When I went on a talk show to discuss dating, I should've expected disaster.
Dating is not necessarily something you want to be an expert in. What you want is to be a lightly experienced novice. You want to go out on some dates, meet the girl of your dreams, then never go on another date ever again. An expert, on the other hand, goes on lots and lots of dates and fails lots and lots of times.
I am a dating expert. Last year, my title was made official when Whatever with Alexis and Jennifer hired me to be their Internet dating expert. Whatever with Alexis and Jennifer was a morning talk show on the Hallmark Channel, and don't feel bad that you've never heard of it — no one has. That's why it got canceled. It was hosted by Alexis Stewart (Martha's daughter) and Jennifer Hutt, who were genuinely lovely people, and for that I will forgive them for tricking me into quite possibly the most awkward ten minutes of my life.
On the premiere episode of Whatever, they introduced me with the self-esteem-fortifying description of "Man Who's Been On More Than 100 Internet Dates," and we were off to the races. I told stories, they pointed out how ridiculous my life was, I wholeheartedly agreed, and we all had a grand time.
A few weeks later, I visited Alexis and Jennifer again, and just as the segment was ending, Jennifer snuck in a new question: "So, do you ever talk to people you went out in the past to see how you did?"
I warily replied that no, my self-esteem was low enough already, to which Jennifer said, "Well, we have a special opportunity for you then. Someone who can maybe tell you what you've been doing wrong…" At this, I began to contemplate making a break for the dressing room, when I turned around and, sure enough, a girl I went out with over a year ago was standing off-camera, grinning like a maniac.
I should have been panicking at that point, but I just beamed back at her, because I was so damn excited that I actually recognized the girl and remembered her name. You have no idea how unlikely that was. As I said, I've been on over a hundred dates. There are times when I've forgotten a girl's name twenty minutes into the first drink, and "Can I call you again sometime… chief?" generally ends an evening on a poor note. This girl's name, however, I remembered.
She was obsessed with Bette Midler, so I'll call her that. As the audience made that sort of "Ohhh, you're in trouble" sound that must not have existed before surprise guests on daytime talk shows were invented, she sauntered over to the set and sat down, looking ready to strike. I vaguely remembered that my date with Bette had been uneventful — nothing I should be ashamed of revisiting on national TV — but something about the glint in Bette's eye suggested I was in for it.
Jennifer: "So, did you know that Barry here has gone out on a hundred dates?"
Bette: "He'll probably have to go out on a hundred more if they're as bad as mine."
With this, the audience was officially in the palm of Bette's hand. There was hooting, and also hollering. She continued, "First of all, he took me to a bar that was on the ground floor of his apartment building." The audience hissed. What sort of a lazy jerk makes his date meet him in his own building? A fair point, except the bottom floor of my apartment is a laundromat, and no matter how many times I've begged, they don't serve alcohol there. The truth was that I always try to pick a bar in my date's neighborhood, so she'll feel relaxed and comfortable. I had this time as well — Bette and I lived in the same neighborhood. But I kept quiet, because I suspected that quibbling over the facts would make me look defensive. As the audience finished grumbling, Bette leveled her second charge. "Get a load of this: when he showed up on the date, he was wearing a backpack! Who brings a backpack on a date?"
It was like someone set off a fire alarm in the place. Women were laughing, screaming, shaking their heads at me as if I couldn't see them from ten feet away.
Now, I admit, a backpack is not the most stylish and debonair item to bring on a romantic evening. Previous girlfriends have mentioned it, and Alexis and Jennifer made it clear with their expressions that they were not impressed. Fair enough. I'll take that one on the chin. But what came next was really pushing it. With the entire room on her side, Bette readied for the big blows. "So obviously, I knew I was on a date with a guy who need some work."
"Ha ha," said the audience, nodding knowingly at my hopeless unsophistication. "And boy, was I right, when at ten p.m. on the dot he took out a pillbox and swallowed his medication!" Bette looked around for shock and awe, but this time, not everyone in the room responded to her command.
Aiming to smooth things over, Alexis said, "Well, I carry those for vitamins and stuff. You must have just been taking vitamins, right?"
"Uh… no, not really," I said. "I have things I take medication for…"
Bette jumped in. "But what are you even taking pills for?"
Let me just say, for the record, that the way to convince an audience that you are darling and wonderful, and that the man who took you on a date is a total goofball, is not to demand on national television the complete list of maladies for which he takes prescription medication. I know this, because when I responded, "Really, you want me to go through everything that's wrong with me here in front of the cameras?" one of the hosts said, "Let's move on." I then knew that it wasn't going to be necessary to say what I was really thinking, which was, of course, "I take pills because of people like you."And in all likelihood, it's probably best that went unsaid.
Perhaps sensing that the mood in the studio had changed, Bette pulled her trump card. "And the weirdest thing of all…" she began. The hosts leaned in, the audience leaned in — hell, even I leaned in at this point — "…was that he didn't have anything to drink." It's too bad she didn't have a briefcase, because you could tell she was dying to slam it shut, plop down on her chair and declare "case closed."
She had presented me as a kind of geeky guy who doesn't really know how to handle himself on a date and has medical issues and perhaps a drinking problem. A surprisingly accurate sketch, but not one that's going to get a room full of women to yell, "Get the bastard!"
As it happens, I'm not an alcoholic. I was just taking some time off drinking after being diagnosed with a gluten allergy. (I told you I was a geek.) Nothing serious at all, but I wasn't going to explain that. The room was on my side, and I was going to let Bette sweat it out. Back on my side, Jennifer pitched me a softball: "So, obviously you guys didn't have a great first date, but would you like to go out again?"
"Are you out of your mind?" I said, and the room erupted in laughter.
After I got off camera, producers surrounded me with apologies and congratulations. "We're so sorry! We thought it would be fun and playful, but she was just so, well, mean." I agreed and assured them it was fine, which it really was, and went on about my day. Bette, I remembered, was a performer — a cabaret singer, of course — and she was probably just looking for an easy way to get on TV. Apparently she had seen my first appearance and called the show, telling them she had been on a date with me and had some stories to tell.
But the segment turned out to be so unpleasant and uncomfortable that Whatever wouldn't be able to use it all. The lead producer called me an hour later to say they were cutting the whole thing. No harm, no foul. Surprisingly, I came through this public assault feeling a lot better about my general dateability, especially after several audience members stopped me outside and apologized for doubting me. One of them even offered me her daughter's phone number, with one word of warning: "Don't wear the backpack. That's really uncool."