(Back in the days before every entrepreneur with seed money and an idea for a really outrageous TV commercial decided to start an e-commerce site, there was Traffic. And on Traffic, there was "The Tesh Files." Now, it lives again.)
THE TESH FILES
Planet Tesh (December 1995)
For millions of Americans, John Tesh is a daily fact of life. Every weeknight at 7:30 he appears on our TV screens, blow-dried and Armanied, poised to deliver the latest Hollywood news and gossip. His resonant baritone is like a gong signaling the end of the work day and the beginning of weeknight leisure, a long evening on the couch in front of the Trinitron.
In his role as E.T. anchorman, Tesh serves as a kind of human conjunction. The vertiginous swirl of blockbuster movie openings, courtroom soap operas, pop royalty weddings, coffee-table book signings, and model-garnished charity benefits that make up today's mediasphere acquire a sense of continuity when Tesh--golden beacon of mellifluous calm--relates them to us. With the continuity that Tesh provides, there comes a crucial sense of comfort, a feeling that despite the constant implosions, percolations, mutations, and make-overs that fuel our meta-media culture, there is yet order in the world.
Walter Cronkite became a national monument for his ability to make the complex events of his times seem comprehendable. Dan Rather and his competitors Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings each earn millions of dollars, the public's trust, and journalism's highest awards for their ability to do the same.
But what of Tesh?
On the air for over nine years as E.T.'s anchor, he has broadcast approximately 10,000 entertainment news stories to the nation. And yet, his harder-than-it-looks ability to segue smoothly from an account of a has-been child-actor's arrest to a promo for Danielle Steele's latest miniseries to a behind-the-scenes look at Arnold Schwarzeneggar exercising his flinch-inducing charm upon unsuspecting scribes at a Hollywood press junket has rewarded him, mainly, it seems, with scorn...
In part, this is due to the territory he covers. Entertainment journalism, though it continues to occupy a greater and greater time slice of most traditional newscasts, is still not regarded as a serious pursuit. In addition, there is the matter of Tesh's appearance. Admittedly, he lacks the presidential cragginess of Rather, the shrewd-but-approachable demeanor of Brokaw, or even the crusader-zealousness of Geraldo Rivera. When people see Tesh's blonde hair, his orangish, make-upy tan and teeth the color of radioactive snow, they immediately discount his intellectual abilities and attribute his position as the Founding Father of infotainment to the favorable way TV studio lighting models the generous contours of his face.
Even so, it's not his looks, but his manner, that does the greatest damage to his credibility. Every successful TV personality exhibits one variety of smoothness or another: even "real people" like TV Nation's Michael Moore or willfully abrasive ones like Howard Stern keep the words and images flowing in a way that your local cable-access doofus simply cannot approximate. Tesh, however, is pure cathode margarine. He blends seamlessly into the television landscape. His voice is pleasingly authoritative, but emotion, and even perspective, are absent from it. More than anything, Tesh has a kind of numbing affability. In his easy grin and opinion-free commentary, one senses a facile hand-shaker, a protean careerist adopting guise after convenient guise in his obtusely ambitious, blandly obsessive pursuit of Show Business Success.
But can he really be dismissed so easily? While at first glance Tesh may indeed appear as flat as the television screens that project him into our consciousness, the man has real, multi-faceted, undeniable depth. It's not for nothing that his most die-hard fans refer to him as the Vanilla Volcano. One way to gauge his impact on our lives is to ask yourself if you can come up with the name of the guy--a kind of brunette Tesh wannabe--who fills in for John on his days off.
To get an even more accurate measure of Tesh's depth, consider his resume. During the last decade, Tesh has worked as an anchorman, a composer, a sports commentator, an infomercial pitchman, a record label president, and even an actor. Even more than Madonna, Tesh is a post-modern Da Vinci; Camille Paglia probably writes raunchy schoolgirl love letters to him while plotting ways to off that phony goody-good Connie.
So what if much of Tesh's music sounds like the soundtrack to a not-very-good corporate slideshow? So what if he freely admits that his bosses at Entertainment Tonight have legally ensured their right to fire him in case of facial disfigurement. Or that his performance as a Klingon in Star Trek: The Next Generation failed to put him up for roles against Tom Hanks or Robert DeNiro, or even James Belushi? Has Phillip Glass ever announced Olympic gymnastics? Has Dan Rather done an infomercial? Can Robert DeNiro even carry a tune?
Clearly, Tesh is the man. The more you learn about him, the more fascinating he becomes. At 43 years old, he seems to be just hitting his stride. In the last two years, he has released a handful of new CDs, doggedly promoted his Live at Red Rocks videotape extravaganza via a vast network of small-town PBS stations, and embarked on several other media-related projects...all while performing his Entertainment Tonight duties with his usual friendly-robot professionalism.
What does the future hold for Tesh? Who can predict in which arena this entertainment visionary will next set foot? Perhaps TeshWear, a line of expertly tailored blazers in bright Disneyland guard-uniform colors, like the kind the guys in his band at Red Rocks were sporting. Or maybe a career in politics. After all, wasn't Ronald Reagan--in his pre-politico years as a sports announcer, mediocre actor, and RCA pitchman--the Tesh of his times?
I, for one, am betting on Tesh-themed restaurants. Just imagine it--fake sand on the floors, E.T. playing soundlessly on big-screen monitors while huge speakers pump out Emmy-award-winning Tesh tunes in all their calisthenic grandeur. And in the middle of the place, the restaurant's real show-stopper, the gimmick that will push it past the Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, and every other celebrity restaurant in the universe: a twenty-foot high plastic dessert volcano, spectacularly spewing complimentary soft-serve vanilla ice cream for all.
Don't Quote Me on That (January 1996)
It's not easy being Tesh.
And lately, it seems as if the never-ending demands of his multimedia, super-accelerated celebrity lifestyle are taking a toll on him.
Turn on your TV, switch the channel to Entertainment Tonight, and you might disagree. Behind the E.T. desk, flanked by the pharmacologically perky Mary Hart, Tesh looks as seamless as a computer simulation, a kind of version 5.0 Max Headroom: smoother mouth movement, more realistic-looking skin. His smallish eyes are bright and focused. The collar of his shirt is crisp. His fine blonde hair falls across his forehead in an obedient-but-casual swoop.
But image is Tesh's forte. You can concoct the worst nightmare scenarios--has-been has-been Gary Coleman hidden beneath the E.T. desk, say, sawing feverishly at Tesh's legs with a dull pair of scissors--and still imagine the unflappable anchorguy delivering the latest entertainment newz without flinch or stutter.
To get a true measure of Tesh's psyche, you must study him without the reassuring distraction of his visual presence. Fortunately, there have been a number of magazine articles about him in recent months, each one featuring at least several direct quotes. And when you study these quotes--the innermost workings of the Tesh mind, depicted simply as words on paper, without the mediating influence of his blandly handsome facade--a somewhat alarming portrait emerges.
The first, relatively innocuous brushstrokes of this portrait can be found in the August 1995 issue of Spin. Commenting on the people who criticize his music, Tesh says, "It's not like I have a fuck-you attitude to anybody who doesn't believe, it's more like I have a thank-you attitude to those who do." At another point in the interview, while he is recounting his past in a rock and roll cover band, he advises his interviewer that such a gig is "the only way to get laid, by the way."
Given the accelerating crassness that characterizes celebrity discourse, neither comment is exceptional. And yet, they linger in the mind. The "fuck-you" sentiment of the first quote is so even-toned it belies the casualness with which it is tossed out. And in the second quote, the ridiculously presumptive "only" and the off-the-cuff "by the way" are similarly mannered. Clearly, this is the voice of a man who, in a clumsy bid to appear hip, is dressing up his vocabulary with unfamiliar vulgarisms.
And who can blame him, really?
It must be hard bearing the contempt of a thousand lazy critics, each one seeking the biggest, easiest, most obvious target available. Tesh must wonder why critiques of his work so often turn personal. If a critic doesn't like a Springsteen album, that's generally as far as it goes--the music. But with Tesh, it's different. They criticize him. They criticize his fans. They criticize everything they say he represents. But, really, he's just like Springsteen--a guy who loves to make music. A guy who works hard at it.
And all he wants, it seems, is a little acceptance. A little understanding. Not even respect, really. Just a little understanding. An acknowledgement that while his particular brand of bombastic background music is perhaps not everyone's cup of tea, that doesn't necessarily mean that he should serve as the pet fool of hip culture arbiters everywhere.
The risks of toadying to such arbiters are twofold, however: one, they will interpret his heavy-handed attempts at "coolness" as simply a very bad implementation of their own studied posturings, and their contempt for him, fueled by the realization that he's not so different from them after all, will multiply exponentially. And two, he may acquire a habit he finds hard to break.
Indeed, the latter already seems to be happening. In a GQ article also published in August 1995, Tesh's tendency for making the inappropriate remark escalates noticeably. Consider the following excerpt from that article, wherein the author relates a behind-the-scenes exchange at an E.T. taping:
Mary lowers her voice...and declares, "The daughter of Marlon Brando was only 25 when she hung herself on Easter Sunday."
A disembodied voice from the control room shouts, "It's hanged."
"Does it really matter?" someone else on the set asks. "Can't it be hanged or hung?"
Tesh stands up, points to his crotch. "It's gotta be hanged," he says. "I'm hung. She hanged."
Elsewhere in the article, Tesh proves that this mind-boggling exclamation of tastelessness is no fluke by offering some frat-boyish thoughts on fatherhood: "Well, it hasn't helped with the sex life. I get no time on the breasts anymore, 'cause the baby's always there."
The sheer boorishness of these exclamations--especially the first one, given its context--indicates something pathological at work. Such expressions may have started as a rational attempt on Tesh's part to cultivate a new "hip" persona, but he seems to have lost control over his ability to monitor himself. It's as if Howdy Doody has suddenly turned into Andrew Dice Clay.
And it's only getting worse.
In the December 4th, 1995 issue of People, Tesh goes beyond boorishness into a new realm of strangeness. Explaining the thrill he gets while performing, he says, "It is like I've taken my penis and laid it on the piano and there's a big chopper right there..."
The ellipsis which ends that sentence is the springboard for hours of amateur Freudian analysis, and yet, who but Tesh can say what happens next? There's a big chopper right there, and then he starts to play, and then what, John?
Tesh doesn't provide an answer, because even he probably doesn't know what happens next. You get the feeling the words just popped out of his mouth before he even realized what he was saying. (Such fantasies do explain that funny, fixed grin he gets on his face while performing, however.)
There's a medical term for the urge to utter this kind of irrational, spontaneous, inappropriate remark: coprolalia. It is a common symptom of Tourette Syndrome, a favorite subject of talk shows because of the freakish, televisually compelling behaviours its sufferers display: they swear like Hollywood producers, they make inappropriate remarks, they exhibit a varied assortment of tics and twitches.
While it's highly unlikely that Tesh has Tourette Syndrome--it is a hereditary, neurological condition that generally first appears in childhood--it seems that Tesh might be suffering from some kind of media-induced approximation of it.
This may sound a little far-fetched, but it's not without precedent. Consider the sad saga of Michael Jackson. His case is somewhat different from Tesh's, in that there was a time when he did experience mass critical approval. But that was over a decade ago. In more recent years, he has been regarded as increasingly passe: too safe, too schlocky, too square.
In response to this perception, Jackson tried to recast himself as a still-contemporary figure, just as "bad" and "dangerous" as the new breed of gangsta rappers who had grown so popular while his own star had faded. In public performances, Jackson began to grab his crotch incessantly, compulsively. The public objected--if anything, his antics were making him less popular--and still he persisted. The music would start, and that overwhelming, undeniable urge would overtake him. What started as a calculated attempt to curry public favor became an uncontrollable affliction, and perhaps the first sign that Jackson's state of mind--which has never been particularly stable--was worsening.
Now, I'm not saying Tesh is doomed to a future of pedophiliac lawsuits and mysterious mid-rehearsal collapses. But perhaps the people who are closest to him--Connie? Yanni? Are you reading this?--should take him aside and suggest he seek help...
Early intervention may avert future catastrophes.
Ubiquity (February 1996)
Of course, Budweiser does spend $500 million a year promoting its brands; with that much cash fueling your efforts, it may indeed be possible to saturate the mediasphere to such an extent that logo sightings every waking half hour are the norm.
Also, like most statistics, the 30 times a day figure--so remarkable in its initial improbability, so shorn of context--devolves into greater likelihood upon prolonged consideration: if you get a really good look at a case of Bud, that counts as 24 sightings, right? And how about those Bud logos you see more than once a day? The billboard you pass on your way to and from your job, the TV commercial that plays at every break during a football game, the Bud T-shirt your roommate is wearing or the Bud keychain in your own pocket: each "instance" counts as one toward your daily total. Throw in a few more sightings--Budweiser delivery trucks, Bud litter on the side of the road--and the 30-times-a-day figure begins to seem more plausible. Conservative even. 50 times a day might be more like it.
In comparison, Tesh seems positively elusive--even on a day when fortune, time, and pervasive media access are on your side.
Indeed, imagine such a day: you might see Tesh on Entertainment Tonight (an increasingly unlikely proposition), you might see him on an E.T. promo, you might even see him on one of those department store commercials he does from time to time. If you're really lucky, you'll catch the Murphy Brown and Star Trek: Next Generation reruns in which His Bland Eminence appeared. His infomercial no longer seems to be airing, but true Tesh fans have it on tape, so we'll add it to the list--that's six sightings so far.
To this total, add four random newspaper or magazine sightings. Tesh appears in print frequently: in TV section ads for E.T., pitching products for various advertisers, and as the subject of numerous interviews and articles. The Web is another reliable source for sightings: Open Text or Alta Vista are always good for a new Tesh page or two. In addition, there's your Tesh multimedia archive to browse: the interactive Backstage with Tesh CD-ROM, the Live at Red Rocks videotape, the music CDs: Sax on the Beach, Winter Song, Garden City, Ironman...Exactly how many of these there are in existence I'm not quite sure--definitely over 10, possibly as many as 20 if you include the storied first mail-order cassettes and the alleged bootlegs. For the purposes of this experiment, I'll say there are 15; that brings the total number of sightings to 29.
Which means, of course, that on any random day, without even trying, you will see the Bud logo more often than you will see Tesh, even when you're deliberately seeking him out.
Needless to say, when I first started dwelling on this fact a few weeks ago, I was more than a little shaken. Compared to Budweiser, the Human Screen-Saver no longer seemed the post-modern totem of ubiquity I had once imagined him to be. I began to wonder if Tesh had suddenly turned passe, if in keeping my attention so keenly focused on him I was overlooking the arrival of some new, more significant multi-tasker. Maybe this really isn't the Age of Tesh, I fretted. Maybe it's the Age of Shaquille O'Neal or Greg Kinnear.
And then I received an e-mail from Paul Kedrosky that set things right again.
Kedrosky is a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario. During the course of his studies there, he recently discovered a somewhat astonishing media trend that I have subsequently christened Kedrosky's Law. In short, his search of North American newspapers using the Lexis-Nexis database revealed that since 1985 the annual number of Tesh citings has been rising at a dramatic rate. In the words of Mr. Kedrosky: "Graphing these numbers produces a harrowing shape: a classic geometric curve--Tesh articles are now doubling every year." In just over a decade, the annual number of Tesh citings has gone from 6 to almost 1000.
Using this current rate of growth to make projections for future years, Kedrosky demonstrates that by 2001, there will be enough Tesh articles to fill a newspaper the size of the New York Times every day of the entire year. And by 2012, every major newspaper in North America will follow suit: 365 days a year, 1794 newspapers, all devoted entirely to Tesh.
It is a remarkable proposition, yes, but the cold hard data backs it up:
As Kedrosky's Law works toward its inexorable end, decimating the media ecology as we now know it, a violent Tesh backlash will undoubtedly occur: celebrities of all magnitude will grow embittered as the Vanilla Volcano usurps their fame; unable to cope with their Tesh-accelerated obscurity, once-prominent media sluts might even go so far as to attempt an assassination. Word of caution to Tesh: Beware of Quentin Tarantino.
But where some fear disenfranchisement, others see opportunity. Already there are rumours of a Tesh-Microsoft alliance; sources say that Bill Gates is personally courting The King of the Keybored with offers of his own online network, TeshWorld. And Traffic, ever-quick to transform the media trend of the future into today's content, is proud to announce that it will be the first periodical--online or otherwise--to adopt an all-Tesh format. A prototype is now in development.
King of All Media (March 1996)
Can you blame me?
After all, the statistics showed what I had long suspected: Tesh, like some super-malignant strain of kudzu vine, was fast establishing strongholds in every sector of the mediasphere. Soon, he would achieve a state of bland, basso profundo ubiquity.
In response to this news, I did two things:
First, I promised to switch Traffic to an all-Tesh format. (Watch for future developments.)
Second, I started a campaign to officially coronate the Human Screensaver as The King of New Media. The forum where I chose to launch this campaign was a bulletin board at People; the subject of the board was Royalty. There, I created a new topic and posted the following message:
I expected an enthusiastic response. I expected hints from pop royalty protocol buffs. Offers to help the cause, vows of solidarity. Perhaps even donations.
Instead, I got indifference.
For over a month, not one person replied. And then, finally, after thirty-five days of soul-eroding disinterest, S. Thorp offered an opinion:
Clearly, the Tesh coronation campaign is going nowhere.
I probably could have lived with this failure, except that on the same day that I read S. Thorp's message, I also happened to read a past installment of the Netly News. The topic for that article: whether or not Howard Stern qualified as the King of New Media. Apparently, Stern has for several years been calling himself the King of All Media because of his success in radio, TV, and publishing; the author of the Netly News article wanted to find out if Stern's enormous popularity in those mediums had carried over to the Web as well...
And, indeed, it has.
According to that article, there are over 20,000 pages on the Web that refer to Stern. And there are many sites devoted to Stern exclusively. In comparison, Traffic is the only site on the Web (as far as I know) that offers Tesh information on a regular basis.
So maybe Stern is indeed The King of All Media.
Sure, Stern gave himself this sobriquet, but it has stuck. First his legion of fans began to use it, and now, even impartial journalists frequently refer to him as such. But even with first-use and the support of his fans, I have to wonder: does Stern really deserve the title? And if he doesn't, perhaps Tesh might assume it; after all, it is quite similar to the one I had originally sought for him. Sometimes it's simply easier to depose an already established despot than to establish sovereignty from scratch...
Obviously, I'm not a big Stern fan. If I were, I would have known that he calls himself the King of All Media. So to find out if his crown was indeed vulnerable to assault, I had to take a crash course in his controversial world of post-vaudeville irreverence and debauchery. Thus, for the last several weeks I've been watching his TV show on E! and checking out many Stern pages and FAQs here on the Web. I also read his book Private Parts. This is what I found...
Tesh vs. Stern
Nonetheless, in each there is an element of the other. Tesh's penchant for the oddly crude verbal outburst has been well-documented. And Stern, on the occasions he's able to transcend his volatile insecurity, is capable of Tesh-like complaisance.
There are other similarities as well. They were both born and raised in New York. They're both in their early forties and both exceptionally tall--Tesh is 6' 6", Stern an inch shorter. They both began their broadcasting careers while still in college, and met with early--and progressively greater--success. They also both appear to be workaholics.
In a way, it's an almost mythic confrontation. The Good Son and the Bad Son. Two trains running...
The King's List
Formal requirements for this position don't seem to exist, so let me suggest a provisional King's List. The first requirement is obvious enough: you must produce content in several different mediums. Second, you must demonstrate a certain level of expertise and innovation in each of the mediums in which you work. (Without this requirement, the field would be too crowded: even actor/shouter/restaurateur Bruce Willis could potentially vie for the crown.) Third, your efforts should garner substantial popular acclaim. Fourth, you must exhibit uncommon charisma, surpassing the usual celebrity veneration and inspiring something akin to religious fervor.
Stern certainly meets the List's first requirement: in addition to his radio show, his TV show, and his two books, he has created videotapes, pay-per-view cable specials, and a wide range of collector-oriented merchandise. A movie version of Private Parts is also in the works.
The List's third requirement poses no challenge to Stern either. His popularity is immense: his radio show has millions of devoted listeners, both of his books set sales records for their respective publishers, and whenever he makes a personal appearance, he draws rabid, record crowds.
The List's second and fourth requirements are more problematic, however. At first glance, Stern seems to fulfill them, but if you consider them closely, doubts arise.
Has Stern mastered more than one medium? Stern is, without question, talented. To begin with, he is a pure media animal. Like Rush Limbaugh or Camille Paglia, he has an instinct for finding whatever it is about a subject that makes it compelling, and then exploiting that aspect of it.
Personal ideology never hampers him; his only concern is whether or not something is "great radio." Indeed, it sometimes seems as if he goes through the motions of having a life outside his D.J. booth simply to accumulate experience he can later strip-mine for his show.
Stern also demonstrates an uncanny knack for converting every aspect of his personality--his faults as well as his strengths--into media assets. Consider his homophobia, for example. Even though he tempers it with blue-balls paeans to "lesbians" and rhetorical declarations of mechanical tolerance--"I will defend to the death the right of any man to insert his penis anywhere"--it's still homophobia. And it endears him to his audience, which despite its T & A obsessions, is at heart, sexually reactionary. His xenophobia and "I'm-just-stating-facts" racism work the same way. He may not be a great humanitarian, or even passably empathetic, but he does voice opinions that many people apparently dream of voicing; in doing so, he compels both fans and detractors to tune their radios to him.
In addition to his general media savvy, Stern is an extremely effective interviewer. He asks funny, embarrassing, inventive questions. He is a remarkably intuitive wheedler, with uncommon persistance. His rapid-fire interrogations--punctuated with his own candid disclosures--create a surreal atmosphere in his studio; in its best moments, his show is like a private game of Truth or Dare played out to an audience of millions. Reluctant to be seen as party poopers, his subjects go along with him, and end up saying things they would never admit to anyone else. If anyone could get O.J. to confess, it is Stern; Fred Goldman should have retained him for the civil suit.
Finally, Stern is a skilled social satirist. He has his moments of incongruous piety, but for the most part, he skewers anyone careless enough to expose their vanities in public. He knows how to spot phonies and hypocrites, and he rarely lets self-interest, compassion, or good taste interfere with his observations. Rape, the fatal car accident of a good friend, even his wife's miscarriage...all of these have been targets for his satire.
But despite his many talents, what prevents Stern from meeting the second requirement of the King of All Media crown is the repetitive nature of his output. His TV show is a visual duplicate of his radio show; his books are essentially transcriptions of it. In TV and publishing, then, his success derives not from any expertise he's shown in creating content tailored to the particular qualities of these mediums, but rather, from his overwhelming popularity as a radio personality. In addition, Stern's reputation as an innovator is somewhat overblown. While his blunt manner, his sexually explicit content, and his long-running troubles with the FCC have led some people to compare him to Lenny Bruce, that analogy doesn't really hold up. Bruce was a man ahead of his time, Stern is simply a product of his. Bruce taught people to look at the world in a new, more honest way; to some degree, Stern carries on this tradition, but his students have had far more prior instruction than Bruce's ever did, so the challenge isn't as great. And for the most part, instead of trying to enlighten his audience, Stern is content to merely grab their attention by pandering to their horny, rebellious nature...
A messianic figure? Currently, Stern more than fulfills the fourth requirement on the King's List; to his millions of fans, he is a messianic figure. His show orders their day, it provides them with a sense of community and purpose. Indeed, many of his fans are as loyal as B-movie zombies--ready to do his bidding at a moment's notice. They harass celebrities he's feuding with, they wait in lines for hours for the chance to have him autograph their breasts and butts, they transcribe every word of his marathon radio shows.
But their devotion, extreme as it is, rests on an illusion that is growing ever more transparent. Stern's fans worship him because they believe that he is one of them. Yes, he moves in a world of celebrity and privilege, a world the typical Stern fan is not allowed to enter, but he does so as their proxy. Stern is the Outsider, a plain-talking regular guy crashing the exclusive domain of American Celebrityhood.
As long as he can maintain this masquerade, his fans will support him.
But Stern isn't a regular guy, content to bullshit with the fellas at the local bar. If he were, that's where he'd be. Instead, Stern is a successful celebrity--more ambitious than a regular guy, more talented, and harder-working. He is a successful celebrity, and as he spends more time with other successful celebrities, and grows more comfortable in that milieu of privilege and exclusion, he seems to be finding it increasingly difficult to maintain his non-celebrity drag. But he's trying, indeed, he's trying. First he was Fartman at the MTV Awards, now he's a big, gawky cross-dresser: anything to remain the Outsider, the Rebel.
And, of course, there's his much-trumpeted "faithfulness" to his wife. At best, this "faithfulness" is tenuous. Stern routinely ogles, fondles, spanks, paints, shaves, and verbally fucks a Felliniesque procession of strippers, whores, starlets, bimbos, groupies, and horny Long Island housewives. If, after all this, Stern is not an adulterer, then he is not an adulterer in the same way that Charles Manson is, technically, not a killer. But put issues of semantics and intent aside for a moment; here's the real question: who is Stern being faithful to? Can he really believe that his wife feels O.K. about his habitual transgressions because he hasn't actually left any semen in some extra-marital orifice? Of course not. Stern's faithfulness is not directed toward his wife, but toward his fans. The moment he actually penetrates one of the beauties who visit his show, he will set himself apart from them. They can identify with his unfulfilled masturbatory panting, because they're in the same position: looking, wanting, but unable to actually partake.
But actual penetration? That's for celebrities. If Stern ever loses his self-control, he'll start to lose his fans as well.
A contender for the crown In contrast to Stern, Tesh unequivocally meets the four requirements of the King's List. First, he works in several different mediums. Second, his work in each medium is distinct. Unlike Stern, who simply repurposes his radio show to fit TV and publishing formats, Tesh creates original material for each new medium: his music is different from his anchorguy work, which in turn is different from his sporting event commentary. Throw in his acting and his infomercial hosting, and it becomes quite apparent that Tesh's ouvre is much more diverse than Stern's.
Tesh has also earned a reputation as an innovator. His work on E.T. helped pioneer the infotainment genre; his music, a pleasantly soporofic cocktail of new age, jazz, and classical, is so distinct that music store clerks sometimes have trouble figuring out where to shelve it. Indeed, a few stores have simply created a whole new category--TeshZak--for it and the many imitations that have appeared in the wake of its success.
Like Stern, Tesh enjoys widespread popularity. Millions watch him on E.T. every night, his CDs and Red Rocks videotape are best-sellers, his concerts sell out within hours, and his shopping channel appearances have resulted in record sales. And even though he suffers a reputation as the critic's whipping boy, he has the hardware to prove otherwise: several Emmys for his sporting event soundtrack work.
Finally, Tesh has the uncommon charisma it takes to wear the King of All Media crown. His sway over his fans is not as immediately apparent as Stern's, perhaps, but that's only because Tesh's fans are more polite, and he, more restrained. Should he suddenly develop a breast-signing fetish, you can bet a line would form quickly.
And unlike Stern, Tesh's appeal isn't founded on a hard-to-maintain illusion. People like Tesh because he exists on an elevated plane: he's a media Uberman, smoother and more self-assured than the average person, extra-large, percolating with ambition and talent. At the same time, he's eminently approachable, someone people feel they can relate to and trust. In addition, he doesn't take himself too seriously, or rage and sputter about critical slights and injustices. He just does his work, grateful for the attention his audience pays him. In the face of his consistent affability and low-key self-determination, even his critics eventually become admirers.
Indeed, at this point, it's hard to see how Tesh might jeapordize his popularity. As I noted in an earlier Tesh Files, his increasing tendency to make the off-color non-sequitar might alienate some of his more straitlaced fans, but it will probably enlist new ones as well.
A threat, acknowledged
Conspiracy theorists speculate that Stern's enmity springs from long-simmering carnal jealousy: Tesh, they assert, is the Mystery Man whose facile ministrations whipped Stern's wife Allison, in her pre-hausfrau days, into such erotic frenzy that she engaged in certain acts of sexual variance to which she has never again consented--even after two decades of clumsy connubial grappling with Stern. While this theory has a satisfying ironic plausibility, it's more likely that Stern simply recognizes Tesh for what he is: the primary threat to his throne.
Sensing his own imminent capitulation, Stern falls back on the traditional weapons of penultimate defeat: ridicule and invective. But really, it's only a matter of time. As the Tesh juggernaut accelerates, Stern will ultimately resort to squirmy genuflection, the last gasp of the vanquished. Tesh, nice guy that he is, will probably show him mercy.
The King is dead. Long live the King.
Call Me Tesh (April 1996)
Tesh's autobiography is due out soon--and it's impossible not to wonder: what will his Defining Moment be? Waiting for elevators, stalled in morning traffic, I find myself contemplating the possibilities. Maybe it will be the time he received the first order for his self-produced Tour de France soundtrack cassette: that was certainly a significant incident, with its portent of a full-fledged musical career and its valence of canny self-promotion. (The cassette did not actually exist yet; to see if anyone would buy it, Tesh advertised its availability in a bicycling magazine.) But maybe it will be some other time, some mild humiliation resulting from his role as E.T.'s host, narrated with gracious self-deprecation to convey the limits that come mixed with the perks of newz-guy eminence.
Or maybe Tesh will break with tradition and not even include a Defining Moment at all.
This seems unlikely, however. The rules that govern celebrity autobiographies may not exist in exacting, user-manual detail--as they supposedly do for Harlequin romances--but they are generally observed. Why this is I don't know. It's possible that stars, tentative in their new roles as authors, simply look to previous books for an easy model to follow. It could also be that celebrity has become such a conventional, insular occupation these days that all celebrity lives--regardless of the spin a specific talent inheres them with--end up sounding the same. Or maybe it's just that fans simply demand the same story over and over and over.
In any case, most celebrity autobiographies, because of their similarity, are immediately forgettable: a chronological march through early ambition, the lonely perfection of one's art, professional success, boredom, crises of various sorts (infidelity, substance abuse, and self-doubt are the usual trinity), and then, as the final act, the resurrection of ambition and the first bloom of self-acceptance. It doesn't help that celebrity autobiography prose is most often of the plain, leaden, serviceable variety that springs from workaday journalism; when I finish reading these plodding compendiums of fact, I generally feel as though I've just watched someone try to fashion a cow out of leather jackets and hamburgers.
On rare occasions, however, a celebrity autobiography does suggest the unique qualities of its subject: two notable examples are Klaus Kinski's All I Need Is Love and Chuck Barris' Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
In the former, Kinski forsakes generic celebrity prose for a lurid, monotonous expressionism: in his eyes, the primary elements that compose the world are shit, semen, blood, hunger, pus, and the occasional virgin. You may not like the puking, spitting, overwraught satyr by the end of his story, but at least you feel as though you know him. In Confessions, Barris chooses to dispense with "fact" altogether to get to the truth of his life: purportedly, his career as a gameshow producer and host was merely a cover for his true role as CIA hitman. Throughout the course of Confessions, Barris makes this possibility sound entirely plausible; the conceit clearly demonstrates the prankish genius that led to such triumphs as The Gong Show, and thus, does more to impart the essential qualities of the man than an encyclopedia of more verifiable details ever could.
Despite his many quirks and his own prankish nature, it seems unlikely that Tesh will give us something as illuminating as the works of Kinski and Barris. The Bland One has an extremely strong need to please, and in matters of formal public record, it always seems to quash the more irreverent aspects of his personality. Couple his inherently ingratiating nature with his conception of himself as a regular guy, and you have a recipe for literary boredom.
Anticipating such fare, and half-remembering the tiny galaxy of dull star memoirs I've read over the years, I wonder why so many celebrities take the trouble to publish such uninspired, conventional accounts of their lives. For some down-on-their-luck types, money is undoubtedly an incentive. But many celebrity autobiographers, Tesh included, already rest on millions: can the extra fluff of a few hundred grand make any difference?
And if it's not money that lubricates the muse, then what is it? I don't think it's vanity; if it were, celebrity prose wouldn't be so generic: the authors would craft their stories (or have them crafted) with more flair. What drives them, I think, is vanity's incestuous sibling: insecurity. Modern media has glutted us with fame, but in a way, it's more precious than ever because the market for it has grown so volatile. In a famous-for-fifteen-minutes culture, a boring autobiography is a way to preserve the amphetamine rush of one's faded renown. "Once I was so compelling to strangers," the celebrity author can exhort, "they hungered even for the plainest details of my life."
Regardless of motivation, the task of actually writing a celebrity autobiography is one that generally falls outside the province of the "author's" responsibilities. Which really is as it should be. Self-penned autobiographies, celebrity or otherwise, are often the worst place to find out about a person: because the author has actually lived the events he describes, he labors under the assumption that he has some special insight about them. Only in rare instances is this ever the case, however. True insight requires distance, a perspective that can put things in the proper context. This is especially true when it comes to celebrities. After all, their primary attraction isn't their actual lives, but rather, what we, the common people, dream their lives must be like. It's no coincidence that what is often cited as the best celebrity biography ever written, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes, is one in which the author, David Thomson, made no attempt at all to interview his subject.
Whether or not Tesh is working solo or with a collaborator on his book I don't know. In either case, it's clear he doesn't recognize the principle of distance as it applies to biography. Otherwise he would have left telling of his life to me.
Goodbye, E.T. (May 1996)
For months, rumours of his imminent departure have circulated, and still the news hits with unexpected force. It's a blow to the infotainment industry, to millions of E.T. fans, and, of course, to the Tesh Files. In forsaking the consistent telepresence of daily syndication for the more low-profile life of full-time snoozician, Tesh seriously weakens the ubiquity that made him such a perfect emblem for these media-saturated times.
May 31 will be a sad day indeed.
Of course, that sadness is tempered somewhat by the news of Tesh's 50-date concert tour this summer. He's calling it the Undiscovered America Tour; it starts in Chicago on June 12 and ends sixteen weeks later at the Starwood Amphitheatre in Nashville. What exactly is "undiscovered" about cities like Chicago or Nashville, or about Tesh himself, is a little unclear at this point. A promotional photo that accompanies the tour schedule does show the Bland One dressed all in black, sporting a turned-around baseball cap and a pair of aviator-style sunglasses; perhaps this is supposed to lend him an anonymous, "undiscovered" appearance. Unfortunately, it mostly makes him look like a star-high-school-fullback-turned-gas-station-attendant, the kind of guy who bores every customer with stories of his old exploits. Perhaps a better name for Tesh's summer caravan would have been the "Yeah, It's Me Tesh Again" tour.
For those dreading life without a daily dose of cathode Tesh, there is a slight consolation: the Human Screensaver will appear on TV for a few weeks this summer when he reprises his role as anchor for NBC's Olympics gymnastics coverage. It's always entertaining to watch Tesh cover a sporting event; athletes inspire in him an oleogenous reverence that the typical movie star interview just didn't seem to provoke anymore: his voice takes on a hushed weightiness that's as remarkable in its grace and economy as the kicks, splits, and tumbles of any Olympic gymnast.
I was disappointed, however, to learn that Tesh will interrupt his concert tour during the Olympics to give complete attention to his broadcast duties. It's just another example of his new singleness of purpose. Of course, there's always the chance he'll debut some new music for the event: his past sports soundtracks have been amongst his most popular work. (His scores for the 1987 Tour de France and the 1983 Pan American Games both won Emmys.) If Tesh were commissioned to compose background filler for Olympics gymnastics, one can only imagine that he would respond with something suitably bombastic; hopefully, NBC has retained him for these services as well.
At this point, true devotees of the Vanilla Volcano are probably thinking: "O.K., great, the summer's covered. I'll see him on TV for the Olympics, I'll check out his concert when he comes to town. But what about the fall? What then? I want my Tesh!"
It's a fair question, and up until a couple days, I wouldn't have had a sufficient answer. But then I discovered something that made me realize what I--alleged Tesh expert and erstwhile biographer--should have already known: Tesh is always one step ahead of the pack. Always. The discovery that led to this realization? www.tesh.com.
Suddenly, his decision to leave E.T. seems so much clearer. It's not that he wants to rescind the mediasphere ubiquity he's achieved via E.T.; he simply recognizes that television is a dying medium. The Web represents the future, and thus Tesh will now focus the majority of his promotional energy here. His site isn't exactly groundbreaking, but then again, how many celebrities actually have their own URL? And even though the content is somewhat skimpy now, it does boast a few nice touches. You can, for example, listen to a RealAudio clip of Tesh's music or download a Red Rocks video clip. And of course you can purchase all his CDs, as well as Tesh t-shirts, mouse pads, and even a Tesh screensaver. Personally, I think screensavers are the true growth area for Tesh memorabilia, and predict that www.tesh.com will soon start offering a whole slew of them. Indeed, I can even imagine www.tesh.com establishing a new, subscription-based service: soothing TeshMusic and imagery constantly piped into one's computer. They could call it TeshCast. With such compelling opportunities lying ahead of him, it's no wonder Tesh decided to leave E.T. at this time.
Given that Tesh wears size 14 1/2 shoes, E.T.'s producers will undoubtedly have a hard time filling them. Like Jerry Garcia, Tesh seems fairly irreplaceable; it would be a fitting tribute to his impact on the infotainment world if his former bosses simply chose to leave his chair behind the E.T. anchordesk empty forever after. But apparently he'll receive no such respect. Already the rumour is that Bob Goen, E.T. weekend anchor, will take over Tesh's duties full-time.
While Goen has a somewhat Teshian pedigree--on the road to E.T., he's put in time as a DJ, reporter, and game show host--he's ultimately uncompelling. The fact that he once landed a modeling job for Bride magazine suggests the problem: he is little more than a lifesize version of the plastic groom that sits atop a wedding cake.
Before E.T. makes its final decision on the matter, I hope they'll at least consider some other candidates. If Tesh had quit a couple years ago, the obvious choice would have been Greg Kinnear, whose various TV hosting duties during the late 80s and early 90s had fixed him in the minds of the cathode cognoscenti as the thinking man's Tesh. But now Kinnear has his own network show and a burgeoning movie career, and is thus unavailable.
Another oft-considered candidate is Steve Kmetko. For years now, he's been vying for a spot in the E.T. universe, but the best he's managed to do is land a gig at E.T. facsimile, E! News Daily. Despite a kind of Marlboro Man by way of Newport Beach countenance, Kmetko has slightly less presence than those transparent cable channel logos that hover in the low corners of the TV screen, and questionable dimensionality. In researching this article, I could find no biographical information on him at all; it's possible he exists solely in the realm of TV. While a lack of depth is a detriment in the case of Goen, it is so pronounced in Kmetko that it becomes an asset. If Kmetko is indeed as devoid of resonance as he appears, he could be an intriguing replacement for Tesh.
I think that the best choice to replace Tesh, however, is Arsenio Hall. If he's still alive, that is. I haven't heard much about him in recent years, so I suppose it's possible he's left this vale of tears. But if he's still woofing, the E.T. producers should consider him. In appearance, he has the same cathode-friendly blandsomeness that Tesh has, and in manner, that same Pennzoil smoothness. Perhaps most importantly, he never seems hesitant or embarrassed to ask a fellow celebrity a really, really fawning question. To succeed in the infotainment business, you can't take yourself too seriously, and Hall seems to understand this. If Tesh were choosing a successor, I'm sure he'd give him the nod.
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