High Atop the Hotel Purgatory
Ollie Hamlin was a mouthpiece, not on a trumpet or something, but for the Mob. And over his 4 PM gin, he was looking askance. Fat, yes. Rich, yes, and on hoods and gangsters, but still… askance. He was in his Strip office, high in the penthouse suite atop the Hotel Purgatory but, still, askance. And who should the askancee be but our pal Paul.
“Are you fucking goofy or what,” he thought but didn’t say. Paul was his best client. Trouble followed him like a sheepdog.
Ollie was still shaking his head in disbelief, setting off little wavelets of gin in his ventricles.
“You want to do a talk show. And you're asking me, as your lawyer, what I think of that? A television talk show… And I would have to say, with all due respect, that you are out of your fucking mind. And I mean that sincerely, from the bottom of my so-called heart.”
"But I have to entertain.”
“What is it, some kind of Judy Garland thing?”
“No. It’s for real.”
"Well, entertain this. You could talk yourself into some serious trouble.”
"They can't interrogate me. It's my talk show.”
"They can take down what you say and use it against you.”
"I won't say anything.”
"It’s a talk show.”
"I have other people do it. I'll just listen.”
"Look, they're trying to paint me as a bad guy,” said Paul.
“So don't wear those suits.”
“What's wrong with them?”
“Sometimes you remind me of a Creamsicle, that's all. Everything matches, pastel colors. It weirds me out.”
“I like to look sharp.”
“You sure you want to be that visible?…Purely in targeting terms…”
“The more visible I am the more people get used to me.”
“Don't be so sure.”
“I mean, they'll just see a guy with a wife and kids trying to make a living.”
“Setting odds for gamblers coast to coast.”
“That's okay. Gaming is legal here. And they're The Gaming Commission, for Chrissakes, they can't be against that. It's what they do for a living. It's what everybody does here, one way or another.”
“Yeah, but everybody's not trying to keep a Key Exec license by being extra clean. Extra clean and fluffy, because we are not starting from scratch. The Feds know all about the alleged skimming.”
“That had nothing to do with me.”
“You were the Big Boss of the Casino!”
“The alleged skim, if it happened, would have been handled by someone other than me. I set book and that's plenty to do. And it makes more for everybody than some penny ante skim…alleged that is. And now, I'm just an entertainer. “
“Again, I'd advise you against it.”
“Yep, you don't seem that good at it. You don't seem that natural.
“You underestimate me.”
“I certainly hope so.”
Ollie took a stiff pull of his drink. Paul seemed to look deep into his soul and not find much of anything there. “Look, what you say is true. They’re trying to railroad me. They’re trying to destroy my means of livelihood. It’s not only un-American, it's un-Las Vegacan. Everybody has a right to make a living.”
“Can't argue with you there.” Ollie grabbed the bottle and stiffened his gin with scotch. He took a big pull and leaned back and threw his arms over his head in an expansive gesture.
“Ahhhh, just for argument, what would be on this show?”
“I'd set the odds on football.”
“Jesus! What did I just tell you!”
“That's what I do.”
“That's what they say you do, and in the company of…bad characters…
“But this way, I'm doing it clean. It's on television! There are no gangsters in the vicinity. I can just about guarantee that! Why, when they see the lights and cameras, they'll definitely be somewhere else.”
“You’d draw attention. You’d make yourself a target.”
“You trying to talk me out of it?”
“No. I make a lot of money defending people who do stupid things. Why, if everybody was a smart criminal, they wouldn’t get caught at all! And I wouldn't be putting the new game room on the house.”
The Town Boys weren’t much for it. “You want me to go on camera?” This from Joey Braintree.
“Yeah, you, Phil and Me.” said Paul.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” said Morty.
“Is it even legal? I mean I’m still on parole.”
“Sure it’s legal. It’s TV. And it’s entertainment. They can’t argue with that!”
“I don’t know. I’m entertaining the thought of being elsewhere, maybe under a different name.” Joey looked out over the Sports Book nervously.
“You don’t understand. This makes us legit.”
“But Paul, you’re on camera, you could be… identified.”
“No, I thought of that. Here’s how it works. You’d be in a lineup or something. All you gotta say is ‘of course he picked you. He recognized you from the TV’.
“If he saw you, why didn’t he say right off, he’s that guy from the TV?”
“He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t put it together like that. And by the time your lawyer gets through with him, he doesn’t know when he saw you, or if he saw you at all. Oh, and what about this?! Once you’re on TV, you’re a Celebrity. You can beat murder raps!”
“And, like, if we get them to laugh, just once, it’s entertainment.”
“Laugh? Treasury Agents?”
“You know that thing that pumps oxygen into the casino to keep the gamblers upright?”
“Does it have to be oxygen?”
“You’re gonna dose the audience?”
“It’s the only way,” said Ollie.
So, all in all, in retrospect, you might say, this was the wrong guy to pick for a talk show host. You wouldn't have, say Heinrich Himmler play Zippo the Clown, would you? Well, same thing! And that's not bad enough. They put his name on the title. Like who cares!!? But no, you're wrong. The first night it was SRO! And they all wore suits. Which was strange, because in Vegas the standard fatigues are like a halter top over a Moo Moo for the girls while Pop's got a Schlitz cap and a shirt with Foster's Meat ByProducts across the front. And if they got a kid with a shirt, it says "Plotz if you like Jesus!" I mean, these folks are not meeting Alistair Cooke for tea. But this audience… this audience was weird even for Vegas. This audience wore bow ties. What it was, was just wall-to-wall Feds. Somebody heard that Paul was gonna talk!
Tough crowd to work to. Most audiences want to be entertained. This one wanted to indict!
By the time I got there, which was the next year, they had a new name for the show, which was: The All-New Paul Lieberthal Show, presumably to distinguish it from the Half-New Paul Lieberthal Show, or the Original Quite Fucking Bad Paul Lieberthal Show, none of which were a success. The old show was bad. They admitted that. It had a Nielson rating of, I believe, Minus Six, which means that not only was nobody watching, but a half dozen families burned their sets.
And this was where I came in. Why, you may ask? So do I. I'm at this convention, see. NANA. National Association of Network Affiliates. Television. That's what I do, Mom. I know. All that education, for what? I musta run over an intelligent person in a previous life. It's just this big convention. Out on the Moon. You go. You look at stuff. You meet engineers. You meet everybody you ever knew in television. You tell them all the great exciting things you’re doing and then you ask them for a job.
They always have it in Vegas. Time salesmen feel comfortable there. After you been there three days, three days of sun and heat and hospitality suites, and booze and broads and Neon Psychosis, you are worn to a frazzle. You start to think in 3-second soundbites and then they have you where they want you. Your shoulders ache from slinging 93 pounds of Nakamuchi-Hitachi digital interferometer brochures into a rental Corolla. You've got sixteen cards from the chief engineer from Bay Cities Broadcasting and you don't know why.
I know why they do it. After three dayz of VegaRama, Wheel of Fortune starts to look classy by comparison.
Anyway, I had had it up to here with Boston. I didn't want to be serious or committed anymore. How many documentaries can you do? My last epic was The Southeast Corridor: Threat or Menace? Like that Nazi said, ‘When I hear the word "Culture” I reach for my revolving grant proposal form. So I thought it would be a change of pace and sure enough, that's just what it was.
So I was standing at the Chromtron Two with Ira. His eyes were bugged out and he was salivating from both ventricles. Me, I was looking at the girl. But Ira, he was some piece of work. He's our chief engineer and he's good. Good isn't the word. It's more like…psychotic. He could pick up a microwave burst and bounce it off a circling pelican and get it to the station on time. Of course it would still be a feed of Bill or Phil going psycho, but that wouldn't bother Ira. He's not into content. He's more into wave forms. So, he was babbling in high-techese about this new console… It apparently can mix 93 shows you don't want and get them all on the air at once. This way, if you're home wired to the gills on crank, they could feed you all the programming at once and you could catch up on your soaps for the next 62 years. I didn't know what the fuck he was on about, and he sort of accepted it. Ira's used to having clones around who don't know what it is that he's saying. He gets a look in his eye that I've seen on that statue of St. Swithin at church. Like "I'm wired straight to God and the rest of you poor sinners will burn, sorry."
So I was standing there, wondering how he could get four hundred ball point pens into his K-Mart button-down when the Playboy Channel parade came by. From the way the place exploded you'd think time salesmen had never seen pussy. When in actual fact, that's all they do all day; drink a big lunch and chase pussy.
Out of nine-hundred guys, only Ira didn't notice. He did but he didn't, if you know what I mean. He saw this wave of tits, legs and smiles come rounding the corner and he turned back to the console. He can't really relate to a woman unless she's on the intercom. But I saw this wave of geeks coming and, right in the middle, grinning like a loon, was Morty Stupak.
You remember Morty, Mom. I didn't, which was too bad for me. I mean I did…but I didn't, if you know what I mean. I remembered he was a friend of Dad's toward the end there, when he was into that degenerate gambling thing. And you know how, when you meet grown-ups too early, ya look up to them, and kind of imbue them with all kinds of knowledge they don't really have. Ya think for a long time that they must know exactly how the world works, which, of course they don't and neither will you, but it takes you a few years to work that all out.
Anyway, when you meet one of those early grown-ups again, you tend to still see them as that… one of the knowers, I mean. This feeling you have sticks to them like background radiation, and you tend not to look at them closely, like you would a normal geek. If I had looked at him closely, right then and there, I'd probably still be in Boston, filming "The Saugus Dump; Our Land Management Future", or some such piece of shit.
So I didn't look close or I might have seen that one of his pupils was open real wide, like he was in a dark cave. The other was a little teensy pinpoint, smaller than a BB. The effect of this and a kind of sideways dog-licking grin was that half his brain was real interested in what you were saying and the other half was, say… on Mars.
Anyway, Morty had been in Vegas for years and got into television early. You remember the fifties, right? When Dad had That Idea that they could put these Video Things into trucks and have shows elsewhere from New York? Well, Morty found the elsewhere. Dad was, of course, Aheadofhistime, but Morty was right on it. By this time, television trucks were all over Vegas for the great intergalactic marriage of lounge acts and talk shows. And if you wanted to get into a casino you hadda talk to Morty, or try to, cause all the Big Bosses had seen Morty trip over a cable now and again, and figured he knew something about the media. And Morty, being of semi-sound mind and checkbook, was not about to disavow them of any some-such, veracity notwithstanding.
Anyway, he was very nice and remembered me, didn't listen too close to whatever it was I was saying, and offered me this job developing home video shows.This home video, now it's big stuff. But this was before that. Story of my life. Anyway…But first, one little thing I had to work on.
"A gangster talk show?” I didn't think I’d heard him right.
"Gambler! Gambler!" said Morty, and he was really adamant about that. "That other word, don't use it."
“What word, gangster?"
"Yeah, don't use it. Not if you want to live."
Now, I been around. I was in Walpole when the lifer knifed the guard that time. I did that murder under the bridge and my fair share of car wrecks and plane crashes. I covered school busing for years without a scratch. But I seemed to recognize this as some kind of warning. Kind of a, well, a death threat. Not that Morty was threatening me, but like somebody, at some time, had got out of line…for like some little thing, like a joke. Same kind of stuff I do all the time, just for the boredom. But I recognized this attitude he had, which was that this silly stuff he's talking about might just have a real nasty bottom line. I mean I wasn’t taking this seriously, which is my want from time to time, but now, I tried, as hard as I could…to listen good.
Which wasn't easy as it seems, cause this stuff was, like, foreign to me, and the news came a little bit at a time, like peeling back an onion that’s rotten inside.
“So…You have to write the script,” he said.
“The All New Paul Lieberthal Show.”
“I don’t even know what it’s about. I don’t even know gambling. Dad, remember?”
“Doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Yeah, Vegas.” Morty grinned.
“Look, I’ve seen television. And I’ve come to believe that often times the script should have something to do with what you see on the screen.”
Morty wasn’t buying that. “That’s just cause you went to an eastern school. They’re known to over-think things there.”
SO, FADE OUT, FADE IN.