A one-time TV comedy writer must clean up classrooms as well as his career. 1,249 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Decades ago, I made an impressive living as a writer and producer of network sitcoms, shows such as Full House and Growing Pains, that were aimed at a kid audience. They were frothy, bouncy entertainments that portrayed family life in the late twentieth century United States through decidedly rose-colored glasses. But even then I had a darker vision of America, one that acknowledges life’s limitless complexities, that embraces the tragic elements of existence as well as the comic. So the original half-hour series I pitched were directed at adults – a Vietnam War comedy, a lesbian laugher, etc.
And because I was pigeonholed as a “children’s sitcom writer,” I was unable to sell any of those ideas. Upon leaving more than one executive’s office, I was certain I could hear, through the slammed door, unrestrained derisive laughter.
In my eighteen years as an elementary school janitor I’ve had abundant opportunity to contemplate my comedy life. So much time squandered on bitterness at an industry I deeply felt had wronged me! But recently, other setbacks – a second divorce, the refusal of my beloved daughter Isabel to answer my phone calls, a minor concussion from a fall in the second-floor girls’ bathroom – have motivated me to take responsibility for my life, to look inward, to ruminate on what choices I might have made to avoid my current professional circumstances.
Pondering my situation yesterday morning while plunging a clogged toilet in that same bathroom, I recalled a quotation from William James: “Invent some manner of realizing your own ideals which will also satisfy the alien demands – that and that only is the path of peace.”
A light went off in my head.
A prominent TV producer’s death is both mourned and celebrated simultaneously. 3,192 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Melody Grant observed life through a writer’s eyes, composing on a laptop in her head. That way she could imagine her husband’s recent death — ninety-five per cent factual, with dabs of embellishment for color and drama — as a passage in one of her novels:
On the eve of his greatest glory, Arnold Chafis was not merely upset, he was thunderbolt-shaken and enraged, Vesuvius about to blow. He had tried to remain calm while continuing to read, grinding his teeth as his volcanic anger built, until pain erupted in the middle of his chest. Then his arms, then his jaw. Suddenly, eyes clouding and brain swimming, he felt faint — then fear. Arnold, a prominent TV producer, was 63 when he died in Hancock Park. His wife, the mystery novelist Melody Grant, found him in the evening, slumped over his banquet table-sized desk in front of an open laptop. He’d been reading reviews for Remorse, his highly anticipated weekly TV drama about a young doctor accused of malpractice. It was to premiere the next night on ABC.
Notices for the series had been blurb-ready and glowing:
Congenitally glum Val Steinway of The New York Times cheered: “Hats off to a brilliant and vibrant new feather in TV’s cap!” Roger Kale of the Wall Street Journal, famously unkind to anything attached to a broadcast network, toasted “this HBO-worthy Chafisian work of genius.” Politico’s resident skeptic Carrie Rice-Wentworth rated the new series “many times smarter than ABC’s Shondaland and — no exaggeration — nearly equal to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.” And in Variety, difficult-to-please Vince Nichols forecast “a ton of Emmys for this stunningly boffo TV.”
Only one major critic panned. It was this scathing review — by usually-measured, never-shrill, bordering-on-dull Dean Formento of the Los Angeles Times — that Arnold had been reading when his heart stopped.
A woman’s boyfriend gets seduced by Hollywood. Will he take her along for the ride? 2,277 words. Illustrations by Thomas Warming.
Until that day I had never been to Hollywood, and I still have never met Jeremy Botz with the red hair, not really. He was an A minus celebrity, the street cred version of a producer. Two thirds of the people I’d mention his name to would say, “Jeremy Botz? Who’s that?” And when I told them, they’d nod their heads and say, “Oh yeah, that guy.” So he commanded respect. OK, props. But he still ruined my relationship.
It started casually enough. My boyfriend Brody had this friend – an actor, “super talented,” whose work “showed his diversity.” Anyway, this actor showed Brody’s novel to Jeremy Botz who got a major hard on for it and informed the actor that Brody’s novel “had Sundance written all over it.” Published over a decade earlier, it was a roman a clef about a writer who develops severe agoraphobia after his divorce.
It sold well enough. There was buzz — not bee buzz, more like fly buzz — but still buzz. There were even write-ups, the kind that are sufficiently impressive like Vanity Fair or The Guardian. Brody managed to never sound like he was humble-bragging when he brought these up, thank god, just regular bragging. With a big personality like Brody had, he could get away with shameless bragging because people assumed he was being self-deprecating somewhere deep inside even though he wasn’t. It’s the best way to network.
Mr. Botz sent emails on the regular about turning the book into an independent film because he really liked Brody’s “juvenile yet scathingly sardonic sense of humor.” Then Brody told me that Jeremy Botz — “get this” — really liked his “juvenile yet scathingly sardonic sense of humor.”
But, before I continue, let me explain about Brody and me.
Kids and adults say the darndest things at a focus group for a cartoon show. 2,630 words. Story and illustrations by Mark Fearing.
Kate DeMarca sat in a reasonably comfortable chair behind the glass in a darkened room watching eight and nine year olds file into a fake living room. She was working on her third latte. That isn’t a good way to keep calm but the interns, who seemed impossibly young and thin, will bring you anything you want during a focus group.
Focus Pocus was a faceless building buried amongst the strip malls in the Valley and it was already 95 degrees at 9 in the morning. Normally this wouldn’t be a big issue but for the fact that the air conditioning was on the fritz. So Kate, Stanley Demowitz and Leah Cause were starting to feel like they were in a sauna.
“It’s not just me, right? I mean, it’s hot in here, right?” Stanley said.
Kate rolled her eyes because he was the SVP in charge and now Stanley needed permission to feel hot. If his Dad wasn’t the CEO of Bank of California and who happened to be best friends with the head of the animation studio Kate worked for, he’d be… what? A banker? A stay-at-home dad? A regional sales manager for toilet paper?
“But the kids are comfortable, that’s the important thing. Their room still has cooling,” said Leah, always the voice of staying-on-track and getting-to-the-point and getting promoted.
“It’s fucking hot,” confirmed Kate.
Is this a film critic’s or a summer moviegoer’s worst nightmare come true? 1,844 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I was not looking forward to this screening. Even though, after all my years as a film critic for a major metropolitan daily, I still made the effort to keep an open mind before going into a movie. I wasn’t surprised very often by something I had been dreading turning out to be something that was good. More often than not, though, it was the other way around. Still, I was determined to start off with a clean slate.
But this was going to be a tough one. It was a modern dress version of Hamlet starring Adam Sandler trying to reboot his career by tackling the Bard. My money was on Shakespeare going down hard. Sandler had a lot of recent films to atone for: Pixels, That’s My Boy, Jack And Jill. In fact, his films were no longer drawing the audience of his heyday and most of them were now going out directly through Netflix. It wasn’t clear if this new movie was beling released or had simply escaped.
I nodded to a few of my colleagues as I entered the screening room, ignoring the young punks who were making it harder and harder for people like me to earn a living. Why should anyone pay a professional film critic – in spite of our depth of knowledge and finely honed writing skills – when a bunch of children were giving it away for free on their blogs? Worse yet, they wanted to be considered peers.
It was almost enough to make me wish I was dead. And then I was.
Two ex-roomies reconnect; one stayed in showbiz, the other didn’t. Who’s happier? 4,245 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
In late May, I received a birthday invitation in the mail. Heavy stock, handsomely embossed, the kind of formal announcement that has increasingly fallen prey to Evites. I almost felt underdressed opening it.
The return address said “Rothberg”. A common enough last name in L.A.. But the invitation was from a specific Rothberg – Stu Rothberg.
Odd, I thought.
Showbiz has been very good to Stu Rothberg. A couple of years back he shared a Best Picture Oscar with another producer and one of his clients took home the Best Actress award. He now breathes the rarified air that wafts in over the Pacific to the promontory in the Palisades where he resides and didn’t have the time or inclination to rekindle our friendship.
Not long ago I saw Stu at a charity event, and he gave me the “Hollywood freeze” – staring directly through me with a blank-faced fixed gaze. The message was clear: “I see you, but I’m pretending not to. So please play along.” A silly game, but not an uncommon one, particularly in Hollywood with its site-specific caste system. Events are for networking, and he can’t very well network with someone who isn’t even on the grid.
A World War II vet acts on his misgivings about a Hollywood fraud who’s beloved by all. 2,868 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bellflower, California — September 26, 1954
I take a sip of Lone Star and flip through the fan magazines. Here’s Hollywood movie star Del Hawk as the grizzled platoon leader at Guadalcanal. Here’s another of him leading a tank charge at the Battle of the Bulge. This one is of him parachuting into Normandy with the 101st Airborne. And that’s him again in the cockpit of a B-17 Flying Fortress raining bombs on the Third Reich.
I finish off my fifth beer of the night and set the bottle back on the scratched coffee table. Then I leaf through more of the fan mags. Del Hawk with Spencer Tracy and that ice skater Sonja Henie at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs. Del Hawk on Seabiscuit with Bing Crosby at Del Mar. And, dang if Del Hawk isn’t with that sultry dish Hedi Lamaar in this other photo. She’s wearing a black-and-white polka dot swimsuit by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And don’t they look all idly rich.
A a fly does a carrier landing on my nose before lifting off and circling overhead inside my home at the Friendly Gardens Trailer Court. I pick up my Colt .45 and take aim at Mr. Flyboy and squeeze off a round. The silence explodes. Brick-a-brat trembles. The tabby high-tails it. Drunk as a skunk, I lower the pistol and slouch into slumber, the TV station already signing off with an Indian-head test pattern. But before I doze off, I make a vow to meet the celluloid hero I’ve followed since I left the Army in 1945. Maybe, just maybe, I can get him to sign an autograph.
Now I’m staring at the girl again and thinking she’s kinda cute. Her name’s Pet. Least, that’s what they call her here in the court anyways. She’s about five-three. Maybe a hundred pounds if carrying a bowling ball. Red hair done in a pixie cut. And can she horse laugh when she’s real tickled! I know cause she laughs a lot when I tell her my stories of Texas outlaw country. She tells me she’s only eighteen and already an excommunicated Mormon. How’s them apples? She knows things about the world, that’s for sure. But she’s never stared into the eyes of an Uncle Sam drill sergeant or spilled Nazi blood.
In this sequel to Age Of Anxiety, a middle-aged screenwriter and his pals game the studios. 2,313 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“Looks like you’re gonna have to find another beard,” kidded Mel Landsman as he and Bernie Saffran sat down at their Farmers Market table across from Bob’s Donuts. They were joined by the usual crowd: Leo Crowther, Paul Schumacher, Perry Blade.
“I’m not going through that charade again,” Bernie grumbled. “Not with anybody who uses the term smash cut.”
“Then you might as well start novelizing all your old specs,” Mel said. “After all, they only make a hundred movies a year but publish a hundred thousand books.”
“Publishing’s gotten as bad as movies,” Leo grumbled as he wiped cream cheese off his mouth. “Same mentality. All they want to know is, ‘Will it appeal to the post-literate generation?’ For six months, my agent’s been trying to sell my novel The Cremation Squad. The publishers want a film sale first and the studios want a book sale first. I’ve been thinking about rewriting it about cats. Cat books, they buy.”
“Nah,” chimed in Perry. “When The Jungle Book was a hit, I pitched Shakespeare for animals. King Lear would be a gorilla, the daughters would be monkeys, and I had a marmoset lined up for the Fool.”
“What happened to it?” asked Bernie.
“They decided to do Hamlet with penguins.”
A 17-year-old Latina actress after a wrong turn finds the right man and right career. 2,509 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The next day after the brush-off from my agent Eli, I went on an audition for a new unnamed TV network pilot. I sat outside the casting office and heard an actress inside running the lines just like I had planned. Now I had to figure out a different way to say them so I would stand out. As I was memorizing the sides, a hot scruffy-looking actor sat down next to me.
“Are we gonna do this together?” he asked me.
“Get the job?”
I laughed. His name was Cole Ryan. He was in his late twenties and had been around the Hollywood block for a good decade racking up a couple pages worth of IMDB credits along the way. He asked me for my cell number and texted me later that same day to meet for coffee. “Urth at 3?” I was captivated by his bravado.
We flirted over iced lattes and he didn’t miss a beat when he walked me to my car and pulled me into him with a long slow intense kiss. Our chemistry was electric, so when he asked me to go to a party with him later that night, I agreed.
While I was getting ready at the apartment, I told Liz about him. She knew who he was and warned me that he had a reputation for lots of girls and lots of partying. I didn’t care. The Eli brush-off still stung.
The acting career of a 17-year-old Latina takes off. Then her parents interfere. 2,035 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The next day, an assistant called me to set up an appointment at the end of the week. On Friday I went to the talent agency in Beverly Hills. When I was shown to Eli’s office, he was on the phone.
“One minute,” he mouthed. He was in his twenties and had a hot nerd vibe going on with hipster eyeglasses. After he hung up, he looked me in the eyes and shook my hand.
“Liz told me great things about you. She said you’ve been in L.A. less than a month and already booked a TV commercial. That’s impressive. Want to know what the batting average for commercial auditions is? One in a hundred. Meaning you’ll land one for every hundred auditions you go on.”
“I guess I didn’t get the memo,” I joked.
“Maybe you should come back after you go on ninety-nine more auditions,” he joked back. “It’ll probably take you longer to land the next one.” He grew serious. “Because I don’t want my team to put time and energy into getting you auditions only to have you bail because it’s not clicking fast enough.”
“I don’t know what Liz told you, but I don’t have a Plan B. This is it.”
A 17-year-old Latina aspiring actress has the best and worst day of her fledgling showbiz career. 2,073 words. Part One. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I drove back down Franklin Avenue until I reached the 101 Coffee Shop. I sat at the counter and tried to come up with a game plan. I pulled up Craigslist on my cell and scoured the rental listings. Everything was too expensive. The cheapest was a share in Koreatown for $500 a month. I called the number.
“I’m calling about your furnished room. Is it still available?”
The woman who answered made an appointment for me to see it in 30 minutes. As I drove, I felt a lump form in my throat like I was going to cry. I pressed the worn out button next to Unit 3 and entered the creaky elevator. Please don’t be a murderer, I whispered to myself. To my relief, the woman was in her twenties with a warm smile.
“Hi. I’m Liz. Let me take you on the grand tour,” she said wryly. The place was tiny. “I’m never around. I work all the time as an assistant in a talent agency. What do you do?”
“I just moved here. I’m a model and an actress,” I told her.
“I figured,” she said looking at me.
To rent the room, I needed to pay one month’s rent in advance. My heart sank.
“I’m filming a Target commercial next week and can give you the money as soon as I get paid.”
Liz’s face had a skeptical look.
A 17-year-old Latina aspiring actress starts a journey through personal and professional pitfalls. 2,373 words. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
May 11th was my last day of high school. It ended in the girls’ locker room where Ava, Tess and Viv finally got the last word after months of threats. Actually few words were exchanged. They beat me up and left me a bloody unconscious mess. When I came to, I was lying face down on the ground alone. I can still smell the ammonia the janitor used to clean the floor earlier that morning.
People talk about life-changing moments. This was mine. As I licked the blood off my lips, a light switch went off inside my brain. I was done. Done with Selma, California. Done with my family. And done with the bitches from school. I went home, packed my bags and tried not to cry as I left a note for José, my 10-year-old brother:
Dear José, This note is to let you know I’m going away. I promise to visit soon. I love you, little man. Natalia
I grabbed my stuff and headed for my car. There was only one place for me to go: Hollywood. Because of a boy, but that wasn’t the entire story. A year earlier, a model scout had approached my Dad at a local mall. She thought I had “potential” and handed him her business card. He never followed up, because he wanted me at home. Ever since Mom died, I had been left with all of her tasks: laundry, shopping, cooking and cleaning. One night when I was looking for a pen in his roll-top desk, I found the scout’s business card with a Los Angeles number. I knew it would be my golden ticket, if I ever needed one. My face would be the parachute out of the hellscape of my life, when it was also the reason for so many of my problems.
A film editor gets the opportunity of a lifetime with the world’s greatest director. 4,163 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I liked Martin from the get-go. He was extremely polite, with an unexpected sense of humor, and eyes so intelligent and intense that most people feared him. Fortunately, I had grown up around a man with fierce eyes, my grandfather. Being his favorite, I was the only one of his grandchildren permitted to sit on his knee and – privilege of privilege – play with his beret.
This day of my interview to work at Kaleidoscope Studio, Martin was wearing a checkered brown and white shirt and brown corduroy pants, but no beret. Not that day.
“May I ask a question?” I say. He nods. “Why am I here?”
Martin breaks into laughter. “We have three films and three films in trouble,” he declares. His producers Forest and Gary nod in agreement.
Martin wants to take me on a tour of the studio. Once outside, something quite weird happens. He points to a black bicycle leaning against a wall.
“Come on the bike.”
Martin repeats, “Come on the bike.”
“I haven’t done this since I was two years old,” I tell him. But I jump on the front of the bike and off we go.
In the final excerpt from the just published novel Lulu In Babylon, the frustrations of the film business unmask a producer’s true personality. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. 3,350 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Ex-studio boss turned film producer Ben Robbins and his wife Dianne were the only people on deck. Ben had already finished more than half his glass of rosé as he sat looking out on the picturesque port of Ajaccio. Some of the lights of the Corsican capital were beginning to go on though it was not even close to twilight. The yacht was anchored outside the harbor because it was too big to come in any closer. It towered over everything – not just the other boats, but all the buildings.
Ben’s jet had landed in Corsica just over an hour ago after a quick flight from Cannes. The car, as arranged, had taken them directly to the port, where a Zodiac ferried them out to the boat.
Now all the guests were about to have dinner. Ben himself planned to leave by 10:30 if all worked out. His director pal Milo Flintridge walked onto the deck. “Hey, Ben,” Milo greeted him. “Quite a view, isn’t it?”
“Quite a boat is more like it,” Ben replied, then pulled Milo aside. “I’ve got the air controller staying late for us, but I don’t think we can push it too far. We have to be wheels up by 10:45.”
Milo agreed. “This is one night we can’t wait for Rob and Xan. We’ve already gone through five bottles of Domaine Ott.”
Milo was referring to the bankable but elusive actor Rob Tracey and his wife, the stunning actress Alexandra Hobart. Ben wanted Rob for the Oscar-worthy lead in Double Or Nothing. This was Ben’s second, and last, chance to get Rob to say yes.
In an exclusive new book excerpt, a dickhead film director goes on a ride-along and gets a painful surprise. 3,248 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
“Hotter ’n Hades,” moaned the boy wonder from the backseat of the black-and-white. “Seriously. My skin’s gonna crack. Any air conditioning in this bitch?”
Lucky Dey flicked an eye to his rearview mirror.
“Tell our guest why sheriffs roll with windows down,” suggested Lucky to his trainee in the Compton Branch of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department.
“It’s because L.A. Sheriffs use their ears,” replied Deputy Shia Saint George. “All year round it’s windows down. That way we hear what’s happening outside the vehicle like whistles or shouts for assistance. Or triangulation of gunfire—”
“Right, right,” complied Atom Blum, the Roadkill film director on tonight’s ride-along. “Must be hell on your skin and hair though.”
“My second night, sir,” replied Shia, keeping her eyes forward and scanning the ghostly corners and storefronts. “Time will tell.”
“Complexion like yours,” said Atom. “I mean, it’s fucking beautiful. Like camera-ready—art-school beautiful. And I would know because I’ve directed hours of cosmetics spots.”
“Spots?” asked Shia.
“TV commercials,” said Atom. “When I’m not making a movie, I shoot ads for television. Easy money if you’re A-list.”
In an exclusive new book excerpt, an arrogant movie director puts himself into a humiliating predicament. 2,424 words. Part Two. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
“Holy God,” breathed in the boy wonder, eyes wide orbits. It was 2:49 a.m. and he was desperate to savor the moment.
It was quite possibly, the greatest moment of his life. Or at least he couldn’t imagine anything that came close until one particular memory flashed. And that might have been the look on the faces of those privileged doubters at The Buckley School who’d laughed when fifteen-year-old Atom — then named Adam Blumquist — had announced he was not only going to be a famous movie director, but the most successful movie director in Hollywood history.
After Atom gifted Buckley’s development and scholarship funds with a mid-six-figure donation, the headmaster had asked the boy wonder to deliver the commencement address at their most recent graduation ceremony. From the dais, Atom Blum had not only made a point to stare down each of those teachers who had lacked faith in his talent, but had the balls to call them out by name.
Yeah, man. That moment and this moment.
The present moment was both a collection of images as well a flood of feelings. Though feelings weren’t entirely important to the boy wonder compared to his beloved moving pictures. The picture frame was everything to him. And, from Atom’s perspective, his life deserved to be experienced in theatrical widescreen glory. Thus, the backdrop he’d chosen for the present moment — the view from atop a Topanga Canyon turnout overlooking the West San Fernando Valley. Below, a blanket of lights curtained by distant mountains glowing in the spill of their candlepower.
“Don’t stop,” begged the naked swimsuit model splayed face down on the hood of his blood orange Lamborghini. Her sweaty hands smeared disappearing palm prints on the finish, aptly named by the automaker as Arancio Borealis.