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Shell Shocked Smile, you’re on television

By Staff | Nov 26, 2014

Did you know that I was a local TV star about twenty years ago? I was even nominated for an Emmy award. No, this isn’t April fool’s, it’s the truth.

I used to do a two-minute humor commentary on WINK-TV in Fort Myers during the drivetime period from 5:30 to 6 p.m. My subjects were the very same as my column for the Islander why Florida has so many oranges, why Sanibel needs to build a football stadium, why Doc Ford’s, the Bubble Room and Timbers need to allow reservations, and why Donald Trump should be mayor of Sanibel.

But during those five years I had a new audience all of Lee County. I was on the air once a week for five years. I was usually introduced by Lois Thome, who is still an anchor for WINK-TV. I worked with a producer there named Jerry Edwards who believed in my brand of humor off the wall, delusional, caustic, incomprehensible and hallucinatory. But what did Jerry know? He ate pretzels all day long.

Jerry worked with me all five years until the day he accepted a position to be a producer at a leading Los Angeles TV station. If it weren’t for Jerry, I couldn’t have gone before the cameras. To this day I marvel at the ease with which TV anchors and reporters can look into a camera and not be fazed by it. Me, I was a nervous wreck.

I could never get over the fact that hundreds of thousands of eyes were behind that camera glaring at me. The very thought of that made me sweat from armpit to big toe. My two-minute segments were videotaped in advance of the live drivetime news program. They were done at the WINK-TV studio in Fort Myers. I would do about six at a time.

I was invited to audition for WINK-TV because Jerry had read my columns in the Islander and envisioned a new type of on-air humor commentary. He called me cold one day, told me that he liked my columns and wanted to try a humor commentary and would I be interested?

“Yes,” I blurted out, “a thousand times yes.”

I had been a guest on a number of TV talk shows in the past because I had written a book about public relations. I was fairly comfortable being asked questions and responding to them. Nerves didn’t get in the way. And when I appeared for the first time at the WINK-TV studios, I never anticipated how I would respond to being an on-air personality rather than an interviewee.

I auditioned for Jerry. He took one of my columns and formatted it into cue cards. He emphasized to me that the camera wasn’t on and that I needn’t feel uncomfortable. I didn’t. I read the column out loud and put as much zaniness into my performance as possible. Jerry even applauded at the end.

“Now we’re going to turn the camera on and do a screen test. Forget the red light on the camera. Do it like you’re just talking to me,” Jerry said.

I said sure, no problem. And Jerry did what you see in movies about making movies. As the director, he said: “Shell Shocked, take one. Five, four, three, two, one, go.”

And then the red light on the camera went on. I froze. The camera light put me in a twilight zone. I couldn’t get a word out. I imagined that a million eyes were studying me, evaluating me and were ready to be critical of every part of my being: my nose, mouth, voice, style, personality, talent and general worthiness. I imagined people staring at me snickering, heckling me and collectively manning a mammoth hook to yank me off the set.

Seeing me freeze up like that, Jerry stopped the process.

“How do the anchors do it, Jerry?” I asked. “How can they be insensitive to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are studying their every move behind that camera?”

Jerry smiled.

“I’ve been a producer and director for many years and you’re not the first person who has experienced camera fright the very first time. Believe me, once you do it a few times, it’ll be like riding a bike. The first thing to do is not think about the people watching this segment. Pretend that there’s only one person who will watch it. And that this person loves your sense of humor and will laugh at anything you say. Who would that person be? Place that person inside the camera and just go for it.”

And that’s what I did. I envisioned my cat Chadwick in the camera. Chadwick loved everything about me except when I wouldn’t give in to his frequent desire for food. And the next time Jerry counted down and the red light on the camera was lit, I was ready. I was speaking directly to Chadwick and imagined him purring on the carpet in front of the TV. There were still a few flaws in my delivery but we had the luxury of doing as many takes as it took to get a solid performance out of me.

As I said, I did this segment for five years and thanked Chadwick every day for helping me get up the nerve to totally ignore those other one million eyes riveted on me that were ready to pounce.

Art Stevens is a long-time columnist for The Islander. His tongue-in-cheek humor is always offered with a smile.