Q&A with A.J. Benza

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How surprised were you that GSN wanted to replace you for the upcoming Season 6?

I wasn’t terribly surprised because I don’t think they were running things properly over the last couple of seasons in taking a long hiatus between Seasons 4-5. … And I don’t know if you know this but “hiatus” in Latin means, “Go f*ck yourself.” I don’t know if you know that. (laughs) There’s a lot of people at the head of that network that are new there, that apparently, according to some deep-throat informers on my blog, don’t know what they’re doing or how to do it. … You know, in this day and age of show biz, nothing surprises me, man. There’s a lot of people who want to put their fingerprints on the show. … But if you got the best pizza in Brooklyn for five years running don’t go putting pineapple on it.

Given GSN’s relatively new stance on wanting to increase female viewers, did the thought putting a woman in your chair ever cross your mind?

I don’t think GSN even knows anymore about what they want to do with their viewership. The last I heard Kara Scott is gonna be tableside (Editor’s note: Scott was confirmed days after this interview.), and Gabe (Kaplan) is gonna do the commenting alone. The first rumor was that (Hobe Sound’s) Vanessa Rousso would be in the booth with him, which I don’t think that would have made things fairly easy for Gabe. I didn’t really have a poker opinion, obviously, being the neophyte that I am, but any poker pro in the booth with another pro is gonna have opinions, and when you pit those opinions against each other vs. the producer outside the glass who’s an expert in poker, it can make for a long, long season. I don’t think GSN wants to go the girl route. … I just think they want to shake it up because the chick that runs GSN, Kelly Goode, maybe she wants a female in there. I mean, she gave Carnie Wilson — and God knows she’s been a train wreck for a long time — she gave her a show. … Nothing against Kara Scott, she knows what she’s doing, and she’s good at what she does. But I continually don’t understand people in this business that I’ve been in for 15 years. … Chicks aren’t going to tune in to a poker game because Kara Scott is commenting tableside. … From what I understand, pretty girls like to see train wrecks when it comes to another girl on TV. Pretty girls don’t want to see pretty girls. My wife watches reality TV because the girls on the show are train wrecks, not because they’re pretty and classy like Kara Scott is, so I don’t get that notion at all.

What does your former co-host have to say about this?

Gabe keeps things close to the vest. He still has a job. … He said, “Don’t burn the Verrazano Bridge down. They may bring you back for Season 7.” I said I’m not trying to burn a bridge. I wrote a blog (benzaneat.blogspot.com) in which people responded in a very honest and true way. I didn’t know there’d be so much vitriol. … Gabe wants to work, but it’s gonna be weird because I know that Gabe likes the repartee we do in the booth, whether it’s the Godfather references or just some silly Brooklyn stuff or whatever it is. We have a connection that the public has learned to love, and now it’s him alone. … It won’t be as funny because he won’t have a straightman to play off of. And what it comes down to at the end of the day is really just a price cut. The producer of the show, Mori Eskandani, who puts the whole shebang together, he took a major haircut financially speaking in terms of this season. I don’t get a ton of money, but I get a decent enough amount that GSN could look at it and say “Hey, you know, maybe we get rid of this guy’s salary and we just go with Gabe.” So I think it just came down to money.

When you tried to appeal to their sense of fatherhood and your responsibilities to your children, what was their reaction to that plea?

I said to those guys “Let’s talk man-to-man and father-to-father,” and they said absolutely. Without putting my financial situation on the table, I said things aren’t well here. … I said this is my main job; let’s talk as fathers. They said. “Great, let’s do that.” And when you say that to a man you kinda think he’s gonna come back and really be honest with you and take things for what they are. But when the news got back to me that they passed, that they weren’t going to go with me, it didn’t come from them. They called the manager and the manager called me. Very few Hollywood people do it man-to-man. I went to them as a man, but they don’t come back to me as a man. They come back to me from the back door so my manager can give me the bad news.

A couple of years ago GSN threatened to pull the plug on HSP, but ultimately it didn’t because of the outrage of the fans. You’ve had a huge outpouring of support on your blog. Is this a case where the fans could save your job again, or has it gone too far?

I don’t know. … Maybe I shouldn’t have said they could go f*ck themselves if I still have a chance to get a job. I really don’t think so. I think these people think they’re so big that a few hundred people who sign a petition or write on a blog, as much sense as those things make in life … Let’s remember, too, a No. 1 show on GSN is not 12 million people. … it’s about 300,000 people. So if 1,000 people or 2,000 people have something shitty to say about the move, it’s gonna affect their show’s ratings, it’s gonna affect their advertising, and if PokerStars.net decides we don’t need this shit anymore then the show is done. That’s the only commercial that supports the show. At this point I don’t consider them reconsidering. I don’t consider there being a Season 7. … This is a big Nagasaki bomb. I’m gone, the show’s changed radically, and every one of (GSN’s) executives will be gone in the next three or four months because no one really cares what happens to this show. It’s like leaving a baby at the church steps and driving away.

What are you going to miss most about doing HSP?

We had a lot of fun. … me, Gabe and Mori, and guy named Phil Smith, who was in the booth with us producing. We had a lot of inside jokes, and after five seasons you get to know each other’s families and stories. We’d always have lunch and dinners together. … And I’m gonna miss guys like Sammy Farha. … It was a world that I never thought I’d be involved in, and the first season I was petrified I was involved in it ’cause I didn’t know much about it. And I got to learn about it. I love gambling. I can identify with people who love to gamble. Hosting a show like that gave me a little bit of a fix, a gambling fix. Maybe I’ll try hookers now. (laughs) No, I’m kidding, that’s a joke. I’ll miss Gabe because when I heard I was working with Gabe Kaplan, I said you know, in one year I worked with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa and Gabe Kaplan in High Stakes Poker and I don’t think there were two bigger stars in the ’70s as far as movies and television. So this was my childhood coming right back up my spine. But, mostly, I gotta be honest, I’m gonna miss the money. They did pay me well. For a network that’s not known to pay well, I was paid well. … What this has done to me is wake up the sleeping giant. Always I’ve been a writer at heart. … Once I started to make TV money I got lazy with writing, ’cause TV money is easy to make and it’s greater. My writing muscle almost died. I’m resuscitating it now. … It could be the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m not gonna get any thinnier, I’m not gonna get any better looking, not gonna grow any more hair. I’m not gonna be Tom Bergerson five years from now. (laughs) My best bet is to sit behind a keyboard … so this could all be a blessing in disguise, and for that I’d kiss all those people on the lips if that happens that way.