When I walk in Georgetown with my son, pretty young girls nudge each other and whisper, “It’s him! It’s him!” They don’t mean me. My function in this street scene is to hold the girls’ camera and take their picture with the Star.
I am surely not the most objective observer of the Ben Stein phenomenon, but I am probably the best informed. So let me explore the question: How did my son, Ben, become a Star? It wasn’t by being the world’s most devoted son, making the long trip from Los Angeles to Washington about once a month to give me company, which he does. It wasn’t by being the world’s most devoted father, spending many hours each day with his 10-year-old son; or by writing 15 books. I have a devoted daughter who is a great wife, mother, writer, cook, and pro-Israel volunteer worker–but that doesn’t make her a Star.
You become a Star by being seen repeatedly in a recognizable way by millions of people. That means being in the movies or, especially, on TV. What you have done in these media doesn’t matter terribly much; what matters is having been seen. Even after my occasional appearances on TV-talk shows, people come up to me and say, “I saw you on TV.” They don’t say whether they liked my performance or agreed with what I had to say. The important thing is that they recognize a face they have seen on TV.
My son’s approach toward stardom began about 12 years ago with a movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and continued through various other films, sitcoms, and TV commercials. But he was not then a full-fledged Star. (I guess we don’t use the word “starlet” for such cases; it is reserved for something else.) What made him a Star was his new TV show, Win Ben Stein’s Money. As its name suggests, the show would not be the same without him.
WBSM is a unique quiz show. It is more playful than, for instance, Jeopardy. Ben first plays the role of the host, explaining the game and asking the questions. But he then becomes a contestant, competing with the more successful guests. There is a witty, sometimes rude, interchange among Ben; Jimmy Kimmel, the co-host; and the guests. The closest parallel I can think of is the old Groucho Marx show You Bet Your Life.
The fact that the guests are competing for Ben’s money gives it an unusual thrill. The winners in other quiz shows are not taking the money away from any identifiable, live person–Alex Trebek on Jeopardy, for example. They are taking the money from some faceless institution–such as Merv Griffin Enterprises. But trying to get the money from this well-known person, Ben Stein, who is right there and expressing his torment at losing the money, creates an unusual tension. (Of course, the money is Ben’s only in what an economist might call the “opportunity cost” sense. That is, he did not put it up originally, but the more the guests win the less he has to keep.)
E ven after I have seen about 20 episodes of the show, I am still amazed that my little boy is up there on the screen. There has been very little theater in the Stein family. A great-aunt had the candy concession in a Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side of New York City. An uncle was in the chorus of one of those doughboy musicals after World War I. The Steins are not the Barrymores, but there is Ben on the screen. I’m also amazed at the things he knows, like of what river the Zambezi is a tributary.
He plays two different characters on the show. In one character he is what I think of as himself. He is witty, well-informed, and good-natured. In the other character he shouts; becomes excited; and goes through various gestures, like bowing, saluting, and rapping himself on the chest. I much prefer the former, but the audience seems to like it all, and that’s show business.
“How does it feel to be the father of a Star?” people often ask me. It would be hypocritical of me to deny that there is a certain amount of envy. Like almost everyone else, I like attention. He may be diverting attention from me, although those pretty, young girls on the street in Georgetown would not have been giving me attention anyway. And there is some gain in attention, probably a net gain for me. People who never paid any attention to me as economic adviser to the president, or even as a columnist for Slate, do give me some attention because I am the father of a Star. And I get satisfaction from thinking that part of his theatrical success derives from the dull voice he inherited from me.
But the envy is a small thing, and I confess it only in a rather transparent effort to gain credibility. Mainly I am happy and proud–not just because he is a TV Star but because he is a TV Star in addition to being a good son, a good father, a good writer, and an energetic worker for many good public causes. I am happy to think that his mother and I, if we did not make him what he is, did not prevent him from becoming what he is.
Ido feel, however, some anxiety in this situation. In one of Saul Bellow’s books there is a sentence, which I have never been able to find since I first read it, about grasping “the hot wire of publicity”–and not being able to let go. Stardom can be addictive. It can be so exhilarating that one needs ever greater amounts of it and can be induced to do silly or reckless things to get more of it. Stardom can also be very transitory, and losing it, after once having had it, can be terribly depressing. I don’t think any of that will happen to Ben. He is too many other solid things, in addition to being a Star. But that is something the father of a Star worries about, when he isn’t just enjoying the fun of it all.