Totie Fields was a fantastically funny borscht belt comedienne who is, sadly, pretty much forgotten today. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was a star of supper clubs, comedy records and a frequent presence on TV which, at the time, provided a large, exciting platform for comics because of the sheer number of game shows, talk shows, and variety shows. Because there were only a handful of options on TV, the media that existed enjoyed much greater cultural presence across a broader demographic than the fractured effluence of today’s media landscape. So when tough little Totie got fed up with the phony preening of KISS co-founder Gene Simmons, her decision to temporarily eviscerate him from the planet with just five words was notable.
If you were a kid growing up at that time, especially a gay Jewish kid like me, Totie was just mishpokhe—family. She was also warm, funny, and quick. My mother had gone back to college had night classes once or twice a week. In her absence, we would be passively supervised by Betty Pealman, a middle-aged woman that my mother found who-knows-where who wore night nylon tops and chain-smoked Parliaments. Mrs. Pealman was, perhaps, the world’s laziest babysitter, but we enjoyed the same TV shows so we got along well. Our evenings The Joker’s Wild, Beat The Clock, The Hollywood Squares followed by the Merv Griffin Show, with a crappy Swanson’s TV Dinner thrown into the line-up and a make-over with my mother’s cosmetics for dessert. Apparently, if you were a lazy middle-aged woman at that time, Totie Fields was equally enjoyable, so when Merv would have Totie on, Mrs. Pealman and I knew that fun would be had.
On TV talk shows of the period the segments were long—not like today where they break for commercials after four minutes. When the star sat on the panel they might talk for twelve or fifteen minutes. Hosts back then were exceedingly earnest, primarily because they weren’t comics. Mike Douglas was the friendly everyman, Merv Griffin the swooning fan girl (literally), Dick Cavett the witty intellectual, and Dinah Shore the southern belle who elevated active listening to an art form. They were the least self-involved interviewers ever. Even though I like many of the contemporary hosts, the thing about comics who are talk show hosts is that they’re always looking for the joke, which not only slows the interviews down, but frequently makes it about them.
Growing up watching their talk shows and paying close attention to the expanded, in-depth interviews was like taking a class in Hollywood history. Because guests didn’t leave after their interview but instead moved over a seat to make room for the next guest, there was always the possibility of conflict on the panel. Sometimes it was just a culture clash or the cognitive dissonance of watching two stars from completely different solar systems attempting to relate (Gloria Swanson and Janis Joplin, anyone?—Not kidding.) Talk shows of the era enjoyed a spontaneity and unpredictability that is the opposite of today’s media savvy, publicist-controlled programming. In a world where a hot mic can pick up a private thought, go viral in an hour and ruin a career, the stakes are too high.
Because I was a good student and did well under the detached supervision of Mrs. Pealman, I had the necessary schema to understand what I was witnessing the day Mike Douglas brought Gene Simmons on as a second panelist after Totie. KISS had just broken nationally and, as you will see, in his unfocused, self-conscious attempt to scare us with his “otherness,” he ended up serving us schtick as crappy as anything Totie may have witnessed in the Catskills. As Gene struts across the flimsy set doing his very best to freak out the audience, Totie initial bewilderment is quickly replaced by incredulousness and, soon after, a growing impatience with the rock star’s transparent charade.
Once she’s had enough, Totie decides to Gene Simmons down and he goes down hard; it only takes the comic veteran five withering words to finish the job. The glorious exchange proves that looks can be deceiving: Gene Simmons was the cheesy loser and Totie Fields was a rock star.