"You're an asshole, " the Chicago-based DJ said to me.
"Thank you," I said - or almost said, before he perfected an asshole move of his own. He cut me off.
"Who needs this book?" he ranted. "I totally disagree with the premise -"
The silence was epic. "What's that mean?"
And he wasn't alone. Having spent the past couple of months promoting a memoir I wrote called A$$hole: How I Got Rich & Happy By Not Giving a Damn About Anyone (Random House/Broadway), I have had ample opportunity to witness the deadly silences, the awkward social disconnects that greet those of us who thrive on the dying art of irony.
"Irony," to paraphrase Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites, "is where the literal meaning is the opposite of the actual meaning." Take A$$hole. It's the story of a nice guy (me) who systematically turns himself into a Grade A bag of dicks with an expense account. Though it's based on a real-life experiment, it's ironic from cover to cover. I can guarantee this in writing. It's like a diet book that recommends a great new weight loss plan: stop eating.
Trouble is, most of the people I've spoken to about this project - both in and out of the media - do not understand why a person would say one thing while meaning another. It's a good question, actually. The only excuse I can think of is that my parents are British.
While it's reasonable to point to The Colbert Report as a symptom liberals haven't entirely lost touch with doubletalk, literal-mindedness has become epidemic on the right side of the dial. Ironically enough, A$$hole's biggest booster was the ultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. One of his largest newspapers and three of his broadcast outlets have so far
helped me bewilder our nation's conservatives.
It started with a short Q&A I did for the New York Post's "@ Work" section. I'd made a tactical decision early on to play these interviews straight, like Borat or Colbert, and assume the audience would meet me half way. I was half right.
After the Post piece came out, I got a dozen emails calling me a dick. I was flattered, of course, but rather less so when a friend of my wife's told her she didn't like me anymore. Because of the venue, perhaps, most people were inclined to assume I was some jerk who'd gone too far - who was recommending sociopathy as a personal style.
Then Neil Cavuto called. The venerable Fox News host and head of the Fox Business Network had seen the piece in the Post and wanted me on his show, stat. Jumping into my A$$hole costume (two-toned color, big watch, red tie from the Donald J. Trump Collection), I scrambled to the storied tower of power on Avenue of the Americas and rushed into makeup.
"How are you famous?" asked the makeup woman. It's not a question this A$$hole gets very often.
"I wrote a book on how to be an asshole."
Her grip on the flat brush tightened. "Oh," she said.
Watching myself on the TiVo later that night, I thought I looked a little more orange than was perhaps ideal for television.
Cavuto himself was restrained, even charming. He had me on his Fox News Channel program "Your World with Neil Cavuto," and then asked me back for a longer chat on his Fox Business Network show. I shared my tips for getting ahead at work - don't listen, take credit for everything, never admit to a mistake - as he nodded generously.
Bill O'Reilly once told Colbert he was just pretending to be a prick on Fox News - that it was all an "act." If so, it's an ironic pose lost on the world. I wonder if the same is true of Cavuto, who's more gentlemanly by nature. Because at one point he said to me, "We've been talking to people who know you, and they say you don't believe a word of this."
Finally! I thought. Somebody who understands!
Sadly, he was flying solo. The response to those appearances, in blogs and emails, as well as at my aunt's 68th birthday party, was a sticky admixture of disapproval and pity, as well as a few shouts of you-go-girl from people who kind of frightened me.
"What happened in your childhood to make you want to do this?" asked a reporter from London's Sunday Times. "I don't agree with you at all," said Mancow "Mad Cow" Mueller, the syndicated radio host, before drowning out my response with a remix of a Soundgarden song that sounded like "Asshole Sun."
A child of the 1980's, I am devastated to report that the era of David Letterman and Spy magazine is finally over. It's time to hold a mock funeral for the art of irony.
The nadir of my two-faced adventures so far was an interview I did with the "Todd & Sonia" morning radio program on Mix106 in Sydney, Australia. Todd and Sonia are the co-hosts of Australia's version of "Dancing with the Stars," and I'd barely had a chance to thank them for
having me on when Todd stepped on me with -
"You know what really disturbs me, Marty?" he asked.
"I was one of these people," he emoted. "I was the guy who was the jerk. And let me tell you, it's a cold and lonely road to go down."
"I'm not -"
But Todd was on a roll: "What about the children, Marty?! What if some young person picks up this book and thinks this is the right way to act? I wouldn't pay one dollar for this thing."
Now, as an A$$hole, my feelings don't get hurt. But I did begin to question my interview tactics. Or at least the wisdom of talking to assholes who don't read.