An odd quirk of my career is that, about every four years or so, I’m summoned by the BBC to have British people tell me that I can’t be a host on Top Gear, the car show that they’ve franchised around the world. The first time they tried to make a U.S. version of the show, I went to New York to have Discovery tell me to go away. I nearly couldn’t, because on the drive back a retaining wall collapsed on the West Side Highway, burying the road ahead of me in rubble. In retrospect, this was an apt metaphor for my future with Top Gear.
By my count, Top Gear is now on its fourth American iteration, and I’ve been in the mix for all of them. But this time, I was really ready. I’m seasoned. For instance, over the years I’ve learned to deduce what producers want and then say the opposite. Even before I got invited to LA for the “chem test”—where different hosts are paired up to see who clicks—I Skyped with a producer who asked me why I should host Top Gear. “I don’t think I should,” I replied. Bingo. Next stop: Los Angeles.
In the first LA chem test, I hewed to my policy of uncooperativeness. Posed with the question “What aspect about cars do you hate?” I said, “I hate when you wear pants all day and then later you change into shorts, and you get those lines on your legs that show how high your socks were pulled up.” Bingo, again: Invited back for Round 2.
I’d say on that first test, I nailed it. On-camera, at least. Off-camera, one of my potential co-hosts, major-league baseball stud C.J. Wilson, asked for my phone number. But when I said, “I’ll text it to you,” he just stared back at me. It took me a moment to figure out: He wanted my phone number, but didn’t necessarily want me to have his. So I dictated it, the air heavy with awkwardness. He must’ve typed it in wrong, though, because he hasn’t been in touch.
For the second chem test, the BBC decided that it needed some kind of celebrity involvement, so it brought in Alfonso Ribeiro, of Fresh Prince fame, and Bill Fichtner, whose name you don’t know but whose face you do. Salty fisherman from The Perfect Storm? You got it.
Alfonso and I got along well, it seems to me. When he revealed that he has a conversion van that he uses for family road trips, I asked if it has the old-lady curtains that those vans always seem to have. “The crinkly curtains?” he said. “Yes! It has crinkly curtains!” I could see a future in which my co-worker is a man whose dancing GIFs are one of my go-to texting options.
Later on, Alfonso and I were part of a make-believe studio session in which he argued in favor of autonomous cars and I against them. Now, up to this point, there seemed to be an unspoken rule that nobody would make any Fresh Prince references. But then he said, “As my good friend Will Smith showed in the movie I, Robot, autonomous cars are inevitable.” To which I replied, “Well, as my good friend DJ Jazzy Jeff once said, cars will never drive themselves.” I had a brief moment of satisfaction before I remembered that DJ Jazzy Jeff died. Then I felt bad. Then I remembered that it wasn’t DJ Jazzy Jeff I was thinking of, but the guy from P.M. Dawn. Phew. Close call. Incidentally, Jazzy Jeff recently revealed that he and Will Smith wrote the Fresh Prince theme song in 15 minutes. I know, I know—I’m also surprised it took that long.
Later, I was part of the same setup, this time with Fichtner. When the producers handed him an introduction to recite, Fichtner grimaced and said, “Do I have to? I’d rather not… but OK.” And right there I knew he was in, because he showed naked disdain for doing the thing they wanted him to do. Like a total pro.
Later on, Fichtner and I got to pretend that we were embarking on a road trip across America. He put his arm around me and beckoned to an imaginary horizon, describing all the things we’d see. I guess you’d say it was an unusual way to spend an afternoon. As one of the other would-be hosts observed, “Just another day hanging out in a warehouse with the blind guy from Contact.”
Am I sad that I once again missed out on the fame and riches of cable TV? Perhaps a little bit. The show will be good, though, I think. And if it’s not, it won’t be my fault. Either way, it’ll work out. And if it doesn’t? Then we’ll do this all again four or five years from now. Although, I mean, I’d rather not.