Admit it – at some point, you’ve been sitting at home watching some talk show or game show, seen a guest on the show, and said “I can do better than that dope.” Then you start thinking about how everyone would love you if some network only gave you a chance to show how smart and charming you are on the air. Well, I’m here to say – it doesn’t quite work that way.
I got the call on Tuesday that Charlie Sykes wanted me to be a guest on his show that airs Sunday. The show tapes on Friday, so I’d have to drive from Madison to Milwaukee on Friday afternoon.
The second I agreed to it, I started feeling like I was having stomach ulcers. I was thinking this could be a complete disaster. If you ever wondered what TV would look like if they just dragged people off the street and asked them to be political commentators on television, this would be a good example. I started thinking of things I could say about whatever topic might come up (we don’t get the list of topics until Thursday afternoon, in case something late breaking happens.) I pieced together some stuff on Michelle Obama, Senator Roger Breske’s retirement, and other stuff. When I finally got the topic list, I started focusing on oil prices, Paul Ryan, and Michael McGee.
Now, I’ve been doing my little 90-second editorials on Wisconsin Public TV for over a year and a half now, but this was going to be entirely different. I’d have to make a statement, then have a follow-up response ready. I actually researched old shows to get a feel about what certain panelists might say about certain issues.
I got to the studio and met Jeff Fleming, Mykel Holt, and Ken Lamke. All were really nice guys, and welcomed me to the show. Lamke had actually heard of me, which kind of surprised me. We wandered over to the set, which seemed a little bigger than I thought it would be. Charlie took about 20 seconds to explain to me where to look at the camera, and reiterated that this show was as low-pressure as it gets. Of course, that may be true for the show’s regulars – once you have a track record of doing the show, you might be able to get away with making a mistake – but if you’re me, this show was going to be my first impression. And if I screwed up, people would think (or know, as the case may be) that I’m an idiot.
When the cameras started rolling and Charlie started talking, it suddenly turned completely surreal. I mean, here’s a show that I watch every week, with the same panelists I see on TV. And now, I’m sitting in one of the chairs, looking at these guys with the lights on. It’s almost like being in one of those exhibitions at Disney World that provide the “American Idol experience” or something. I was part of the “Sunday Insight” experience.
Right off the bat, Charlie came to me for a question. I immediately realized how hard this was going to be. I was trying hard to remember the quotes I had come up with beforehand. But your mouth starts moving, and you know words are coming out, but you can’t be entirely sure of what you’re saying. Your brain is thinking about everything other than what you’re saying. You catch a glimpse of yourself in the monitor out of the corner of your eye, and you think, mid-sentence, “can I possibly be that fat?” Right in the middle of one of my first points, it dawned on me that all four other guys on stage were staring right at me – and I stumbled over one of my points as a result. As I had predicted before the show, I was sweating like a whore in church.
We got through the oil price question, then the Paul Ryan topic, then moved on to the Michael McGee subject. This is where I bungled the question. In researching the topic beforehand, I couldn’t really think of anything else to say that hasn’t already been said about McGee. And when I’m writing, I think some of the best points I make are when I either look a couple steps ahead, or look back a few steps to figure out how we got here. I tried to do that with this topic, just to make an original point, and I flopped. I think it’s a reasonable question to ask how these inner city corruption cases are going to be handled under an Obama Department of Justice, especially since race tends to be a defense in many cases (as it will be in McGee’s.) But you only have about 15 seconds to make your case, and I stumbled doing so – and so by trying to make an original point, I ended up making one that just didn’t fit the discussion.
We finished up with the Winners and Losers section, and I think I did pretty well. My “losers” pick may have been a little more ribald than they’re used to, but I thought it was a funny topic, and it dealt with government. It spurred a lot of on-set discussion afterwards among the panelists, too.
While I was nervous before the show, I wasn’t nearly ready for the nervousness I would feel in the period between filming the show on Friday and Sunday when it aired. You go back and think about all the things you said and what you could have done better. It’s easy to be hard on yourself, because only you know all the great points that you were prepared to say, but didn’t get a chance to. (For instance, during the oil price discussion, I was wondering how Herb Kohl would feel about eliminating all the laws that keep milk prices artificially high. If we were paying as much per gallon for milk as we are for gas, he'd be the happiest guy alive.) You just have to cross your fingers that the audience actually likes the things you did actually
get a chance to say.
I was actually surprised at how little time you actually have to make your points. The show is probably actually only 20 minutes of air time, and when you subtract the opening sequences, Winners and Losers, and Charlie’s questions, there’s probably about 15 minutes of actual discussion among the five panelists. And when you divide that among three topics, you get about a minute per issue to make all your points.
So, lessons learned. If I’m ever asked back, I should do a little better. (Some of my early Public Television appearances were beyond rough, but I got the hang of it.) Fortunately, I was able to alleviate my stomach ulcers with a delicious Kopp's cheeseburger on the way home.
When the show goes up online, I'll link to it here. But I'm not sure how long it will be before I'm actually able to watch it.