Wednesday, January 20, 2016

I'm posting this anecdote mainly as a reminder to start using the word "kalopsia" more often...

... but his story from Mark Evanier also connects to some present and future threads about television and what drives innovative people like Steve Allen. 
One day during a taping, one of the guests used a large, polysyllabic word — something like "kalopsia."

Allen stopped the conversation, turned to the studio audience and asked, "How many people here know what that word means?" Not a lot of hands went up and Steve responded, "Whenever I hear a word and am unaware of its meaning, I always make a point to go look it up." And with that, he reached over to the shelves, hefted a large, frighteningly-unabridged dictionary and began leafing through it.

During all this, the producer was in the control room, squirming in agony. This was, to him, dull, dull, dull. Finally, Steve read aloud the definition of kalopsia: "A condition where one is deceived into thinking things are of higher quality than they actually are."

Thirty seconds on a TV show can seem like The March of Time if nothing's happening, and this producer couldn't abide ten without a laugh or a song or someone getting hit with a pie. Alas for him, Allen was on an etymological binge. They taped several shows that day and, each time someone uttered an unfamiliar word, out came the dictionary for another 20-30 seconds of page-turning. The producer actually ran back to the green room, where guests wait to go on, and begged everyone not to use big words on the show.

After the taping, he took his concern to Steve, who replied politely that he had no intention of ceasing or desisting. "With all the hours of television devoted to mindlessness," Mr. Allen reportedly said, "We can surely take thirty seconds every now and then to teach people a new word." And since Steve Allen felt that way and this was The Steve Allen Show, that was that.

But not quite. The producer went to the prop man and gave him an order: "Find a book just like Steve's, hollow it out, and put a little blasting cap inside — one that goes bang like an exploding cigar. I want it rigged so that when Steve opens it, it'll go off. Then he'll think twice about going for the dictionary." The prop man complied. Before the next tape day, Allen's lexicon was replaced with the booby-trapped one.

All during the afternoon's taping, the producer was praying for someone to use a big word so he could spring his surprise. No one did. At one point, seething with frustration, he called the Talent Coordinator and tried to see if they could arrange a last-minute booking of William F. Buckley.

But it wasn't necessary. Just at that moment, a guest used the word "pejorative" and Steve stopped and polled the house: "How many people here know what that word means?" Few did, so Steve reached for the dictionary.

As the producer giggled in anticipation, Steve Allen opened the book —

— and it exploded. Really exploded.

The prop guy had miscalculated. Instead of a small bang, it was more of a loud kaboom. A bolt of flame erupted and the blast drove Steve backwards. He crashed back into the bookcases and they went toppling. Since they were anchored to the set, it came tumbling down with them, bringing with it all manner of lights and stanchions and uprights — all of it burying the host.

The producer was in shock. He rushed from the control room to the set, saw cataclysm everywhere and gasped aloud, "My God! I've killed Steve Allen!"

He ran up to the disaster, hurling stagehands and grips aside, and began to claw through the debris. With the strength of ten, he threw pieces of scenery and bookshelving aside until finally, at the bottom of it all, he'd uncovered the upper half of the first host of The Tonight Show. "Steve," he begged. "Steve, speak to me!" In tears and desperation, he cried out, "Say something! Tell me you're going to be all right!"

There was a long pause but finally, Steve Allen opened his eyes. "Did you do this?" he asked in a soft, hurt voice.

"Yes," the producer moaned. "Yes, it was my idea! I told them to do it!"

Steve smiled, raised his hand in an "OK" gesture and said, "Funny bit."

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