Adventures in Bizarro Land: My Don Imus Interview

I had mixed emotions this morning when I heard that radio shock-jock Don Imus had returned to the airwaves. My 2004 interview with Imus was perhaps the wackiest experience of my life. It also made Internal Bleeding into a bestseller. Here’s the story:

When Internal Bleeding came out, the book’s publicist, a lovely South African woman named Jeanine Pepler, called me, breathless. “I got you on Imus next week, Bob. It’s HUGE!!! Nearly as good as Oprah.”

I thanked her and began preparing for this, my first big book interview. I hadn’t heard Imus for many years, so I decided to listen to a few of his shows. I actually enjoyed them: he was funny and completely off-the-wall.

His guests were scheduled in 20-minute slots (a blessing: try explaining why healthcare is unsafe in 60 seconds, something I’ve had to do on TV several times), but a couple of guests either bored the I-Man or gave answers he didn’t like. And out came the hook. I became really concerned when I heard one guest get the “thank you for coming” brushoff after about 3 minutes on air. I set a not-terribly-lofty aspiration for my Imus appearance: to reach the 20 minute finish line.

On the morning of the interview, a limo came to take me from my Manhattan hotel to the Imus studio in Astoria, Queens. I was greeted by a very young woman wearing very tight clothes. “You’re on in 20 minutes,” she purred. “You can wait in Don’s office.” The office had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, along with cowboy boots, photos of Imus with presidents and movie stars, and a jukebox. In the corner, a television was tuned to MSNBC, which broadcasted the show on cable. Imus was interviewing a politician. It was 7:23 am; I was scheduled to go on at 7:30. I heard him cue a commercial, and then, like a magic trick, the office door flew open and there he stood.

The first thing you notice about Imus is the huge mane of hair billowing out from under his cowboy hat.

Don Imus

This morning, he was wearing a tattered Yale sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, and socks without shoes. On his waist was a holster, and in it a gun. A large gun. Not a Saturday Night Special-type gun. I’m talking a Dirty Harry-type gun.

Now I was really wondering about what happened to the guests who didn’t make it the full 20 minutes.

“C’mon, doc. We’re on in a minute,” he said, in his familiar growlish-drawl, putting his arm on my shoulder. “By the way, doc, this is Charles.”

Charles is Imus’s straight-man, his Ed McMahon or Paul Shaffer, depending on your vintage. I shook his hand.

“Doc, while you’re here, take a quick look at Charles’s arm,” continued Imus. “Charles, roll up your sleeve for the doc.”

Here we go, I thought, another cocktail party dermatology consult. As a hospitalist, I have to admit, I don’t remember very much derm. But I couldn’t very easily say that now.

Charles rolled up his arm to expose a tiny lesion. I saw none of the nasty signs (large, bleeding, multicolored…) that I vaguely remembered from my residency derm rotation. “Charles” I said in my most reassuring doctor voice, “it’s nothing to worry about…” But then, as every doc knows, comes the de rigueur CYA chaser: “… but you should probably have it checked out.”

Whew, I thought, dodged that bullet (figuratively and literally, as I glanced again at the pistol on Imus’s waist). A little voice in my head spoke up: “Now focus, Bob, you’re about to be on TV and radio speaking to 5 million people.” I sat down in the surprisingly modest studio, Charles and Imus across the small table. The production booth was a few feet away, behind a window. I was starting to center myself – 45 seconds to air – when Imus grabbed his mike, and YELLED to his producer:

“Bernie! Call Dr. Hoffman! Tell them that Charles needs to be seen by noon today! Don’t take any of their sh-t! THE DOC SAYS HE HAS CANCER!!!

What kind of alternative universe was this? I tried to calm myself, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. The room began to spin. I thought about my breathing.

The interview began; it was surprisingly pleasant, and I soon calmed down. Imus’s questions and banter were a bit wacky, but he is a disarmingly good interviewer – he gives you time to tell stories, he doesn’t pretend to be an expert, and he isn’t particularly confrontational. Imagine being interviewed by Larry King’s weird younger brother, fresh from several years on a dude ranch and a few too many brewskis.

The interview felt like it was going pretty well. I glanced at the clock. Five minutes gone… 10 minutes… 15 minutes… The 20 minute finishing line seemed within reach, and there had been no catastrophe.

Then came minute 17.

“Doc, let’s talk about nursing.” Great, I thought, a chance to chat about collaboration, communication, and the vital role of nurses in patient safety. A hanging curveball. Except…

“Why are nurses so fat?”

My jaw dropped. What the hell do you say to that? I paused, stunned; I may well have aspirated a bit.

“Don,” I said quietly, “I’m just not going to go there.” Not only was the question offensive, but I knew that every nurse I’d ever worked with was probably listening.

“C’mon, doc,” he pressed, “they’re all fat. What’s up with that?”

“Sorry, Don,” I repeated, sticking to my guns (whoops, another firearm analogy. I must have been more worried than I realized). “I’m just not going there.”

And he relented. The interview returned to Earth, he wrapped up, and – at precisely 20 minutes – he let me go after one last plug for the book. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Great story for the grandkids someday, I thought.

***

A brief epilogue:

When you publish a book these days, if you’re human, you become addicted to following your sales ranking on Amazon. When the book first comes out, it begins at the bottom of Amazon’s heap (approximately 3 millionth, which is pretty disheartening). Then you start the long, painful march toward the top. The rankings change every hour (at least for the top ranked books; lower ranked books move according to a secret formula that Amazon has never released, sorta like Google’s search algorithm and Coca Cola’s syrup).

Going into the Imus interview, our book had received a few nice reviews, and had already reached 400th on the Amazon list. Having written a well reviewed book a decade earlier (on the politics of AIDS) which was purchased only by blood relatives, I had few illusions about reaching bestseller status. Leaving Imus’s studio, I figured my appearance might bump the book up a few notches, which would be nice to watch. I hopped into the limo and made the trip back to Manhattan. About an hour later, my cell phone rang. It was an old college buddy.

“Have you checked Amazon in the past hour?” he asked. No, I hadn’t. “Your book is 42nd!” Wow, I thought, I guess Imus really does move books.

An hour later, another call, another old pal. “Have you seem Amazon?” No again. “You’re now 23rd!” Unbelievable.

An hour later came the final call, this one from my wife. “Have you seem Amazon?” she asked. No, I still hadn’t. “You’re now the 11th best selling book in the world,” she said. “You just passed the Life of Pi, and that’s a great book!”

***

Imus’s comments about the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team were despicable; ditto his slur about nurses. Nevertheless, seeing him return to the airwaves does leave me with a bit of nostalgia. And – like a number of far more prominent authors (including my favorite columnist, Frank Rich of the New York Times, here writing about Imus) whose books were helped by the I-Man – I will always be grateful for his interest in a book about a serious topic authored by people not named Grisham, Clancy, or Rowling.

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