Ed. Weinberger is responsible for his hand in, arguably, some of the best television to come out of the 20th century. From his work writing for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Dean Martin Show, to creating Taxi, The Cosby Show, and Phyllis, this man has seen it all and been through it all. And after he co-wrote The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs with Ed Asner in 2017, his latest book seems to fit right in.
Gotcha!: Inside Trump’s 2020 Campaign: A Novel by Ed. Weinberger is not precisely life imitating art, but also pretty eerily close, too. The book takes a satirical look at Donald Trump’s bid for re-election, his handling of the Coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, and also losing the election. And despite the book being published in October, there was enough writing on the wall for Weinberger to predict that Trump would be fighting his loss tooth and nail.
One of the best compliments that can be given is just how much the line between fiction and reality can be blurred here. It’s effective in not just being a truly hilarious satire, but also tricking you into believing certain things actually could’ve occurred. There are plenty of moments where you’ll stop to say “That didn’t happen, did it??” And that’s the ultimate testament to what Weinberger has done here.
We recently spoke to Ed. Weinberger about how close he predicted this, why he wanted to write the book, some of the fun he had with certain moments, the narrative style he chose to take on, how he envisioned January 20th playing out, his take on the current scope of late night, writing JFK jokes for The Tonight Show when he found out he had been assassinated, and his friendship with comedy legend Dick Gregory.
There’s points where it’s almost scary how on point you are with some of this stuff.
I seemed to be closer on the mark than I expected to be, frankly.
Definitely. And first thing I’ve got to ask is, your book came out in mid-October, and it features a section about Trump getting COVID in early October. So I must ask, what was the turnaround time on this?
Well I sent it off in August. And then when he got the coronavirus, the book was already printed and I just said “I have to put in this chapter.” And they were able to accommodate me and they slipped in that chapter after the book was totally done. It delayed the publication about a couple of days as it turned out. But I thought it was worth doing.
When did you first have the idea to write the book?
I think it would’ve been this summer. I wrote it very, very fast. And as I was doing it, I didn’t even know what form it was. (Laughs). I don’t know if anybody’s ever done anything quite like this, mixing it. And I just kept going. And then I said “Well, I’ll see what happens when I’m done.” As I was doing it, a couple of thoughts were crossing my mind. One was I’d never make it in time. And in fact, my agent said by the time he drew up a contract with a publisher, it would’ve been too late. And I got a lot of nobody would be interested in Trump when it was being done.
And I just kept doing it. I finished it, and I said “I’ve got to find a way to just publish it.” I wasn’t going to throw away all those pages. I thought they were worth saving and doing. I can’t pinpoint the exact [moment]. You’re living with Trump every day. I have no idea when it occurred to me. I wanted to do something, and this was all I could figure out. And I really did believe one thing. And that was one way or another, this was not going to be a normal election where he would lose and just go away. So I had that. And I thought I would be on the nose with that.
It’s a mix, of course as you already know, of fact and fiction and invention. It’s satirical, but I wanted to use the real names. I wanted to use the real people, the real events. And in a way, by exaggerating certain things just slightly, I think you had a funny but troublesome story. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
It does. And the funny thing is, there were times where I had to stop reading and Google something to see if a certain thing actually happened. And a lot of times, it did. I was learning about things I missed that really happened.
Well like the Pompeo state dinners, that was just something I started doing a little investigation of. And that is pretty much exactly what they were. That sounds like a joke or a parody. And then you have trying to bribe his way to a vaccine. That’s totally invented, but of course that’s just based on the Ukrainian phone call. So I just kept going.
And I thought nobody had really done Trump behind the scenes. So it’s also a bit of a, I don’t want to use the word parody, but it’s a bit of like the Woodward books and the Michael Cohen books which are talking about Trump. So I wanted to go behind the scenes. And since I had no way of really doing that except through invention, I thought that might be fun to hear him in certain circumstances. And of course the Laura Ingraham thing is half true and half fake. They were doing Hydroxychloroquine, but they never had a dinner together at the White House where they talked to each other like that, as far as I know. So I just took what was real and then just tilted it a little bit.
And there’s some stuff that you almost can’t make up. It was too late to include, but when you watch something like Rudy Giuliani at The Four Seasons do you ever think “Even I couldn’t have made this up”?
Well, I sort of dropped Giuliani, because when I was writing it, he had disappeared. He’s only come back recently. I wish I had more of him. And again, it’s the kind of thing where you say “Well, you can’t make that up,” but yes you can make it up. (Laughs). Certainly. I don’t think with him there’s anything you can’t make up that might not come true. I watched last night the hair dye running across his face. And if I were still working on the book, that would’ve been in there. That’s something you could just put in as is, and it’d be just as absurd, if it weren’t at the same time so thoroughly disturbing. Because I think that’s one of the problems. I think it’s all grist for the mill, but at the same time, we’re dealing with the democracy of a country, our country, and it’s serious at the same time.
And you’re able to tow that line I think, because you’re right. Nothing is really too absurd.
No. Nothing in there is something that they’re not capable of. And I found things along the way that are true and somebody said “Did you make it up that he wanted Ivanka as his Vice President?” And I said “No. That is just something that I read. That was just something that came out of the research.” So I put that in.
I wanted a narrative voice to be neutral, in a way. I wanted that to be a neutral voice. I wanted the insanity to come from their own mouths and their own situation. And I did want him to shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, like he predicted. And that, of course, didn’t happen. But I think 80 percent of it is invented. None of those phone calls to his family are real. Obviously I couldn’t have been there to hear it. But I wanted it to be that “What would it have been like to have been there”. To imagine that and have those people talk and hear the absurdity and what they’re going to say.
I’m not sure I’m good talking about what I do. (Laughs). I don’t sound like I’m doing a good job now. But when I finished, I wasn’t sure what I had. I had to predict a winner, I had to take a chance that this is what would happen. And unfortunately I seem to be closer than even I had imagined.
I do hope you’re wrong about [the Trump family refuses to leave]. And it could. That’s the scariest part.
Well that’s a playback to the demonstration that they had, the Black Lives Matter demonstration, where it was outside the White House. And when they were talking about introducing the Insurrection Act. And obviously I hope we don’t get there, either. But this is a President absolutely capable [of doing so]. As we can see. I don’t think anybody saw him trying to subvert state legislatures based upon the constitution giving the states the right to pick the electors. I couldn’t have figured that one out. But I could guess that the worse would happen, that he’s not going to leave.
And by the way, it’s not impossible yet. There could be the riots. There was some thought that, listen, he could declare a national emergency. He had apparently talked about bombing Iran, so he’d have a war. He’s looking for anything that would give him a reason to stay in office. And God only help us with what he’s going to try. But that’s something I believed from the very beginning. So I always knew I had some kind of ending. It doesn’t have to come to this, but it gave the book a finish.
And I did want to do a bunker scene. And I wanted that to be as loony as it would probably turn out to be.
And I love that, once you have them all down there, all they can talk about is food and who ordered what. It’s hysterical that they’re ignoring what’s going on outside.
Well there I went back to my sitcom roots. (Laughs). I just wrote a sketch. A deliberate comedy routine with them there, placing that against the seriousness of exactly what they’re doing now.
So it was fun to do. And of course when I finished, everybody said “It’s too late”. There was a very important person who might have represented the book said “November 3rd. Trump’s going to lose and he’s going to be irrelevant.” And people are still saying that. I think he’s going to be in our lives for the next four years and run again, or try to, unless he goes to jail. But I just didn’t want to underestimate him. And I think the point that bothered me, and maybe that was the motivation to write it, was that we had been underestimating him from the beginning and constantly being surprised at him breaking one norm after another. And my point would be “When are we going to stop being surprised and when are we going to realize what we’ve got here?”
But even the other day, I read a column in New York Times where it’s like “He’s going to be on Dancing With The Stars in a year”. And that’s just not the case. In my mind, anyway. And even if he did [Dancing With The Stars] that wouldn’t stop him. He’s without shame. You can’t humiliate him. He’s not Sarah Palin. This is somebody who has undermined our country in a very serious way. And I guess this is just my way of trying to do something about it. I don’t think it did change any or many votes. And maybe it’s going to be easier to read now that he’s lost. But we still don’t know how this is going to end.
It was definitely easier for me to read knowing that. And one other thing I love about your book is your dedication to your friend, Dick Gregory. He seems like the perfect person to dedicate this book to.
I worked for him a couple years on the road and traveled with him, got involved in the Civil Rights movement through him. And we maintained a relationship, even though I left working for him. And we continued to talk. He was always a good person that had an original perspective on everything that was happening. And this would be as good a time as any to have him around. Not only to comment on the insanity but to give us the inside… He always had an inside sense on what was going on behind the scenes in terms of who was doing what and who was pulling the strings.
So he was a great voice, publicly but also for me he was somebody that I could call and just say “What do you think about this?”. He always found a new way of seeing things and finding things that everybody else had missed.
And I want to jump around a bit. As someone who got their start in television writing for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson way back in the 60’s, What is your take on the current scope of late night and how they’ve covered the political side of things?
Well, I’m not sure. But I do respect, admire, and really like Colbert. If I happen to be around a television set at 11:30, I do wanna hear his monologue. I do think he’s doing the best satire in comedy in television or for that matter anywhere at the moment. I do like that. I don’t watch Saturday Night Live, for no reason other than the fact that I’m not usually watching television at that time. I can’t comment on that either to the quality or how good it is.
I wish we had the budget Colbert had, or I wish we had the imagination. Well we did political jokes in the monologue, I don’t know if it ever reached the quality of Colbert. For one thing, he’s got a bigger writing staff than we ever had. I think there was only two of us writing for Carson’s monologue at the time. I’ve got a hunch that Colbert’s got quite a big staff and a budget for production or one thing or another.
And also, it seems like things were a lot less divided then than they are now. And politics sort of take up a lot of the time on shows these days. And also, it’s a lot more competitive now with so many different shows.
Yeah. First of all, there was only one late night show at the time. There was only one person doing stand-up. And we did the news and we did political humor. And I think you’re right. It wasn’t a daily headline about the President. We didn’t have a target quite like Trump. I hate to think what President I was writing about. (Laughs). But whoever it was, it wasn’t anywhere near the kind of President we have now. And also, I think we were little bit more conservative. I don’t think we could’ve taken the shots that he takes. I’m not sure.
There was no censorship on the show. I wrote stand-up for Carson’s monologue. And I wrote what I wanted to write. And then Johnny picked the ones that he wanted to use in the monologue. So we did political humor. I don’t think it ever came to the level of Colbert, as he’s doing it today, however.
In doing my research on you, you said something once that I thought was fascinating. After JFK was shot while you were working at The Tonight Show, you actually thought that was the end of topical comedy. And here we are, nearly 60 years later, and it’s still going.
Now you’ve activated my memory. The day Kennedy was assassinated, I was in my office in Rockefeller Center on the sixth floor, I think, writing jokes about Kennedy going to Texas. And then we got the announcement that Kennedy had been shot. So that’s where I was. I guess everybody knows where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. I was writing jokes about him. When we went back to work, I really thought that topical or political humor was just impossible. There was no way you were going to get an audience back. And then I think within weeks, we were back doing jokes about President Johnson.
So you have to imagine the shock and the horror that afternoon in New York. That was my first reaction. Well, I shouldn’t say my first reaction, because that sounds very selfish that I was thinking about my job or my career. I don’t mean it that way. I just thought in terms of humor that it’d be a long time coming before we could be that open again. But I’m reminded of Lenny Bruce’s joke on the night that Kennedy was assassinated, when he came out and said “There goes Vaughn Meader’s career.” I don’t know if you know who Vaughn Meader is…
Of course. He was the foremost Kennedy impressionist at the time.
Okay. And that was a great joke. And that broke the tension in a way, because I think everybody was waiting to hear what Lenny Bruce would have to say about it. And that was a perfect line for the time. And it was a great way of addressing the tragedy and getting people to laugh, which was important. We think about now, but those were very dark times as well. I don’t know that the 60’s are much better than the time we’re living in right now. Maybe just as bad.
Gotcha: Inside Trump’s 2020 Campaign can be found here.