I can't talk to you now.
I'm busy talking to Herb Stempel, who you might remember was a celebrated quiz show contestant of the 1950s.
I mentioned Mr. Stempel in a recent column about the mega-hit quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." And it seems I was not, technically, totally accurate in referring to him. So I called him in New York City to apologize.
"I wrote 'Stemple,' with 'LE' at the end," I said.
"It's S-T-E-M-P-E-L," he said.
"I also wrote that you appeared on 'The $64,000 Question,' " I said.
"No, it was 'Twenty-One,' " Mr. Stempel said.
"There's one other tiny item."
"I, um, I said you were dead. Hahaha. Isn't that a riot? Um, Mr. Stempel, you're not laughing."
Let us review:
I spelled the man's name wrong. I got his claim to fame wrong. And I said he was currently dead when he was alive. I hit the trifecta!
Oh, baby. Do you want to hand me my Pulitzer now, or will you mail it? That's K-o-r-n-h-e-i-s-e-r.
Anybody can spell a name wrong. As a matter of fact, the reason I misspelled Stempel's name is because my friend Gino peeked at the column as I was composing it and tried to save me embarrassment by telling me, "You've got the guy's name wrong." At the time, I was calling him "Herb Stuckler."
Gino said, "It's Stemple, you idiot."
My friend Nancy warned me I had the wrong quiz show, and though I generally value Nancy's counsel enormously, I figured she's just a chick. What does she know?
The thing about Herb being dead? That was all moi.
A lot of you are probably wondering how a prize-winning columnist could make such a stunning series of mistakes. You're probably saying: Jeez, Tony, don't you check anything?
What do I look like, a freakin' database?
I should explain the sophisticated journalistic process I go through while producing this column: I write something I think might be true, such as, "Herb Stemple made a bundle of dough on 'The $64,000 Question,' and now he's dead as a doornail." Then I walk outside my office and I yell at whomever is around, "Hey! Anybody? Herb Stemple, the guy on the quiz shows 45 years ago--alive or dead?"
I literally mean "anybody." It could be somebody fixing the copy machine, or a Japanese tour group. I don't care. If nobody says, "Alive! He's in my bowling league," then I go with my gut, and my gut said: Dead.
I mean, come on, the guy was on TV in the 1950s. The sets looked like aquariums. Nobody got out of those alive.
True, I have access to up-to-the-minute online resources. I could get most of the information I need from my own computer. But I'm so pathetically technophobic I don't even know how to score porn! So I have perfected an open-the-door-and-holler approach to research. I am well known for this. In fact, my friend Tracee keeps a list of some of the questions I have asked recently, which include, and I quote verbatim:
"What was an event before the 1600s that was famous and that involved only one person, like Martin Luther nailing the proclamation to the church door--but not that?"
"Who's blind that you can make fun of?"
"You know the thing that goes, 'Mine eyes have seen the glory yada-yada-yada'? What's that called?"
My mistakes about Herb Stempel could have been far worse. It would be inexcusable, for example, if I ever identified Joan of Arc as "that minx who drowned in a motorboat accident in the Yucatan."
But what I did was bad enough to warrant this embarrassing correction. (Of course, I'd prefer to be writing a correction like: "Lord Alfred Beckwith DeBootay, the English nobleman whose descendants invented cream cheese, was mistakenly referred to as the eighth Earl of Shropshire. He was the seventh.")
I've thought about trying to wiggle out of this. I could say, "What's the big deal? So I had some guy dead, and he's alive. So sue me! Hahaha. Hey, I'm a humor writer. Nobody believes the crap I write. Here, I'll demonstrate: Woodrow Wilson was gay."
Or I could say, "So what if Herb Stempel is alive? I was talking about Herb Stemple! Have we heard from him yet?"
And, of course, I thought about claiming David Broder wrote it.
I have to admit this whole episode has humbled me, made me more tolerant of imperfection in others. I used to go ballistic when anybody made a mistake at my expense. I won't be so quick to judge people again. Oh, excuse me for a second--that's my doorbell.
"Hey, hold on, pal. This is pepperoni. I ordered green pepper. What, you were smoking so much dope you grabbed the wrong box? Green pepper. Got it? Maybe remembering both a color and a food group was too tough for you. Now go back and get me the pizza I ordered before I call your parole officer!"
Hi, I'm back. Where were we?
Anyway, I called Herb Stempel, and he was great. We chatted for a while. I asked him about the quiz shows nowadays.
He told me about watching "Jeopardy!" a year ago and being appalled at how easy the questions were: "For $1,000 they asked, 'What is the capital of Paraguay?' That was a romp!"
There was silence on my end.
"Asuncion," Herb said.
Oh, yeah, sure.
"TV Guide called me recently," Herb continued. "They gave me sample questions from this 'Millionaire' show. For a million dollars they asked: Who was Sissy Spacek's cousin? And the choices were: Cliff Robertson, Wilford Brimley, Rip Torn and Jack Lemmon."
Herb paused. He might have been waiting for me to answer. But I was still trying to spell "Asuncion." I thought the capital of Paraguay was Paraguay City.
"It's Rip Torn," Herb said. "They're both from Texas."
Who didn't know that?
I thanked Herb for his time, and apologized again for my mistakes.
"I guess I got you confused with Charles Van Doren, who is dead," I said.
"No he's not," Stempel said.
Hey! Anybody? Charlie Van Doren, dead or alive?