Ben Stein would be enigmatic is he weren't so good at promoting himself. His biweekly column "Monday Night At Morton's" for E! Online (www.eonline.com) provides a gossipy autobiographical look at the inside of one of Hollywood's hip eateries. He just began writing a regular column for the media-watchdog magazine Brill's Content. He has loaned (or rented) his visage and voice as a pitchman for Clear Eyes, Pizza Hut, and a host of other products. He has published a number of books, including Tommy And Me: The Making Of A Dad, which addresses his relationship with his son. And he appears as the host of the Comedy Central game show Win Ben Stein's Money, in which three contestants attempt to do just that by matching wits with the brainy Stein. (A current promotion offers the viewing audience a chance to win his Super Bowl tickets.) All this may mean nothing to some people, but many of them would still recognize Stein for his lackadaisically delivered defining line—"Bueller? Bueller?"—in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Stein, always busy with multiple projects, recently spoke to The Onion about his eclectic employment experience, winning his money, and his thoughts about the possibility of working for President Clinton.
The Onion: I want to make sure I have this down. You are an economist.
Ben Stein: Well, I'm an economist by training. I don't really work as an economist. I only worked briefly as an economist.
O: In what period?
BS: Ah, 1966 to '67. I was officially an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of International and Regional Economics.
O: And following that, you went into speechwriting?
BS: No. Here's how it went: I graduated from Columbia in '66. Entered Yale Law School and dropped out because I had severe colitis. Recovered for a time, then went to work as a… First, I was a reporter for a little trade publication called The Daily Labor Report. That was only for a couple of months. Then, for about six or seven months, I was an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Then I went back to Yale, graduated in '70, and worked as a trial lawyer. Sorry. Wait. I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Worked as a sort of bureaucrat lawyer for what was then called the Office of Legal Services, which was the War On Poverty. I left that after a few months, and I became a trial lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission. I did that for about a year and a half. At the same time, I was teaching a course in film and various political and social contents of law. I'm sorry, film. I'm getting very confused today because I had to get up early to take my son to Space Camp. Anyway, I was a trial… I'm just looking at the gray sky so I can concentrate. I was a trial lawyer. At the same time, I was a teacher. I taught about the political and social content of film for American University. Then I left and became a teacher at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I taught about the political and social content of film, but I also taught a course in law for undergraduates. Then I came back and briefly practiced trial law again. Then I was a speechwriter for President Nixon and for President Ford. That lasted from about November '73 to about… Oh, gosh, was it that short of a time? Yeah, it was. It was about November '73 to about November '74. Then I went to the Wall Street Journal and became a columnist and editorial writer. I did that until June of '76. Then I came out here to glorious Hollywood, and I was a freelance writer for lots and lots of different publications. Wrote quite a number of screenplays, a great number of which I sold, and quite a number of TV shows, several of which I sold, although by no means all. Then I became a teacher at Pepperdine in 1984, adjunct, which means part-time. I was also writing and selling a great, great many books, 16 or 17. I've lost count, there have been so many of them.
O: A lot of them are out of print, too. I tried to find the Michael Milken one.
BS: Oh, they're all out of print except the most recent one.
O: The one about your son.
BS: Right. Then I started being an actor, if you call it acting. In 1985, I think, I did my first part. That was in a movie called The Wild Life. It was a sort of sequel to Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Then the next one was Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and I was off and running.
O: Two words and you were off and running.
BS: It was just "Bueller" and "anyone," and I was off and running.
O: You still get a lot of mileage out of that, don't you?
BS: Well, it's a very, very famous part. It's been voted one of the 50 most famous lines in Hollywood, which is pretty amazing considering it was adlibbed. I think it must be one of the only really famous lines that's adlibbed.
O: Does it ever haunt you, or do you still enjoy it?
BS: Oh, no. I love it. Love it. Love it, love it, love it. Love it. Oh my gosh, I love it. Why would I not? I just love it. Holy smoke. I really, really love it.
O: Penn Jillette once said that he wouldn't take a part that he thought would require a stretch; the only parts he would take were parts that allowed him to act like he normally acts anyway. Would you say that's the way you do it?
BS: Not at all. It's a great stretch for me to do my game show. It's very hard. It's not me at all. The only part that's me is sort of when I'm sitting in the booth looking tormented. That's the only part that's the real me.
O: Are you generally a tormented person, then?
BS: Well, I wouldn't say generally, but fairly often I'm a tormented person, and it's very, very hard work doing that show. My God, is it hard work. It's insanely hard work.
O: How many episodes a day do you usually tape?
BS: Well, we tape… Last season and the season before, we did four a day, but that was decided by yours truly to be too hard. This season we're going to do three a day, except for one day of the week when we'll do four a day. We'll do 13 a week in a four-day week.
O: A lot of people aren't quite clear in terms of the way people actually win your money. How is the money that contestants win from the show yours?
BS: Because it is money that is put into a prize budget for me, and if I don't lose it, I get to keep it. By any arithmetic or ethical or economic standpoint, it is mine.
O: Have there been contestants who have been on the show and won, and really didn't deserve it?
BS: Oh, lots of them. Yeah, as far as I'm concerned, none of them deserve it. After all, it's my money; why on earth should they think they have any claim on it of any kind? It's just insane that it's… Yeah! I mean, why should they have it? I don't think they should have any of it. Now, they do manage to get it. No, I'm just kidding. Some clearly deserve to have it. They're very well-informed, and they're good players. Last night, there was a woman on who was really, really a great player. She beat me handily, and she should have beaten me handily. But there are some shows I don't deserve to win because I'm really not on my game: I'm tired, I'm depressed, or I'm sick. And the people who beat me then, they deserve to win. There are some shows where the other guy is just lucky. Some question came up that was just "his kind of question."
O: Like a question about the Smurfs right out of nowhere.
BS: Right. Well, like cooking questions. One show, there was a guy who was unusual for a man: He was both a gourmet cook and interested in Broadway shows, and he got a question about what you call the tops of carrots, and also some question like, "What was the first movie Barbra Streisand was in?" Or something like that. He really lucked out. Unbelievable.
O: I've watched it several times, and there always seems to be a two-men-to-one-woman ratio.
BS: There seems to be. We don't get as many women contestants as we'd like. This isn't because we're discriminating against women in any sense. We would like to have more women contestants. In fact, they have a great edge over the male contestants. We will, other things being equal, generally take them over male contestants. At least we'd prefer to, but we don't get enough applying. That's the problem.
O: Would you say Jimmy Kimmel is the Rod Roddy to your Bob Barker?
BS: Oh, he's so much funnier than any other co-host that's ever been on, it's insane. He's at a level of intelligence and wit that I've never seen anyone else have ever in my life. I mean, his quickness, his range of jest… He just came out of nowhere as a genius. I'm floored when I work with him at how fast he is. He's incredibly smart and incredibly talented.
O: Speaking of incredibly smart, what are the perks of being a Mensa member?
BS: I'm not a Mensa member. I have no idea where that rumor came from. I never have been, and I doubt if I ever will be.
O: It's on the Ben Stein website.
BS: I know. It's wrong.
O: So it's not your website? Is it run by you, or is it independent?
BS: No, it's not run by me. There are two or three of them, and one might have made the mistake. It's possible. I'm not sure. But I've never been a member of Mensa, and I have no interest in being one. I want to be a member of some group that gets to spend all its time with beautiful girls aged 25 to 45. I don't want to be a member of any groups that don't have that as part of their perks of membership.
O: It doesn't really seem there's any advantage to Mensa membership, aside from the fact that you get to feel smug.
BS: I have no interest in it at all, whatsoever. God bless 'em, I say, if they want to be Mensa members. More power to 'em. But I personally don't have any interest in it. At all. Unless it makes money, helps my son get into a better college, or helps me make the acquaintance of beautiful girls, I have no interest in it.
O: You're one of the only writers who can claim writing credentials from E! Online, The American Spectator, Penthouse, and Brill's Content.
BS: Oh! And lots of others, too! Barron's. I think I'm the only person who's ever been the discoverer and exposer of the biggest financial fraud in the history of America [the Michael Milken junk-bond scandal] and also been a writer of many novels, including several about sex addiction and drug addiction, and also many articles of advice to women on how to find men, and also been a continuing character in two sitcoms and also had his own game show. I think I've had the most diverse career of anyone in America.
O: I'd buy that. I've been a cook.
BS: Well, there you are. I'm a cook, too. I cook for my son almost every day. And not only that, I've been a law teacher, a teacher about the political content of media, and I've discovered a whole way of analyzing media in terms of its political content. I think, if I may say this—I hope you don't mind—there are many people who are much smarter than I am, and many, many, many who are much harder-working than I am, but in terms of the range of my activities, they're unique.
O: Is the Brill's Content column going to be a regular feature?
BS: Well, it is, although I'm so… I love working with them. I have, by the way, worked with absolutely the best editor there I've ever worked with. Except for, well, just a couple. Certainly the best woman editor I've ever worked with. The only problem is I'm so busy that it's hard for me to find the time to do it. There's one more in the pipeline, and I'm actually working on one more this very afternoon.
O: How do you explain how someone like yourself with a background in economics and law develops such a love for show business and all things Hollywood?
BS: Well, my father [Herbert Stein] is a super-braino. I don't know if you know who he is, but he's a super-famous economist braino. He had a cousin who was a tap dancer on Broadway. Maybe I take after him. My father always wanted to be a musician. My mother's secret ambition, God rest her soul, was to be an actress. I think it's commonplace for people to want to be in showbiz. Really, all my life, I have wanted the trappings of glamour. I've never wanted the braino life. I've never liked the idea of just having an office in a college somewhere and teaching classes and going to the library and doing research all day. I've never wanted that. The glamorous life is the life that appeals to me.
O: The odd thing is that it never seems to have worn off at all. In two or three years of doing the E! Online column, you always…
BS: No, I'll tell you why I think it doesn't wear off for me. I think it doesn't wear off because I have had some experience of what normal people's work lives are like. Take Sean Penn or Ben Affleck, guys who are much, much, much better actors and hugely more successful than I am. They've never done work at the Commerce Department. They've never done work at the Bureau of National Affairs. They've never been in a law library going through dusty tomes looking for a case to match the assignment. They don't know what real work is like, but I do, and that's why I'm extremely grateful to have the work I have.
O: You're a pretty conservative person…
BS: No, I'm really… I'm only conservative in the sense that I really don't like Bill Clinton very much, or many of the things he stands for. But in terms of my own life, I don't really lead a conservative life at all. I'm very, very devoted to my son, but except in that regard, I wouldn't call my life conservative at all.
O: So, I take it you wouldn't become a speechwriter for Clinton.
BS: [Gasps in disbelief.] I'd write his resignation speech in a second. Enthusiastically. I'd do it for free.
O: What is it that raises your ire most about Clinton?
BS: Because… Well, I can't just say "most," because there are so many things. He's a liar. He lied repeatedly and set a very bad example for truth-telling for children. It's just become a joke among my son and friends of his generation that when you lie, you can say, "Why? The president does it; why can't we do it?" It's become commonplace for them to do that. I see it and hear it all the time. Second, he has disgraced the office, which is a great and noble office. Third, he has not accomplished anything. Nixon, you might say, did many of the same bad things Clinton did, and I guess that's true. He did. But he also did many great things, and you can't point to any great things that Clinton has done. Also, and this is going to be in my column in The Spectator but I'll let you in on it, I think he's a murderer. I think he murdered those people in Iraq to divert attention from his political problems. I don't think that all those people in Iraq needed to die. At least, certainly not when they did. He just killed them to distract people from the impeachment, and that's murder. If he'd really meant to go in there and take out Saddam Hussein and create a safer Middle East, a peaceful Middle East, that's one thing. But it was all just cosmetics to show off his toughness. Everyone says, "Oh, it's Wag The Dog." It isn't Wag The Dog, because nobody got killed in Wag The Dog. In this sad story, a lot of people got killed. Those Iraqi soldiers who were there, they don't necessarily deserve to die just because they're wearing an Iraqi uniform. They're not wearing it voluntarily.
O: To switch to a lighter topic, how's the talk show coming along?
BS: We did three pilots. Well, two and a half, because we had a technical problem with the third one. I think they're great. The people at Comedy Central have given me very positive feedback about them. Will they get on? I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine. It's possible that they will put them on—not for this spring, when I hoped they'd go on, but for the fall. Because the rumor is that they apparently are going to make some scheduling changes in the summer, and then some time might open up for it. I'm very proud of the job we did. I think that if they don't appear on Comedy Central, they will appear somewhere.
O: If nothing else, there's a great deal of cable channels and a dearth of decent programming.
BS: Well, they're damn funny, if I may say so. If I thought they were no good, I would have said, "Give us the money and that's the end of it." I think they're pretty good. I think they're darn good.
O: Did you ever think you'd be one of those hyper-proud fathers who brings up his son at the drop of a dime, say, 10 years ago?
BS: No. Never thought I would be, but I am. And I love doing it. He's my little angel.
O: How does it affect him?
BS: He doesn't seem to care about it one way or the other. Although he does like being famous. We were at a movie screening for a rather obscure movie a few days ago, and I said to Tommy, "My god, Tommy, there's nobody famous here except me. I'm the only famous person in the room." And Tommy said, "Yeah, and I'm the second most famous person in the room." I think it registers on him, at least at some level, because I write about him all the time. I write about him for The American Spectator constantly.
O: Are you ever worried that you might come off as a snob to people?
BS: Not at all. I'm the least snobby person in the world. You'll never, ever meet another person, ever, in your life, who spends more time cleaning up dog shit and dog pee—and with a very good attitude about it—than I do. I spend a large part of my day doing dishes, vacuuming, looking for dead rats and throwing them out, fertilizing my plants, and clipping plants and disposing of the refuse, and, as I say, happy to do it. I think a snob would be a person who thinks he is entitled; he has good things in his life and is entitled to them. I feel as if I'm in on a pass and am damn lucky to have whatever I have. It could all be taken away in a second.