Hugh Downs actually slapped his knee he was so amused by what was happening on the monitor in the "Tonight Show's" green room. His daughter, watching the same monitor, rolled her eyes and grimaced.
Jay Leno's guests, Bob and Chris Elliott, father and son, were making a shameless pre-Father's Day pitch for Chris' book "Daddy's Boy," a "Shocking Account of Life with a Famous Father."
As usual, they waltzed a dangerous line between droll and dumb, and as Chris described his sixth birthday party--at which columnist Art Buchwald allegedly rode around on the Elliott family's giant trained pig--people watching from behind the scenes seemed evenly divided as to which side of the line the two comedians were on.
A partner in the comedy team Bob and Ray, Bob Elliott has spent four decades building a reputation as a sort of anti-celebrity. Which may have had some viewers wondering how his son Chris could write an offspring expose, portraying his father as an "insane, megalomaniacal superstar," driven to bizarre and sadistic behavior by an insatiable lust for fame.
The viewers who wonder about the book's veracity would be those who usually fall asleep after "Tonight." Those who stay awake for "Late Night with David Letterman" know that Chris, like his father, has made a career of absurdist satire, portraying characters with no comedic raison d'etre, including "the guy under the seats," "the fugitive guy" and "the panicky guy," a supposed audience member who is thrown into wild anxiety by Letterman's every innocuous comment.
"Daddy's Boy," written by Chris with alternating "rebuttal" chapters by his father, seems to be part of the younger Elliott's self-designed rite of passage into the entertainment mainstream.
'An Acquired Taste'
It's unclear to most observers whether his father ever made that passage. In his standard deadpan, Bob Elliott said that the humor he and Ray Goulding made famous in 40 years of commercials, radio shows, television shows, and appearances on Carson, Letterman, and "Saturday Night Live," is "an acquired taste."
If comedians were cheese, though, Bob Elliott would be Velveeta and his son would be a Limburger whipped up by midget entrepreneurs in the humid gift shop of a Texas roadside attraction.
Consequently, not everyone's sure that the world is ready for Chris. Even David Letterman, the person responsible for first subjecting viewers to Elliott fils, hedges his bet on the book. As he writes in his foreword: "I couldn't be more certain that it won't do well."
Asked in a phone interview whether he thought Elliott's television appearances were going well, Letterman snarled: "I haven't seen any. I have better things to do than chart his career."
"Have you read the book?" a young producer of "L.A. In the Morning" asked a visitor to the set, while the father and son settled in before a fake skyline for an interview with Stephanie Edwards. "It's very strange," he said with a nervous grin. "I don't know what to make of it."
More important, what would a morning audience make of a book that asserts, among many other things, that Bob Elliott and his son escaped the sinking of the Andrea Doria ocean liner aboard a two-seat Hammacher Schlemmer submarine, arriving in Manhattan with Tony Orlando coincidentally swimming alongside?
Edwards introduced the book as a son's "pathetic search for love," an expose that "makes the 'Mommy Dearest' relationship pale in comparison." She was quick to point out, of course, that the book can be taken seriously for "about 20 seconds."
But as Chris gave Edwards his big smarmy grin, and reminisced about life in the family's palatial New York home, which would later become the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some viewers may have been left unsure of where this alleged joke and reality intersect.
Typical of the abused celebrity offspring on the talk-show circuit, the Elliotts helped plug their "excellent Father's Day gift" with photos from the book: A young Chris wearing a Latex bald wig to accommodate a father who demanded they look alike; the adolescent boy, grotesquely obese, lying in bed with his eventual savior, Dick Gregory, kneeling beside him.
"What was I, Dad, about 875 pounds?" Chris asked with casual sincerity.
"That's what you say," his father replied, looking bewildered and embarrassed, as if his son's psychiatrist had suggested that it might be therapeutic to humor Chris with this book tour but that he himself had serious doubts.
The video clips Edwards showed offered no more insight into where Elliott sanity begins or ends. The first was old black-and-white footage in which Bob and Ray engage in a seemingly pointless discussion of a stuffed deer's head.