The reason I agreed to be in an episode of a TV situation comedy was that the role was perfect for me. You want to choose your roles carefully, as an actor. You want to look for roles in which you can display the range, the depth, the infinitely subtle nuances of your acting talent.
"It's just one word," the director said. "You say, 'Howdy.' "
"I'll do it," I said. A role like that comes along once in a lifetime.
The TV show -- which might even still be on the air as you read this -- is called "Dave's World." It's loosely based on a book and some columns I wrote. I use the term "loosely" very loosely. There's no way they could just take my columns and turn them directly into a TV series; every episode would last four minutes, and end with all the major characters being killed by an exploding toilet. So they have professional writers supplying dramatic elements that are missing from my writing, such as plots, characters and jokes that do not involve the term "toad mucus."
(Lest you think I have "sold out" as an artist, let me stress that I have retained total creative control over the show, in the sense that when they send me a check, I can legally spend it however I want.)
I worked hard on "Howdy," memorizing it in just days. Depending on the scene, I could deliver the line with various emotional subtexts, including happiness ("Howdy!"), sorrow ("Howdy!"), anger ("Howdy!"), and dental problems ("Hmpgh!").
Then, just before I flew to Los Angeles for the filming, the director called to tell me that they had changed my role. In my new role, I played a man in an appliance store who tries to buy the last air conditioner, but gets into a bidding war for it with characters who are based, loosely, on me and my wife, played by Harry Anderson and DeLane Matthews. (Harry Anderson plays me. Only taller.)
In my new role, I had to say 17 words, not one of which was "Howdy!" I was still memorizing my part when I got to the studio. It was swarming with people -- camera people, light people, sound people, bagel people, cream-cheese people, people whose sole function is to go "Sshhh!" You, the actor, have to say your lines with all these people constantly staring at you, plus the director and the writers keep changing the script.
My lines didn't change much, but as we got ready to film my scene, I was increasingly nervous. I was supposed to walk up to the appliance salesman and say: "I need an air conditioner." I had gone over this many times, but as the director said "Action!" my brain lost my lines, and began frantically rummaging around for them in my memory banks. You could actually see my skull bulging with effort as I walked onto the set, in front of four TV cameras, a vast technical crew and a Live Studio Audience.
Somehow I remembered my lines. The director seemed satisfied with my performance, except for the last part, where Harry Anderson, outbidding me for the air conditioner, hands the salesman some takeout sushi and says, "We'll throw in some squid," and I become disgusted and say, "Yuppies."
"That was perfect, Dave," said the director. (This is what directors say when they think it sucked.) "But when you say 'yuppies,' make it smaller."
So we re-did the scene, and as we approached my last line, I was totally focused on doing a smaller "yuppies." Then I noticed that everybody in the studio was staring at me, waiting. I had clearly messed up, but I had no idea how. This was a time to think fast, to improvise, to come up with a clever line that would save the scene. So here's what I did: I fell down. (It's a nervous habit I have.)
When I got up, I explained that I'd been waiting for Harry to say the squid line.
"They took that out," somebody said.
"They took out the squid?" I said. "The squid is gone?"
It turned out that everybody else knew this. So we had to do that part again, with my brain feverishly repeating "No squid! Smaller yuppies!"
That time we got through it, and my television career came to an end, and I went back to being, loosely, a newspaper columnist. I have not, however, ruled out the possibility of starring in a spinoff. I am thinking of a dramatic action series about a hero who, each week, tries to buy an air conditioner. I have a great line for ending this column, but I can't remember what it is.
Editor's Note: This episode of "Dave's World" is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 25. Dave is the man in the appliance store who is shorter than Harry Anderson.