Lately, I’ve been watching episodes of the old television game show, “What’s My Line?” before turning in for the night. You’d have to be of a certain age to remember this show. It aired on CBS from 1950-1967. Hosted by John Charles Daly, the show featured celebrity panelists who, through a series of questions, tried to guess a contestant’s line of work. Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Arlene Francis were the panel’s mainstays with guests such as Fred Allen, Robert Q, Lewis, Tony Randall, Martin Gabel, Steve Allen, filling the fourth chair.
I remember watching the show during the sixties when I was in grade school and then junior high. It came on at 9:30, CST, and it was the last program I watched before going to bed. Maybe it’s that connection—the memory of my parents’ low voices as they settled in for the night (I was an only child), and the way I closed my eyes and imagined the blackness of a double-blank domino tile to keep myself from fretting over the sorts of things that could bother a boy my age (an approaching math test, the basketball season, which girls might “like-like” me, and those who never would)—that draws me, all these years later, toward this program, and the peace it offers me during this time of pandemic.
Everything about that show was so polite. From the way, John Daly invited each contestant to “sign in, please,” to his titles for the panelists—Miss Kilgallen or Mr. Cerf—to the genteel way he flipped over the score cards when one of those panelists received a no answer to a question (“I’m sorry. That’s two down and eight to go.”), to the elegant blindfolds the panelists wore while questioning a celebrity mystery guest. There was nothing mean-spirited, nothing confrontational, nothing threatening about the program, and for that reason I find it the perfect nightcap before lying down to sleep during these uncertain times.
Pogo-stick tester, maternity-wear salesman, glass-bottomed boat captain: These are just a few of the occupations I’ve seen the past few nights. Encountering these lines of work has reminded me of how important jobs can be to the characters in our fiction. Too often, I encounter stories where the characters either seem to have no employment or else have jobs one would consider ordinary—practically anything in an office, for instance. Granted, a good writer can make any character’s job fascinating, but consider how the chances are greater if that job is something unique as so many occupations were on What’s My Line?
Unique jobs not only lend an air of freshness to a piece of fiction, they also provide interesting metaphors by which writers can explore their main characters and their situations. Tattoo artist, body part model, professional snuggler, golf ball diver, pet food tester, paper towel sniffer, face feeler, professional line stander, snake milker, armpit sniffer. These are all actual occupations. Imagine the people who have these lines of work. How does each start to suggest a character? How does each generate a plot? What would most people assume about the type of person who would do such a job? What would they never guess? A golf ball diver afraid of the water? A professional line stander who has no patience? A professional snuggler who hates people? You get the idea. We can go against type when it comes to characters who have unusual jobs. In the process, we can work with irony to dramatize nuances of characters and their stories in a way that will hit upon their contradictions and will make them memorable.
I don’t know about you, but I find these days of isolation and stay-at-home orders to be perfect for daydreaming. Why not daydream an unusual job for one of your characters and then see how that occupation opens up aspects of the narrative that you may not have considered. Following a line of work for your characters may take you to rich and interesting places.