Dennis Miller & Me

LOS ANGELES -- If everything had gone according to plan, I would have been chatting on national television about the national driver's license scheme, homeland security, and the Baptist minister who stepped down after trying to kick John Kerry supporters out of his church. But I never even made it to the green room.

Early one Wednesday afternoon, I was poised for a minor coup in the world of book tours: two five-minute segments on CNBC's Dennis Miller Live. I was scheduled to appear on May 12. My appearance wouldn't add up to 15 minutes of fame, but it would be enough to plug the ideas in my book, Standing Alone in Mecca. And maybe, like Bill Clinton tooting his horn on late-night TV, I would have my saxophone moment.

Ever since a publicist at my publishing house told me three months ago that I had been chosen to be a guest on Dennis Miller Live, I had stayed up late studying the nightly talk show. Miller had won fame as a comedian on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Later, he snagged a slot on CNBC as a political comedian and talk-show host notorious for his rants. I had heard him make fun of Arab names, winning cheap laughs from the audience. And I daydreamed about making an appeal to him: Dude, stop making fun of foreign names. I imagined telling the story of how an American boy named Johnny Walker had made fun of my name when I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, as a sixth-grader, scarring me for years until I realized he didn't have much room to mock.

But I knew I couldn't deal with Miller in a serious way. That would never work. So I turned to friends for advice: "I need jokes." My former editor at The Wall Street Journal, Ron Shafer (a political humorist himself), laid down the law: "He's the comedian. Just laugh at his jokes." One night, I heard Miller talk longingly about Pittsburgh, his native city. I decided I'd drop references to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates of my childhood and Miller's yesteryear with star Willie Stargell and the theme song, "We Are Family." We'd have an instant connection.

Each time I watched the show, I said to myself, "Just don't put me on the ‘Varsity Panel.'" I watched self-help guru Deepak Chopra spar with Miller during a debate that pitted three guests of different views against one another, with Miller as the prodding host. The “Varsity Panel” sure sounded prestigious, but, like so many made-for-TV spatfests, it seemed to contribute little to the national discourse. Instead, its one-liners seemed to feed into the enemy image making I was trying to counter with my book and my travels across the country.

Two days before my scheduled appearance, I did a pre-interview with one of the show's producers. I was set to be a guest after his fake news broadcast. I threw out a trial balloon: How about if I brought a screen divider and told Miller to talk to me from behind it -- as the men at many mosques (even in the United States) expect -- arguing that women are too sexually provocative? Nice idea. Too complicated. But I could assert the mantra of my book: It's time to take the slam out of Islam. "I love it!" the producer said.

I was all set with my quips for reform in the Muslim world. But at the San Francisco airport the next day, on my way to catch a plane to Burbank for the show, my cell phone rang. It turned out that I did so well in my pre-interview that I had been upgraded to a seat at the “Varsity Panel.”

"OK," I said. I could catch up on the news. I had Google on my side. One of the topics of discussion, I was told, would be a proposal to tighten the driver's-license system. I had plenty to say on that subject: There had been a bureaucratic snag with my passport and, as a result, I hadn't had a license for months; at home in West Virginia, I muddle around as best I can without one. "Great story!" the producer said.

Next topic: The Baptist minister who was going to throw out members of his congregation for voting for Kerry? He had stepped down. Oh, great, OK, I thought. I can talk about this: The leaders at my mosque had me on trial for standing up for women's rights and tolerance.

The producer reeled off the names of the other guests on the “Varsity Panel.” Joe Queenan. My bad. Never heard of him. “An editor at Men's Health,” the producer told me. I had him spell out his name. I'd Google him later. (He is also a best-selling author-comic.) The other guest: Doug McIntyre. Again, my bad. Hadn't heard of him. “Libertarian,” the producer explained. I had him spell out his name, too. (He's also a popular radio host.) We didn't know each other. None of us worked on the issues we were talking about. And we were going to contribute to the public discourse? I shook off my cynicism. I could do it.

Two hours later, I picked up a voicemail message. The show had been canceled. Not just my episode. The entire show. In a bid to pump up its prime time, CNBC said it was replacing the show with Mad Money with Jim Cramer. I never got a chance to wax eloquently about homeland security and the Baptist minister. With a pink jacket planned out, I could have redefined the image of Muslims on late night. But the capriciousness of the medium meant I no longer had a chance to reach a vast TV audience. My opportunity had vanished faster than you can say, "Dennis Miller Live." And, sadly, the reality of modern marketing is that what matters isn't just whether your cause is good but whether you are on television.

I called Shafer, my former Wall Street Journal editor, and told him what had happened. First stunned, he rebounded with this advice: "Call Jay Leno and tell him you're free."

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam.

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