"OHHHHH," sighs Jayne Meadows, with a bubbly, half-inhaled laugh, "he does this to me all day long." Her husband, that scamp Steve Allen, has just made another of those rascally wiseacre remarks of his, then feigned a look of mild remorse that fooled no one.
Jayne sits down for lunch talking about the liquid diet she's been on. She is "very vain," she says, and wants to lose a few pounds so she can fit into all her "gowns" because she is "too cheap" to buy new ones. "You getting all this down?" asks Steve. " 'Cheap, Vain Actress'? I think this is a piece for the Enquirer."Life with Steverino -- a million laughs, right? But life with Jayne Meadows, 55, has to be a few hundred thousand or so, too. Sitting at the table in a bright red blouse, wearing bright pink lipstick, her long eyelashes fluttering like butterflies, her bracelets jingling as she gestures, she brings to mind the image of a neon sign on Times Square. Steve, 60 now, and sporting of late a scientific-looking beard, listens patiently, jumps in occasionally, sometimes whips out a tiny tape recorder and mutters into it memos for his secretary back in L.A.Jayne is asked if she was in Los Angeles during its most recent earthquake. "Yes," she says, eyes wide open. "Steve felt it. I didn't.""She was talking at the time," says Steve. As Jayne laughs, Steve reaches into his pocket. "I'm going to put this into my tape recorder," he says. "You're not going to get all the good stuff."
At times perhaps they may seem ultra-kitschy caricatures of themselves, a moth and a flame; Jayne the glamoroso chatterbox, Steve the fitfully professorial Renaissance man whose ubiquitous over-achieving is amusingly parodied in the current National Lampoon (Steve thought that was funny, and wrote them a letter). Of course he also happens to have one of the most agile comic minds that ever graced television. Jayne has graced a lot of television, too.
"You know, John Davidson did aSee AIR, H5, Col. 1 AIR, From H1 lovely tribute to Steve last week," she says.
"Unfortunately, we were in the parking lot at the time," says Steve.
This act and this marriage have played well for more than 25 years on and off the air. At least three things have to be handed to this contented couple: They have remained insatiably productive, they have remained fun to be with, and they have remained married.
"They're always asking us what the secret is," says Jayne. "I wish I knew. I could bottle it and sell it. There is no secret."
Undoubtedly it has helped that Jayne has been, although a talented performer, a great straight man. "Comedians love Jayne because there's this quality about her," says Steve. "She drips straight lines a mile a minute."
"Comedy is really the rarest talent," says Jayne, who obviously feels a seminar coming on. "It is the hardest, it is the most dangerous thing to do. People can learn to be dramatic actors; they can go out and hide behind a dramatic role. There's all kinds of things you can do with dramatic parts that you can't do with comedy because in comedy, if you don't get the laugh, you've failed."
Steve drinks his orange juice as Jayne continues.
"And so there are very, very few people who can do comedy. And very few people who know what's funny. I worked with Lucille Ball and I can say this because she's so successful and she's a friend, but I've never been so shocked in my whole life. They wrote a guest part for me on their show and I did it, and when I turned up, my good friend didn't even speak to me the first day of rehearsal, she was so nervous. She kept saying, 'That isn't funny.' I mean, never in your life! Psychopathic! I mean, I was this calm she holds out a hand on which only the jewelry is moving . And I was the guest for the week. With the worst part I've ever had in my life, and she . . ."
"Do you want this to be part of the story?" asks Steve, looking up from his quiche. "It's okay by me. I just wondered."
"Well," says Jayne, flashing a coquettish smile at the reporter, "I know you would use discretion in what you say." Then, back to ramming speed: "But to think of it! Here is a woman who all through rehearsals . . . and Lucie Jr. would sit there and say, 'Mom, it's funny.' And I was laughing and I would say, 'Lucy, it's hilarious.' And she would say, 'It is? ? ?' She was almost paranoid about it. And she didn't see the humor. And there are lots of people who do comedy who don't see the humor."
Steve is muttering a memo into his tape recorder. Or drinking his orange juice. Or something.
"Groucho used to tell me I reminded him of the woman who was in all his movies . . . Margaret Dumont," Jayne continues. "And I said, 'That old lady?' And he said, 'Well first of all, she wasn't an old lady; you were a child when you saw the shows,' which was true. She was in her thirties and she was very buxom which made her seem older. And Groucho said, 'She never thought we were funny. She never laughed at anything we'd do. She was very annoyed by us, as a matter of fact.'
"Now George Burns says I work just like Gracie. Gracie never saw anything funny. He said, 'Gracie worked deadly seriously like a Broadway actress . . . like you, Jayne.' Anyway, what Groucho said was, 'Jayne, I always thought you were very bewildered.' Now I don't think I'm bewildered. Everybody thinks I'm bewildered. And I don't feel bewildered."
Jayne, Jayne, Jayne, Jayne. She talks about some of the comedy pilots and series episodes she's been in on TV, and why they may have flopped, but Steve keeps reminding her that this or that show was produced by friends of theirs and that the remarks should be off the record. Of one show, Jayne says, "Well, that one I knew was going to be a bomb."
Steve: "Jayne, is that off the record?"
Jayne: "Ugh! Well I don't even care if that's off the record or on the record." Pause. "Wellll, no, I don't want that on the record because I work all the time with them."
One guest-star bit on a current NBC series she turned down altogether, because "I've seen it on the air and it's a crummy property."
Steve: "Off the record?"
Jayne: "Off the record. Now what were we talking about? I can't remember."
"Jayne has a very strong concentration on what she is saying," interjects Steve, "and sometimes this leads to her, in any given 10 sentences, sometimes not hearing sentences number three, four and seven, so that her contributions to the ongoing conversation of which those 10 sentences are a part will occasionally sound like woooooooooo he whistles ."
"But I work my way back again," says Jayne. "It may take a while. But the only thing I know is, it's a good base for comedy, that bewildered thing. And you can't manufacture it. A lot of people try to, but if it's your natural quality, it's your natural quality."
Jayne has been a near-perfect foil, but she plays more assertive roles as well, many of them Great Ladies of History on Steve's show, "Meeting of Minds," which he hopes PBS will pick up for a fourth season. It won an Emmy this year as best informational series.
They send tapes of the show to series fan Clare Boothe Luce in Hawaii, Jayne says. But she would not want to play someone like Clare Boothe Luce on the show. "Oh, no, no. I wouldn't want to play a living person."
"That's what Benny Goodman said to me one time," says Steve (who starred in "The Benny Goodman Story").
"Every actress in the world except me wants to play Joan of Arc," says Jayne. "It's a positive scream. Every actress wants to play Joan of Arc. I can't imagine anything duller to play. Doesn't intrigue me in the least. I don't know what they see in her."
"Well if it was good enough for Bernard Shaw there is obviously something there to work with," says Steve. "But it's been kind of overdone."
"And never done well," declares Jayne. "I imagine if you were to do her truthfully you would find a bit of insanity there. A bit of strange something."
"Is that on the record?" Steve asks her.
"Yes. That's what makes her fascinating."
" 'Saint Was Insane, Says Actress,' " Steve says, imagining another Enquirer headline.
If Steve were producing "Meeting of Minds" 100 years from now, who would the guests be? The question doesn't interest him. But Jayne says, "I think Hitler would definitely be on."
"The thing to do with Hitler, seriously," says Steve, "is surround him with three or four distinguished Jews of historic importance. Seriously. Freud, Einstein . . . "
"And Jesus," says Jayne. "The three greatest Jews of history."
"Well," says Steve, "the Ritz Brothers weren't so bad, either."
"One freed the soul, one freed the mind, and one freed the universe," says Jayne, continuing on her runaway train of thought.
Although Steve's comedy hour on NBC last year did not become a series, Steve and Jayne, singly or together, will be all over TV again this year; Steve, for instance, hosts one episode of the comedic revue "Evening at the Improv," seen here Friday nights on Channel 5.
"Then there's the QE2 special," says Jayne, referring to an upcoming comedy show taped aboard the Queen Elizabeth II.
"Yes," says Steve, "Jayne and I are doing it."
"Jayne is on the special," Jayne corrects him, "that you are doing. He's always saying, 'Jayne and I this, Jayne and I that.' "
"Jayne and I are getting divorced," says Steve.
And then there is the most glorious possibility of all, a televised reunion of "the old gang" from the Steve Allen variety and "Tonight" shows of the '50s and '60s -- Don Knotts, Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Skitch Henderson and the others. Such a show played a sold-out gig at Carnegie Hall a few years ago but, criminally, it wasn't videotaped. A reunion would include one of those cheerfully burlesquey old sketches in which Steve, Jayne and company re-did an old horror movie as a musical.
"I was the bride of Frankenstein," Jayne recalls. "I was the bride of Dracula, too. They couldn't get anyone else to do those parts, you know. I was never part of Steve's show. I never had anything written for me. They would call me the night before and say, 'Jayne, Ann Sothern doesn't like the sketch, be here at 9 o'clock in the morning.' This is what they did to me for all those years!"
"This whole interview," Steve says suddenly, "is off the record."