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The Mystery of the 'Spontaneous Exchange'

It is an open secret that the "spontaneous exchanges" on talk shows are somewhat planned in advance. What has surprised me is how often the hosts depart entirely from the script. In many appearances on the Leno, Carson and Letterman programs, I would estimate that less than half of what happened was foreseen, and in some cases entire appearances were ad-libbed. The "pre-interview" is more like a safety net.

The routine for a guest on the nighttime talk shows is that, a day before the planned appearance, you have a telephone conversation with the segment producer. He or she wants to know what's on your mind, what has happened lately in your life, what's funny or amusing. You try to think of interesting stuff.

In the case of Gene Siskel and myself, the producers hold separate interviews, because we don't want to know what the other guy may be thinking of discussing. We find we work better together when it's spontaneous.

That once led to an episode on the Letterman show that is still so cloaked in mystery that neither Gene nor I quite understand what happened.

As nearly as I can reconstruct it, Gene suggested to a segment producer that it might be fun to tell David a story that Gene and I call "The Buddy Hackett Story" (see sidebar). When the producer broached this idea to me, in a separate call, I was annoyed: "That's MY story!" I said. "Gene shouldn't tell it. Also, I tell it faster and funnier than he does. He always gets bogged down in boring minutiae about where everybody was sitting when the episode took place."

The next day, we arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theater to tape the show. The segment producer came to me privately and said, "Gene is going to try to tell the story. But you should interrupt him and insist on telling it yourself. He knows you are going to interrupt."

The producer then went to Gene and told him that when he started to tell the story, I would interrupt him. On the air, Letterman set us up with a straight line. Gene started telling the story. I interrupted him. He attempted to continue telling the story. I insisted that it was MY story, and I should tell it. Gene was getting annoyed, I could tell, and said something like, "We're wasting a lot of valuable network time here." I pushed ahead, insisting that I should tell the story. Gene wouldn't let me.

The situation at this point was off the map, and to the viewers might have seemed like genuine anger. And then Letterman broke in: "Boys, boys, boys! I'll tell the story."

And he did - perfectly.

During the commercial break, Siskel was unhappy with me. The situation had gotten completely out of hand, he said. I had been bull-headed in my insistence on telling the story. I should have let him tell the story. But it was MY story, I said!

After the show, Siskel, thinking it over, grew more objective. "If I truly thought the situation was out of control, then I should have just let you tell the story."

"I thought I was doing the right thing," I said. "I thought I was supposed to keep interrupting you."

"No," said Gene, "I was supposed to finish the story."

Our eyes met. We realized that in our separate briefings we had both been told to tell the story. Neither one of us had been prepared to cave in to the other. Given our mutual stubbornness, it was inevitable that we would both insist on pressing ahead.

So, had we been set up? Was Letterman planning all along to tell the story? Had the segment producer deliberately given us instructions that would lead to a fight?

Letterman had seemed so spontaneous as he told the story. It seemed like he had brilliantly defused a potentially unpleasant situation. Was this an example of skillful improvisation? Perhaps. But then again, he had been completely prepared. He knew the story by heart. Had he intended to tell it? Or was this just an example of his ability to think quickly?

I don't know for sure. Neither does Siskel.

"That was great TV," the producer, Robert Morton, told us after the show. I still don't know who deserved the compliment, or exactly why.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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