Frank Zappa Zapped by "Late Show"

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By Doborah Caulfield, Times Staff Writer
Copyright 1987 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
June 12, 1987, Friday, Home Edition


Move over Joan Rivers, you've got company.

Fox Broadcasting has booted Frank Zappa from his scheduled stint as tonight's guest host on "The Late Show" – and replaced him with a re-run. (Exactly which non-Rivers re-run hadn't been decided by press time, a Fox spokeswoman said.)

" 'Every cell in my body is telling me not to do this show,' " producer John Scura said, according to Zappa.

Ironically, it wasn't that the iconoclastic musician wanted to do something controversial or offbeat – Fox went along with those ideas. But when Zappa ultimately wanted National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr and Gerard Thomas Straub – fired as producer of Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" and author of "Salvation for Sale" – Fox balked.

In an interview Thursday, Zappa said Scura told him, " 'People want laughs; they'll be nodding out.' "

Scura declined to be interviewed and a Fox spokeswoman said that a press release issued by the fledgling network would be its only comment. Said the release: "We hope to reschedule him at a future date."

"I'd say the chances of that are very remote – and that's being kind," said a bemused Zappa.

Zappa's recounting of his experience with Fox provided a rare look behind the scenes at Fox and its troubled "Late Show."

Since Rivers' departure last month, the show has featured a series of guest hosts. In the past two weeks, the roster has included Lucie Arnaz, Suzanne Somers, Tom Snyder and comedian Paul Rodriguez. Wednesday, guest host Martin Sheen interviewed former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn, George C. Scott and Kris Kristofferson.

When Zappa was approached to do the show, he said, it was "based on the concept that they would have the guests that I wanted. Originally I suggested Prince, Wynton Marsalis and the group Cameo."

Fox seemed pleased with the suggestions, but none was available, Zappa said, "so I suggested my machine – the computer I make my music on – as a guest." Fox approved that idea, but wanted to know what to do visually while the machine performed.

Zappa suggested the Pilobolus modern dance troupe, which featured "contortionism, acrobatics and just plain weirdness," but the group was out of the country. "So I said, 'Then let's go to a vaudeville agency and get jugglers or a dog show or maybe just get people out of the audience and let them dance around,' " he recalled.

Fox "thought that was kind of cheesy and 'Gong Show-ish,' Zappa said. When Fox nixed his idea to use hand-held cameras with sharp focus, wide-angle lenses (usually used in film) to give the show a different look, Zappa said he smelled trouble.

"They seemed to have this deep-seated belief that the show was really correct," he said. "They seemed to think, 'This is what the public wants; it's just an accident the ratings are in the toilet.' "

Ultimately, Zappa invited Schorr (a former CBS newsman), with Fox's lukewarm approval: "Fox wasn't thrilled with that idea; they didn't even want to pay for his ticket. They wanted me to interview basketball and football players. But I don't know anything about sports!"

Things went from bad to worse when Zappa met "Salvation for Sale" author Gerard Thomas Straub and proposed him as a guest. Straub, a CBS producer turned born-again-Christian, was fired from his job producing "The 700 Club" and had written a book about his experience.

"It's not an indictment of Robertson," Zappa explained, "but it deals bluntly with some of the aspects of CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network)."

Zappa felt that Straub and Schorr would be lively guests.

But Scura and other Fox officials apparently did not, according to Zappa: "They absolutely panicked when I brought up Straub. They said 'Another book guy? No way! The viewers will be nodding out.' "

Zappa disagreed, "What I would have brought on was not going to be 'educational'; I perceived it as good entertainment. But they seem to think that anybody who watches late-night television has a brain the size of a microbe."

Even though Zappa agreed to not use Straub on the show, he was notified Wednesday that a re-run had been scheduled in place of his show.

Finally Zappa was told, " 'We pass on you,' " he recalled.

"I'm not angry, I understand what's happening over there," the musician said. "We had a difference in philosophy. I thought it could have been fun, but it was something that wasn't meant to be."

Zappa chuckled. "It's par for the course. After all, this is Hollywood.

"And that's television."