June 19, 2024

F is for Fake

I'll admit, on a good day, that I can be a little bit neurotic. Not crazy; I mean, it's a given that anyone who spends the amount of time watching and writing about old television shows has to be at least a little cracked, right? No, what I'm talking about is this deep-seated fear that, even though I've written about classic television for fifteen years and authored a book abut it, sooner or later I'm going to be unmasked as a poseur, a fraud, someone who isn't really the expert he pretends to be. 

Having talked with several of my fellow TV historians over the years, I've found that my insecurity isn't unusual; in fact, it seems to be something we all have in common, along with the love of shows that nobody else has ever heard of. This provides absolutely no consolation to me; after all, there's nothing that prevents multiple people from sharing the same neuroses, nor would it be out of the ordinary for us to congregate in the same places. It's something I've learned to live with, though. I suppose we all have our little hang-ups.

When I'm asked what I do, I generally reply that I'm a writer, as well as a TV historian. As the late novelist Paul Auster once said, "Writing is no longer an act of free will for me; it's a matter of survival." And when it comes to writing, let me tell you, I can massage the hell out of a sentence, revising it three or four (or a dozen or two) times, moving paragraphs here and there and working things to death until I'm satisfied. (The computer has been a great blessing in that sense.) Some pieces never completely satisfy me, but then, you can't always let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and sometimes you have to just let it go or give up on it altogether. 

I mention this because, as you probably know, I've been a guest on Dan Schneider's Video Interview regularly during the past couple of years. I have a great time with Dan; he's an excellent host, and our conversations are always enjoyable. But, at least for me, it's much easier to communicate knowledge and information through the written word rather than verbally. 

For example, looking back on the recent program we did about Mary Tyler Moore, at one point I'm talking as if, in addition to providing the shapely silhouette for Sam, the shadowy figure of Richard Diamond's answering service, she also supplied Sam's voice. Now, that's not the case, and I knew that; later on, I pointed that out more clearly. Now, if I had been writing the same thing, I would have reworked the paragraph over and over (as I have in writing this paragraph) until it said exactly what I meant. You don't get the chance to do that when you're working in a "live" medium, unless you're able to edit and reedit the tape, which we don't.

I don't know how many people are truly comfortable in the video and audio worlds, but to be even passably competent, you have to have a fleetness of mind, a nimble way an easy way of thinking that enables you to self-edit as you go along, and the ability to segue from one topic to another without falling flat on your face. And there's no question, as far as I'm concerned, that I'm not nearly as nimble in that respect as I used to be. Words and thoughts don't come as quickly or easily as they used to, and they don't flow as smoothly as they once did. It doesn't concern me in the bigger picture; it's called getting old (deal with it!) and it happens to everyone. 

But it frustrates me that I can't transition as quickly as I could fifteen years ago, that it's harder for me to articulate what I mean to say as precisely as I once did. I never did enjoy watching myself on television, and now I don't even try; I find it too cringeworthy. And it bothers me that it might, in the eyes of viewers, make me sound less credible as a historian. It's one thing to be wrong; it's another to sound wrong, 

And then there's the tendency that I have to take off on some tangent, a rabbit hole that barely touches on the topic in question and that only I have any interest in. I suppose this comes in part from any historian's desire to demonstrate everything he's learned about a topic, but I prefer to blame it on my political background, where they taught us that, when doing interviews, to redefine the question to what it is that you want to talk about, and answer that instead. (Another gift we're taught is how to deflect blame to someone or something else, which I've just tried to demonstrate.)

This isn't to suggest that I hate doing podcasts; in fact, I like doing them, and I wish I could do more of them. (Hint, hint!) And I've never had a problem with public speaking; I gave a lot of speeches when I was running for the state legislature all those years ago, and let me tell you this: giving a good speech is an exhilarating experience; it provides a mental and physical high that's far better than anything any drug can give. When I did my presentation at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention a few years ago, I thought I was as good as I've ever been. (No brag, just fact.) Of course, in these situations I was in control, either working from a prepared text or being in command of the material.

It's another thing when you're being interviewed. No matter how well one prepares, the difficulty comes from trying to make sense without running off at the mouth or digressing into a thousand and one black holes. The first or second time I appeared on television, in a panel discussion show, I was immensely pleased afterward; I thought I'd been assertive in stating my positions, aggressive in pursuing the fallacies being offered by my fellow panelists, and appropriately witty when appropriate. Many years later, when I rewatched the broadcast, I was—well, not mortified, but sorely disappointed. Again, it happens; things are seldom the way we prefer to remember them. 

It all comes back, I think, to that fear of being unmasked, of being found out as a fake and a fraud. And again, the fact that many people, including my peers, have the same fear—well, as I said at the start, we're all kind of neurotic that way. But, in all fairness, I don't pretend to know everything. No historian worth his or her weight does, or should. In fact, I've been quite candid at times in mentioning how some of our viewers probably know more about a particular topic than I do. But what fun would life be if you weren't always learning something new? Very, very dull, I should think. I know that every time I research a show for the podcast, or look up something for one of these articles, I come away knowing more than I did at the outset. (Of course, you might suggest that this can be a pretty low bar to overcome.)

And anyway, isn't television, like movies, supposed to represent the magic of make-believe? So next time you're watching me on Dan Schneider, or any other podcast (Hint, hint!), remember that the people you see are often smarter than they appear on TV. And if I really drop the ball, be kind: don't rewind. TV  


  1. Generally speaking it's much more concerning if you don't have imposter syndrome than if you do.
    On the other hand a TV historian convinced they're the absolute best would be endlessly driven up the wall when other people bring up shows they've never heard of. 😉

    1. Thanks for the reassurance, and I really mean that. And I'm far from the best at this, I can assure you! 😉

  2. I have to say I totally agree with how you feel, Mitchell...and yet I think it's essential for a writer to be, to a certain extent (let's say...certainly short of homicidal), a confident, totally self-absorbed a-hole when it comes to what she or he is writing about. After all: that's the whole point, isn't it? Read me for what I think, and what I think I know. If I'm constantly equivocating or apologizing or allowing that I might be wrong, or mistaken, or egads--subjective! (that most unholy of evils in today's "non-judgmental" world)--there's really no expectation that anyone would want to read you in the first place. If my title is "Paul Mavis: Maybe I Could Be Correct in Just a Few of the Things I Think I Know About TV and Movies...But You Probably Know More Than Me Because I'm Gonna Get Found Out" (put that on a name tag at a convention...), than I'm already D.O.A..

    I'm a jerk when I write. I don't care. And for the most part, I think my readers like that. They don't like me (my most fervent and loyal readers despise me--they never miss a column), but they know they're going to get an uncompromising--and uncompromised--viewpoint. They keep coming back, because I right almost all the time. I like brashness and confidence and brio in opinion...as long as it agrees with me (heehee). I read everything you write (I never listen to podcasts--jesus: radio without the fun). I love what you write, but I sure as hell don't agree with everything in it. That doesn't make you an imposter...just wrong.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!