Asked to compare himself to other hosts of television anthologies, author Kurt Vonnegut says, "I'm not as serious as Alistair Cooke, not as sinister as Rod Serling, and, as for the master, Hitchcock, I'm not that fat."
Tonight, the 68-year-old writer ("Slaughterhouse Five," "Cat's Cradle," "Breakfast of Champions") debuts as a host when "Monkey House," airs on Showtime. Vonnegut introduces the trilogy adapted from three short stories taken from his 1950 collection "Welcome to the Monkey House." If the response is good, an anthology series will be developed along the lines of "Ray Bradbury's Theatre," the USA Network program featuring the stories of the prolific science-fiction writer (and Vonnegut's friend).
Vonnegut clearly relishes his dual role as host and story editor on the project, supervising screenwriters who have been assigned to adapt the material.
He talks sanguinely about the experience in the imposing Manhattan Eastside brownstone where he lives with his wife, photographer Jill Krementz, and their 8-year-old daughter, Lily. The brace he wears on his left foot is the unhappy result of a race with his daughter to the local hamburger joint, which ended with him suffering a nasty fall and a severely twisted ankle. "She won," he deadpans.
With a face set off by mournful basset-hound eyes and unruly hair, the writer erupts often with husky laughter when telling stories, usually at his own expense. In much the same manner, Vonnegut's rumpled appearance at the beginning of "Monkey House" sets the tone: whimsy glinting with mischief as he guides the audience around a stark white room with a fake perspective. Vonnegut, the son of an architect, designed the set, which features enough doors for a farce, including a trap door in the center.
Why a trap door?
"For the hell of it," he says. "Trap doors are fun."
The same playful spirit buoys the three tales the producers chose for the trial balloon.
"Next Door" features the menacing adventures of a 9-year-old left home alone when the baby-sitter fails to show. ('I was there first," he growls when reminded of the similarity to "Home Alone," the top-grossing film.) "The Euphio Question" examines the social ethics of an invention whose cosmic rays lull recipients into a euphoric trance. ("The advent of television inspired that one."). And "All the King's Men" sets up an intriguing chess game with life-and-death stakes when a South American guerrilla leader takes a United States ambassador and his family hostage along with a group of other Americans.
Vonnegut says the producers looted a bank of 20 short stories in the collection, although he figures that he has written more than 50 in his career. Most were published in what he calls the "old-timey" magazines (Colliers, Saturday Evening Post), which were fixtures in his Indiana boyhood home. "That's how America entertained itself before television," he says. "The whole family read the serials. You couldn't get too serious in the short-story format. It's almost like a one-joke payoff."
The new lease on these stories came some years ago when executive producer Bruce Campbell ("Johnny Get Your Gun") approached Vonnegut to write for a new program for Dick Shawn. The comedian's death disrupted those plans but led to the development of the anthology series.
"The producers said they wanted to make episodes that had a beginning, middle and end," he recalls. "And to get that, you have to go back to those short stories in the old-timey magazines. Today, everything is mood and wants, but then, well, Bradbury and I were just hacks."
Surprisingly, Vonnegut, noted as an outspoken essayist and lecturer, half-apologizes for the political resonance of the anthology's last story, "All the King's Men." The writer has never been shy to weigh in with unpopular opinions. He recently wrote a letter to The New York Times in which he likened the present atmosphere in the United States to, as he now puts it: " ... a dinner party at a beautiful home where everybody is being polite and very bubbly but there is this awful stink coming from somewhere. It's getting worse all the time but nobody wants to be the first to mention it."
He refers to the colonel in "All the King's Men" as a cretin and adds, "That's what's so awful about the Persian Gulf War. Suddenly officers are getting credit for being intelligent and they're not.
"Let me tell you about 'supporting our troops,' he says, warming to the subject. "I was a troop. And when we came back home from the Second World War, we certainly didn't think of ourselves as heroes and we weren't treated as such. We were a bunch of jerks, led by jerks and we were glad it was all over. Now everybody's a hero and everybody gets a medal. As a P.O.W. (he was captured in the Battle of the Bulge in Germany), I'm entitled to a medal which I've never collected. I don't know what it looks like, but it should have a yellow streak down the middle. There were heroes in World War II but you can count them on one hand."
Returning to the matter at hand, he dismisses any notion of "Monkey House" as a forum for his political opinions. "We're here really just to entertain," he says.
Cautiously optimistic, he adds that he has already begun to develop on speculation five or six treatments for future episodes. He begins to chortle to himself about one of them which he refuses to talk about, except to say that it calls for the largest cast of tap-dancers ever assembled. "We're talking Cecil B. numbers," he says.
Will he be among them?
"God no!" he exclaims. "My tap-dancing days are over.'
"Monkey House" airs tonight at 9 and repeats Thursday at 1:10 a.m. on Showtime.