Allen Encounters

By Mark Wheeler|Saturday, February 01, 1997
Steve Allen, comedian, is worried about the growing duh factor in America. You’re familiar with the duh factor. It’s like, um, the, uh, shrinkage of, you know, our, uh, basic ability to, like, um, think? Uh, critically? You know, about, uh . . . things.

That’s why the well-known entertainer agreed last August to become chairman of a watchdog group called the Council for Media Integrity, whose goals are to rebut (primarily) television programs that revel in scientific myths. Council members include such illustrious scientists as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and

Nobel laureate chemist Glenn Seaborg. Allen’s role is to use his celebrity prominence to speak out against phony science shows. Things like a quasi documentary about the search for Noah’s ark that’s been shown on cbs. And Chariots of the Gods, which appeared on abc and claimed that the pyramids were built by aliens. And another program, called The Mysterious Origins of Man, shown twice last year on nbc. It examined some fossilized human and dinosaur footprints and implied that early Homo and the big beasts might have lived at the same time. Hello, Barney. Hiya, Fred.

Why should we care what a comic thinks? Because describing Allen as a comedian is like describing Leonardo da Vinci as a painter. Like Leonardo, Allen is a Renaissance man. Besides being a comedian, he is an author, actor, playwright, composer (some 6,000 songs), singer, pianist, M.C.--in short, the utility infielder of the entertainment world--not to mention social critic, aforementioned pro-science spokesman, and, for all I know, part-time body-and-fender man. For the record, Allen invented The Tonight Show--and the whole talk-show format--in 1954. His whopping 48 books cover the kinds of topics you’d expect from an entertainer but also include such varied subjects as cults, corruption in America, an explanation of China, smokers’ rights, and the Bible and religion. In addition, he’s written a number of mystery novels, among them The Talk Show Murders.

Indeed, in a world that lacks critical thought, Allen seems to be trying single-handedly to make up for the rest of us. In an interview from the 1980s, for example, on the art of ad-libbing, he analyzed a joke tossed off one evening at home. It concerned his son, then six, who couldn’t reach his bathrobe and called to his father for help. Allen, busy on the phone, told him to get it himself. The boy replied he couldn’t--the robe was up on a hook, out of reach. To which Allen replied, Then go stand in a corner and grow.

To you and me, that’s just a joke. Allen, however, felt compelled to explain why it’s a joke: I presented a solution that is obviously a physical impossibility within the implied time parameters. It’s incongruous, and the strange imagery makes people laugh. Whew.

I confess that I didn’t know much about him other than his bent for comedy. For me, Allen was just another entertainer of my parent’s generation, part of an amorphous group of annoying celebrities--Como, Benny, Sullivan, Welk, the entire Rat Pack--that I would sullenly stare at as a kid when my parents wouldn’t let me watch the really good stuff, like Surfside Six.

Unlike most of today’s sleaze-wallowing talk shows, Allen’s was always known to be tasteful and erudite. But he reveled in the silly as well. He invented a lot of Letterman-like shtick, including the habit of running outside the studio with a camera trailing behind. (Once Allen, dressed as a policeman, raced out of the studio with a large salami, tossed it into the backseat of a taxi, and shouted to the driver, Get this to Grand Central Station as quick as you can! The driver sped off without a word.)

Salamis notwithstanding, Allen is a very serious fellow, and at 75 does not suffer fools gladly. This is why, right from the git-go as we meet in Allen’s San Fernando Valley office, a pleasant room lined wall to wall with books, I’m just a wee bit concerned that I’m going to sputter something really, really dumbth (a word Allen coined to describe our collective ignorance, and the title of one of his books). Not that Allen is mocking or condescending. Indeed, he is the consummate gentleman, patient and polite. Given his view of America’s intellectual decline, I can tell he’s already taking a shine to me when I ask if I may tape-record our conversation. Please. I prefer it, he says, encouragingly.

I come to find out that Allen tape-records many of his own conversations, thoughts, and observations. Indeed, he is, at the moment, tape-recording the tape-recording of our conversation. He dictates, not types, all his books. There are two tape recorders sitting on his desk; he keeps one in his car, another in his briefcase, and others scattered around his house. When he meets friends for lunch, he says, they tease him by picking up anything handy--a knife, fork, or wineglass--and quietly mumbling into it like a golf announcer, Steve Allen is approaching wearing a blue jacket and white shirt. He’s carrying a briefcase and speaking into a tape recorder. Given the lowering wattage of our collective lights, Allen believes it might be best if the whole world were taped all day long. It would clear up a great deal of the miscommunication between people.

The human powers of observation are so faulty, he adds, shaking his head sadly, that it’s sometimes scary to see the difference between what I say with my mouth and what I later read in the transcript of the tape; five, six, seven errors a page--some things the opposite of what I did say. But then, he sighs, think how it would be if there wasn’t tape.

So. You have questions.

I lean forward to check the tape recorder resting on his desk (later, Allen will casually lean forward to check its operation for me). Reassuringly, the red recording light is on and the tape is indeed turning. Clearing my throat, I speak. Uh . . . (No. No! Don’t say uh. And don’t you dare say you know.) Given your, ah, the intellectual width of your intellectual inquiries (Wha . . . ?), is it fair to say your interest in dispelling pseudoscience is no greater than your interest--er, uh, concern, I mean--about the overall, uh, decline in critical thinking?

Listen to me: I sound like Bob Dole. Did that make any sense at all? Allen, leaning back in his chair, his hands before his face and clenched together as if he is in prayer, stares off into space. Mercifully he finally answers: Yes, that’s a good way to put it, but that’s not to slight it. Because my interest in almost everything is intense. One result of that is the accumulation of books in this room and others; another are all the kinds of activities I’m involved in. Because if I get interested in something, I’m likely to make a joke about it, or write a song, a book, do something with it.

Emboldened, I strike forth with my next question, asking how his association with the council came about. Again his eyes stare off, focusing on nothing. Is he deciding whether to answer at all? Mentally transcribing his forty-ninth book? Or is he actually giving some thought to the question before he replies, unlike everybody else I know, myself included, who just shoots from the hip?

I can’t really say I remember, he says at last. As you may know if you have some passing familiarity with my book Dumbth (Yes! I want to shout. Yes, I do! I’ve read it! Well, parts of it, anyway), for, oh, probably 35 years now I’ve been consciously doing things because of my profound concern over popular ignorance and gullibility, the tendency for people to accept any preposterous but entertaining theory or story as if it were fact without checking it out. So I’d assume that at some point my independent effort must have come to the attention of some of these groups.

I ask Allen whether, besides his books, he uses his act to dispel some of the pseudoscience that concerns him.

He ponders. Since I have no set act, he finally muses, I don’t plan such a thing, but sometimes I do incorporate some of my philosophical beliefs into my work. For example, one thing I do is answer questions from the audience. A few years back a woman asked what sign I was born under. I told her I wasn’t quite sure but I thought it was furnished rooms for rent.

Then I said something along the following lines: ‘There’s a tendency, in all of us, to have slightly less than fair respect for the intelligence of those who hold views that we consider preposterous. It probably could be statistically established that those who do not believe in astrology are a few percentage points brighter than those who do, but there are exceptions. One of the brightest people I know is Shirley MacLaine, and Shirley is, of course, a firm believer in astrology. And in her defense I’ll say this--that I have known Shirley MacLaine ever since she was a cocker spaniel and I. . . .’

I should say too that I wouldn’t have the slightest emotional difficulty if it were suddenly to be established that astrology is a valid scientific discipline, adds Allen. But that’s precisely the point. Such a thing has never been established. There are three separate systems of astrology known to historians--the Egyptian, the Chinese, and, I think, the Persian, and all of them are mutually exclusive. That, of course, means that if any one of them is essentially right, the other two are wrong. The more reasonable approach is to assume that all of them are wrong until conclusive evidence for their validity has been offered.

Allen falls silent. I’m silent too. We both stare at our respective tape recorders, listening for the reassuring whir. Suddenly Allen leans forward in his chair, bracing both arms against his desk, startling me.

Parenthetically, I should also note that often in my comedy act I’m just plain silly too. One question I was asked a while ago was, ‘Mr. Allen, I’ve read some of your books and I thought they were very scholarly; have you ever taught?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I taught I taw a putty tat.’

Then, seemingly without segue, Allen is talking about religion. There’s an analogy here, he says. Religion is notorious for its imperviousness to argument once a mind-set has been firmly established. That’s not so much the case when you’re arguing about motorcycles or baseball. But when it’s religion, it’s almost as if people unconsciously believe that evidence should be damned because you’re discussing something that is outside the rules of nature. But that’s a very flimsy and dangerous assumption, as we can see from all the wars that have wiped out millions that were connected with religion.

I interrupt to get his take on the Noah’s ark quasi documentary that appeared on tv. I wrote about the absurdities of the Noah’s ark fable in one of my two books on the Bible, he says. If you interpret the story literally, as the fundamentalists do, it’s unbelievable.

One of the biggest absurdities, Allen points out, is the fable’s take on nature. God instructs Noah to build an ark and to take of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort. As Allen notes in his book Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion & Morality, not the least of the obvious questions is how was one guy, living in one tiny geographic area, going to find all the world’s animals? How would he have trapped two of every creature, especially since some of those animals, as Allen wrote, would have reduced the members of Noah’s family to lunch meat within seconds if closely approached.

That’s not to say that religion is foolish, he tells me. I think it makes sense if they make up a rule that says ‘Thou shalt not hit anyone with a stick’--that’s wonderful religion. But if they say God is a purple pumpkin and you have to bend over three times to enjoy him, then we’re talking idiocy. . . .

For those who are curious, I am not a secular humanist. I am a nonsecular humanist for the simple reason that I do not deny the possibility of a God. When an individual has not been given actual formal training in how to apply the gift of reason, it’s inevitable that he will incorporate a considerable amount of nonsense into his general thinking, but there is no area in which this will be so true as it clearly is in the field of religion. One way to approach such confusion is to ask what the fruits of religious belief are. Jesus himself is said to have made this point. But the question has a tragically fearful answer, and most believers simply back away from it rather than face it, for when we look at the rich record of history we see that every page of it is stained with blood in the context of religious controversy. Now, when men kill each other in an attempt to defend ideas proposed by Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, or Donald Duck, that’s tragic enough. But when their daily bloody slaughters are perpetrated because they imagine that they are doing God’s work--well, you want jokes? That is the supreme joke of history.

I ask whether there are other science-related shows that get his goat. Yes, he replies after a beat. What’s the singer’s name, the one on cable . . .?

Dionne Warwick! I say, pleased to provide him with the information. Psychic Hotline!

That’s the one, he says. You know, everybody’s got to make a buck, but that show is just awful. Those psychics are either self-deluded or simply fakes. Once again this is pseudoscience. If these people could predict anything, they could run for president; they’d be receiving reams of free publicity. Again, I’m not taking the position that it’s impossible for an individual to have some special gift, but let’s see the valid scientific proof.

Allen even has concerns about science fiction, though he’s written some of it. I don’t mind the short stories of a Ray Bradbury, or a movie like the old Buck Rogers. That’s science fiction in the grandest possible tradition. Besides, if someone sees something with three purple heads on Star Trek and believes it’s real, then he or she is a lost cause anyway.

I’m more concerned with a program like the X-Files; as entertainment, it’s a very well done show with a more realistic setting, which makes it more dangerous. I don’t mean to come off sounding like a spoilsport, but it’s the accumulation of all these shows; people are being barraged. It wouldn’t be so bad if equal time were given to an astronomer or astrophysicist who knows better, he says, but scientists are lucky if they get 43 seconds on the air. People aren’t going to remember a 43- second rebuttal, says Allen. What they’ll remember is hearing about something landing in the forest and starting a fire, or something small and green running away through the woods.

The danger, he says, is that such false notions and lack of critical thinking carry over into real life. Truth and facts are very precious things, says Allen. The Noble Prize is awarded to people who pursued truth wherever it led. Scientists like Galileo conducted themselves heroically and suffered terribly for it. So anytime we become careless with the truth, we should worry.

Science is nothing more than the search for knowledge. Everybody knows that. Yet every so often something that a scientist discovers can be put to an evil use. But I don’t think it’s the fault of the first guy who invented gunpowder. If his country was being overrun by an army wielding swords, he’d be a hero.

Allen continues: I cannot conceive that this physical universe we all know about--Mars, the sun, this desk (here he leans forward to rap twice, sharply, on the desk’s surface)--has no cause.

There are two possibilities if we try to bring time into it, he says. Either the whole thing started at 9:47 in the morning, which sounds ridiculous already, or it never started and always was. Now, I cannot grasp that. Something in my brain wants to go around the corner and see what’s going on just before it started. For that reason alone it seems to me that something decided to start it.

So there had to be something chemically, physically, naturally bangable, meaning there was something before the moment when it all went bang. So you haven’t resolved anything with regard to starting; you’ve just posed an interesting chapter about something that may well have been the case.

And so it goes, for several more minutes, Allen leading the intellectual charge, me surreptitiously checking my tape recorder. Toward the end, as we say our good-byes, Allen closes with a quick observation about the emerging genetic research that suggests at least part of our respective behaviors may be biologically based. It’s quite an astonishing possibility that our genes may have a substantial influence on our behavior. Isn’t it interesting to speculate that people behave as they do partly because of those little spheres of DNA that look like tapioca pudding in a glass dish. ‘So, that explains why Uncle Louie is such a son of a bitch!’

Steve Allen certainly benefited from the gene pool of life. As I make my way from his office, I resolve to sharpen my own critical thinking in the future. I determine to adopt for my mantra a little comic song from an audiocassette, called Gullible’s Travels, that Allen produced for children to help them think:

Look for the evidence,

Look for the proof.

Or else you’re acting

Like an awful goof.
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