Authors Behaving Badly: The Best of The Worst Writer Television Appearances

Writers Behaving BadlyWriters + Talk Show = Television Gold

Legend has it that book promotion stunts date back as far as 440 BCE, when Herodotus unexpectedly took the stage during the Olympic Games to talk about his book The Histories. In the modern age, authors with a new book to peddle often wind up on late night talk shows or morning political programs…with varying success. Collected here are some of the most memorable television appearances by well known writers. Call them train wrecks if you will, but we prefer to think of them as “classic.”

Television Talk Show

1. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal Nearly Come to Blows on The Dick Cavett Show

In 1971, Vidal and Mailer appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, along with author and journalist Janet Flanner. The episode, like all Dick Cavett episodes, aired live, leaving no possibility for editing if things went awry. And awry they most certainly went. The two authors reportedly met and argued backstage just prior to going onstage, and the tension from that encounter was palpable as the cameras began rolling. At one point, Janet Flanner felt the need to intervene, saying to both Vidal and Mailer, “you act as if you were the only people here!” Mailer, who appears to have been drinking, replies “Aren’t we?” and further escalates to the point where Dick Cavett, only half jokingly, asks whether he plans to make television history by hitting a woman. Cavett then moves his chair (his fabulous mid-century modern Danish chair) so that he’s a safe distance from the irate Mailer. Awkward.

2. Jack Kerouac Gets Weird on Firing Line

If you’ve ever wanted to hear William F. Buckley say “Today we’re going to talk about hippies” you’re in luck. This 1968 video clip, from Buckley’s Firing Line, is worth the price of admission just for the opportunity to watch Buckley, clad in seersucker, try to make sense of Kerouac’s puns, giggles and confusion. Don’t miss the antisemitism and Saarinen tulip chairs!

3. James Ellroy Hates Everyone and Everything

James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and other best selling crime novels, has made several memorable television appearances, including one on the Conan O’brien Show in 1999 where he repeatedly uses expletives and muses about creating an “equal opportunity Ku Klux Klan.” Shockingly, that video clip has been permanantly removed from Youtube and other video clip channels. But other gems remain, like this one, where Ellroy explains that he hates every single aspect of popular culture…except for L.A. Confidential.

4. Maurice Sendak Doesn’t Like Kids

Well, to be fair, it sounds like he doesn’t like anyone all that much. Starting with Newt Gingrich, who he calls “an idiot of great renown.” Turns out that the beloved children’s author likes children “as few and far between as I like adults” which means…not very much. He also agrees with Colbert that Where the Wild Things Are can be seen as a metaphor for sex, pointing out the similarities in the rumpus scene: “The whole bed going up and down. Yes. Your mother screaming. Your father saying, ‘Shut up!'”

Maurice Sendak on The Colbert Report

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5. Truman Capote and Groucho Marx Make a List of Alcoholic Writers (and Then Make Plans for Later)

Back on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, the chairs have changed but not the drama. Groucho Marx, who considers himself a writer (and who wrote several books, including one about taxes) seems a bit threatened by Capote, who is an actual writer of books that are not about taxes. They make nice by listing authors who were hopeless alcoholics and then Groucho brings the subject around to…you guessed it…taxes! Capote’s tax troubles could be cleared up, he suggests, if only Truman would get married. To which Capote replies, “and who would you suggest I marry?” Groucho’s answer? “I’d marry you in a minute if you’d write another hit book like you did about Kansas!” Huh. (To future generations who may read this post: in 1971 people of the same sex could not marry each other. Weird, right?)

6. Christopher Hitchens is Not Looking for Consensus, “Baby I’m Just Not in the Mood”

Philospher, writer and atheist Christopher Hitchens never missed the chance for a good fight. Like this one, at a religious forum where he is fidgety, annoyed and anxious while listening to the other speakers. When one of the Christian guests suggests that Christianity is not mandatory and that no one ever tried to impose it, Hitchens loses it.

6. Noam Chomsky Just Doesn’t Get It

Noam Chomsky, the world’s leading linguist and author of seminal books on politics like Manufacturing Consent, doesn’t seem to understand that his interviewer, Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen’s character from his HBO show) is not a real person. As the interview progresses, Chomsky gets more and more frustrated with questions like “how many words do you know?” and with Ali G conflating bilingual and bisexual. By the end of the interview, he’s ready to either run out of the room or hit Ali G or both.

7. Ayn Rand Asks Why It’s Good to Want Others to be Happy

In a collection of clips, Jon Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver  highlights some of author/philosopher Ayn Rands greatest television hits and points out her continuing influence on American culture. Let’s just say it doesn’t make Rand look good.

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