Ben Stein Interview

This interview originally appeared, in a more condensed form, in SPIN.

OK, which of the following job titles does not appear on Ben Stein's resume: attorney, Nixon's speech-writer, economist, novelist, the most boring high school teacher ever in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, gossip columnist, game-show host, or talk-show host? Anybody? Anybody?

If you answered "talk-show host," you would have been correct up until December 2nd, when Comedy Central began airing Turn Ben Stein On, a weekly talk-show featuring themes like "The Psychology of Humor," and "Which is a better life ethically, financially, and day-by-day: Hollywood or Politics?" The guest list (Grace Slick, Carl Berstein, a high school principle) may not have Jay or David, or even Bill Maher, looking over their shoulders. But if things ever get slow, the monotonous polymath can always turn the mic on himself.

G.B.: The press release for your new show Turn Ben Stein On says your combination of genius and chutzpah allows you to ask questions only you can get away with. So please ask yourself a question only you can get away with, and then answer it for me.

Ben Stein: I'd say a good question to ask Ben Stein is, "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" And then I'd answer by saying, I'm fairly smart, but I'm not as smart as the press department of Comedy Central says I am. And making money has very little to do with doing well in school. In fact, I would say the very very very stupidest people I went to school with wound up being the richest ones.

G.B.: With Win Ben Stein's Money, the unique twist on the gameshow format was readily apparent in its title - what is it about Turn Ben Stein On that will distinguish it from other talk shows?

Ben Stein: We're going to be what Politically Incorrect was supposed to be. If it works, if I don't get shut down by the network or somebody else, we really are going to ask very provocative and difficult questions of our guests.

G.B.: Who's your dream guest?

Ben Stein: I would love beyond words to have Bill Clinton as a guest. And I'll tell you why, may I? Because this is kind of interesting. I write for a very conservative magazine called the American Spectator. And I've written many a critical thing about Bill Clinton. Many critical things. My father died eight days ago, last Wednesday. My father was a famous man, and a great man. There were huge obituaries about him in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, which rarely has obituaries, and the New York Times, and at his funeral, President Clinton sent Larry Summers, Secretary of the Treasury, and Gene Sperling, the head of the Economic Policy Council, to the funeral, and sent along with them a personal letter from Bill and Hillary Clinton, telling me and my sister how much they respected my father even though he was a Republican, and how much they would miss his honest, above-party analysis of issues. And I think that was the classiest move I have ever seen in my life, and I don't think I will ever say another critical word about him. I am so humbled by what a classy gesture that was, I can't get quite get it out of my head. I was quite literally moved to tears by it and still am - I carry the letter around with me everywhere I go I'm so, so moved by it.

G.B.: So, Nixon vs. Clinton on Win Ben Stein's Money, who do you think would win?

Ben Stein: Oh, Nixon would kill him.

G.B.: If Turn Ben Stein On is a success, will we soon be seeing The Ben Stein Channel?

Ben Stein: Well, I'd like it if that happened, because I have a lot of other things I want to do: I want to do the Ben Stein sitcom, I want to do the Ben Stein detective show. I'd like to have a Ben Stein Dance Party - I think that would be a great, great show.

G.B.: You've been a lawyer, an economist, a White House speech writer, a screenwriter, a novelist, a columnist, a professor, an actor, a commercial pitchman, a gameshow host, and now a talkshow host - are you the Leonardo da Vinci of the Infotainment Age, or can you just not keep a job?

Ben Stein: That's right, I'm very, very restless, I have a lot of interests. And, I mean, Da Vinci did all the things he did peerlessly well. I do some of the things I do pretty well, but I'm not the best at any of the things I do. If I could just magically snap my fingers, I'd like to be a rockabilly singer like Jerry Lee Lewis was in the '50s. I have a huge love of sort of countrified, All-American girls, and I would love, love, love to have them outside my dressing room, waiting to just go home with me and do me.

G.B.: On that note, what's the major difference between Hollywood call girls and Capitol Hill call girls?

Ben Stein: Well, I want to tell you something, may I? I have only known a couple of call girls in Washington D.C. and they were positive dogs compared to the ones in Hollywood.

G.B.: On Monday nights you're at Morton's. Where are you on Tuesday nights?

Ben Stein: Tuesday nights, I'm often at Mr. Chow's, but not always. And there's another great place that's full of cute girls called Clafoutis, C-L-A-F-O-U-T-I-S, it's on Sunset Strip, it's just jammed with cute girls. On other nights I often eat in Malibu at a restaurant called Tradinoi, T-R-A-D-I-N-O-I. And then there's another place that's a real, for-real, if I may so, Malibu insider's place, very unpretentious, called Sbruzzo, S-B-R-U-Z-Z-O. But then a lot of nights I'm just at home having a bowl of soup or some cereal, or some roast beef or some ham with my son. I shouldn't say this in the period of the high holidays, but there are very few Jews in the world who like ham as much as I do.

G.B.: I've always thought you'd make a great Humbert Humbert.

Ben Stein: Oh, God, would I ever! You know me so well. How do you know me that well?

G.B.: Well, I did my research

Ben Stein: I do love little girls, but I don't love them that little. I like them, I'd say, early to mid-20s. I like them when they're twelve, but not for romantic or sexual interest.

G.B.: O.K., but if Gus Van Sant said he wanted to do a shot-by-shot remake of Adrian Lyne's Lolita, who would you like him to cast as your darling Lo?

Ben Stein: Oh, that's a very good question. Don't rush me, just let me think for a second. Um, thinking, thinking, thinking. Who is my favorite young starlet actress of all time? Thinking thinking thinking. Oh, of course! Christina Applegate. I love her. I worked on Married with Children once, and just fell madly in love with her. She's not only very pretty, but very smart, with a great sense of humor. She is wonderful! I have nothing but lavish praise - oh, and there's also that girl Winnie who was on the Wonder Years. She was wonderful too.

G.B.: How long before a gameshow host becomes President?

b>Ben Stein: It's not going to be me because I've got too many skeletons in my closet. I don't know who it's going to be, but it could be anytime now. It's not going to be Alex Trebek, because he's a Canadian. I don't think it's going to be Regis, because he's probably too old to run at this point. If I hadn't been a pot-smoking hippie and girl-chasing fiend in my middle years, I probably could have done it. I could have been the first Jewish vice-president if I didn't like girls more than the fame.

-- G. Beato

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