Psychic TV | Essay | Chicago Reader

Psychic TV 

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When I was in my 20s, selling out was a hot topic of conversation among us young writers, journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and such. Twenty years later I was making car commercials. You'da thought I could'nt sink any lower.

I could.

Three years after car commercials I was writing and producing a 900-number psychic infomercial.

I tried to remain faithful to ethics and principle and truth, but the kind of piety needed to remain fa-ithful and also make money escaped me.

So now here I was in charge of a big-budget, multicamera, totally bullshit TV production designed to get morons to spend money they don't have to hear bogus advice from telephone "psychics" whose job is is to keep them on the phone as long as possible.

Telling you this is like a pro wrestler telling you his sport is fixed, or like a tabloid writer telling you he made up all the stories.

I did that too.

So you've already figured out that these psychic infomercials are a crock of shit. I'm here to confirm that fact for you. The show contained a half hour of "psychic readings," "true-life" incidents, "testemonials," interviews, and a 900 number that ran at the bottom of the screen at all times--with the little print beneath it, "For Entertainment Purposes Only."

We know, we know.

It all started when a poet friend and I decided we wanted to go into the 900-number psychic business. He had worked at a psychic hotline just prior to his detox. We were both broke and, I mean, how hard could it be to fool people who believe in this stuff?

There was a lot of money to be made. A whole lot. More than either one of us had ever seen, according to our projections. We had endless negotiations with a sleazeball 900-number company that also wanted to get into the fortune-telling biz. We were almost ready to sign a contract when a woman-call her Kathy--showed up.

Kathy had done car commercials and pitched other similarly high-class businesses on TV. She had a short acting ing career that flopped--small parts in a couple of TV movies. All along she had been an astrologer, doing charts for money. In her late 30s or early 40s, tall with short frosted blond hair, glamorous from across the room, she was severe but ingratiating, full of treacly new-age insincerity. She thought she had hit it big when she did a 900-number psychic infomercial for Mike Lasky aka Mike Warren, who had made a lot of money as a gambling tout. Her informercial was a big hit. Suckers were calling by the thousands, but she felt she wasn't slurping enough from the trough, so she quit. Lasky went on to make those hilarious Psychic Friends Network shows with Dionne Warwick and Rip Taylor. Kathy put together her own bunch of fortunetellers, and called the group the International Foundation of Professional Psychic Counselors. She wanted it to sound like they were therapists.

Don't laugh.

OK, laugh.

I laughed. Not in front of Kathy, however.

Before you could say "Get lost, boys!-" the poet and I were out and she was in with the 900-number company. And the 900-number company had the bucks. Or so we thought.

The poet got tossed over the side, and I fought hard enough to get to write and produce Kathy's infomercial. I promised not to sue them. Kathy showed me her previous show and its script. Said she wanted a more dignified type of show, in keeping with her psychic-as-therapist concept.

I asked, We want live readings like you had in the first show don't we? Yes.

Are you going to provide the psychics? Yes.

And you're providing the people getting the readings? Natch. And they'll already know the psychics? Yeah.

And they'll have interesting stuff in their readings? Of course.

And you can provide the studio audience? Oh yes.

She did provide most of the audience. I provided some--my girlfriend and her son, a junk-shop owner and her friend, and the poet who got dumped. Kathy brought in the psychics and the people who were getting the readings. And they came in for the dress rehearsal the afternoon of the shoot.

Kathy sent me a roster of "client testimonials" with descriptions like "Is willing to say anything we want" and "Will say whatever we need." I wrote most of the script; Kathy wrote some of it and approved the rest. Here's how one of the spontaneous, handpicked-audiencemember live readings opened. Kathy just happened to be at the right row to choose "Jackie." Quoting directly from the shooting script:

Kathy: Who's ready for a reading?

(Audience applauds/hands shoot up/Kathy picks Jackie.)

Kathy: What is your name?

Jackie: Jackie Brown.

Kathy: Have you ever had a reading before?

Jackie: Yes, I have.

Kathy: Do You have a specific area of your life you want find out about?

Jackie: Yes I do.

Kathy: Well, go right on into the counseling center and meet Grace!!!

(Jackie walks to cc/audience applause/music.)

Oh my, was that dishonest?

By the way, the show opened with two disclaimers at the bottom of the screen, in very small print on a field of video blue: "The people you will see are not actors" and "The psychic demonstrations are real."

Both lies. The people were rehearsed, thus acting.

OK, number two is not a lie--it's just misleading. It doesn't say that the psychic readings are real. It says that what you think are readings--what we're telling -you are real readings--are only "demonstrations," and that these are real. Real demonstrations.

Since we were trying to make the suckers call from home, we had to have a live reading from someone calling from home. We did.

Well, not exactly.

The call caller worked for the 900-number company, and though she was actually speaking on the phone to Raj, the psychic on the set, she was aslo in a room on the second floor of the production building. We had cleverly disguised one the editing rooms to look like her home. She was rehearsed, though not as well as I would have liked. But she was in sales and therefore experienced in pretending.

There were money problems from the start. The people from the 900-number number company said they had a lot of money, but they didn't. They tried to bring in an Iranian who owned a lot of those pay phones never work, but he wanted to own everything and never put up a dime.

When the set was delivered--and the builders wanted their $10,000 or they would take the set back where it came from--the 900-number company bailed and Kathy put up the money herself

Cash problems continued. So much so that one of the people getting a live reading was a potential investor. Kathy figured it would be to our advantage to put him in the show. He was given a reading by a woman--a "doctor"--who claimed been a psychic for the KGB. She looked like Khrushchev and wore those upside-down glasses. She claimed to have used her psychic abilities in the Soviet space program. Sorry, folks, I did not check with Moscow to confirm. The potential investor also came to the rehearsal. After all, he had to protect his possible investment. The jolly doctor told him he possessed great physical and emotional strength and that if he took home the extra-special Russian psychic scarf on the table before them, he would become a multimillionaire.

He kept the scarf and his money.

Early in the process I wanted a celeb. Got to have a celeb, right?

We did not get Dionne Warwick. Or Rip Taylor, or Jimmie "J.J." Walker, or any former Brady Buncher. Kathy told me that an old friend of hers--matter of fact someone whose chart she had done--was Jeff Byron.

"Who the fuck is Jeff Byron?" I thought. "Oh, he's..." I said. "He played Dr. Martin on All My Children!" Kathy said. Great, Kathy, right up our demographic!

We set up Jeff's intro by having an audience member ask Kathy how she got into the business. Then during her answer she suddenly remembered that "one of my clients just happened to be in town," and why doesn't he come out from behind the set and say hi?

We had flown him in for the rehearsal the previous day, and there had been a stink because he wanted first-class travel and we wanted to pay coach.

The script was full of hilarious misdirections:

Kathy: We have a group of professional psychics who have been certified by the International Foundation of Professional Psychic Counselors.

Well, she started the IFPPC. She was the IFPPC. .

I wrote most of the audience questions. And the answers. Kathy wrote the rest of them.

Kathy: Before we do a reading, do we have my questions on the psychic experience?

(Medium wide shot audience/ hands shoot up all over.)

Audience Member 2A: Kathy how do I know I can trust the psychic to be qualified?

Kathy: Each of our psychics have be fully accredited before we allow them to be with us.

Member 2A: That puts my mind at ease.

Of course they were accredited. Her own organization was doing the accrediting.

The final segment was designed to make the suckers weep. Some poor man's daughter had been murdered. Years later he was visited, he claimed, by a ghost-. He called somebody connected with Kathy, and she sent a guy, a--ready?--"ghost psychologist" who claimed not only that he could contact dead people -but that "dysfunctions survive death."

There's something to look forward to.

On the set he crossed his plaid pant legs and told us that he had contacted the poor man's visitor and--guess what?--it was not his daughter, but his daughter's murderer seeking forgiveness.

The ghost was forgiven, and everybody lived happily every after. What a great way to end the show! Makes -you want to call a psychic this minute, doesn't it?

And what was I doing during the taping? Oh, complicity! I was standing at the monitor, jumping up and down, waving my arms, and leading the audience in wild cheering. And trying to keep them from leaving before it was over. And baby-sitting Kathy, who had performed much better in rehearsal--so much so that we used the ghost segment from the rehearsal instead of the main taping.

I was Kathy's Rip Torn.

I'm a sleazeball too. A bigger sleazeball, because I once had ethics and knew better.

On the other hand, I was merely making TV. That's how TV people justify working on dishonest crap--or just plain crap. I could've been driving a cab. I wasn't--I was making TV, with a decent-sized budget and a five-camera shoot.

Call it media denial.

But look, when I was writing for the Sun and told America that a tribe of South American Indians who had never seen the outside world had been found dancing naked around a statue of Elvis and chanting something that sounded like "Viva Las Vegas," was I responsible for anyone believing it? Not any more than I'm responsible for anyone believing that somebody else can tell you what your future holds. Over the phone.

I got my punishment. It was a $100,000 production, and in the end Kathy paid everybody but me. I think they call it karma.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mitch O'Connell.

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