, he also loved television more than anyone else at the office. They did not know his story. By his own account, he was once a TV addict, a mindless consumer of anything and everything: “What am I watching? Whatever’s on.”

When a high school injury rendered him home bound and isolated for several years, television became more than a way to pass the time. Television became a richly peopled social life. These beautiful people who always came up with just the right touching or witty remark were his life: every show, every film, every re-run, every mini-series. He knew them all, loved them all, needed them in a way that most people do not. The TV world was Mike Teavee’s FAMILY.

But Mike got better. He got out of the house. He graduated and went to college. He was healthy again and he made some good friends — not the beautiful and witty people of Hollywood, but homely regular folks from flyover country, friends who may not keep you in stitches, but who care and who listen, and who are not constantly pushing an agenda.

Mike still loved television, but he grew up and learned that his viewing habits could be informed, that there was logic in the storytelling, and bias in the writing, and some shows worked and some did not, and you enjoyed the good ones more if you recognized the tools and tricks of the trade. Mike got an education and read books and looked at both sides and shrugged off easy answers. He read the critics and expected more from his two favorite media — film and television. By his mid-twenties he had not figured it all out, but Mike Teavee was convinced of one thing: television could be better than the Geraldo Rivera Show.

It might not be a grand gesture, a life-saving act of heroism or sacrifice. But when the biggest fan of television I have ever known faced his moment of decision, he stood up for what he believed in by sitting down without those tickets. He did not go to New York. He did not sign a release, and his image did not appear in anyone’s studio audience. He did not become a seat filler in the “vast wasteland,” and I was proud of him and remain impressed by his commitment to his principles.

But I would have taken the tickets.

* In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minow’s words caused such an uproar that Sherwood Schwartz decided to name what became television’s most famous shipwreck after him, the S.S. Minnow. Whether Minow considered that an honor, I do not know.

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Steven Wales

Steven Wales

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Lawyer and professor of business law and of petroleum land management. Former high school English teacher. I live with my wife and kids on a small farm.