The agony and the ecstasy of one man’s experience working in the TV writing biz. 1,449 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
There are many dreaded words a father can hear from their child. “Dad, I wrecked the car.” “Dad, I’m in a Tijuana jail.” “Dad, the pee stick has a plus sign.”
But none of those words could ever compare to the sheer horror of hearing a child of mine say, “Dad, I want to work in showbiz.”
Perhaps I should elaborate…
I am a husband and father of three kids. My career has been spent bouncing back and forth between life as a writer and life producing promos for a TV network. It’s been an occasionally pleasant but also frequently demoralizing. The highs are way too high and the lows are way too low. It’s career crack. Addicting, unhealthy and way too much suffering has to incur before receiving those rare tastes of joy. All those years of stories that started out with, "There’s a producer who seems to like my script…” “A big agent is going to read my script this weekend, I hope…” “The producer said if I give him a free option, he’ll try to sell it…" and then inevitably end with, "I haven’t heard back from him/her yet."
This is a profession I’ve regretted pursuing for a lot of years. And a profession I have adamantly tried to steer my children away from pursuing. You want your children to be both successful and happy, not just getting by and miserable. So I tell them my war stories to make it easy for them to reach their own conclusions.
The TV showrunner’s betrayed wife is intent on vengeance. But can she get it? 2,207 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Outrageous! The price had jumped to eighty-five dollars for a dozen pieces, each no larger than a thimble.
Yet Condazini Triple Chocolate Italian Crèmes were worth it: roasted almond butter with a hint of espresso, and in a dark chocolate shell that melted slowly on her tongue. The complex aroma alone stimulated her taste buds. It was heavenly, and Valerie Lasky adored every sinful calorie.
She paid cash, then watched the sales clerk slip the slender gold box into an elegant Chocolatier bag and slide the guilty pleasure across the gleaming glass counter.
The saleswoman smiled and said, “Enjoy!” Valerie nodded but didn’t speak, careful to do nothing the clerk might recall. A word or a glance could form a memory. Though low odds of that; she was one customer of many. Besides, Valerie felt anonymous behind her dark sunglasses and her hair folded under a generic baseball cap. Plus, Chocolatier was too many zip codes from her Pasadena neighborhood for anyone to make a geographical connection.
By late afternoon, Valerie had disarmed the alarm in the large Craftsman house on leafy Laguna Road. It was empty except for the family’s calico cat. Their eldest son was at Stanford, and the twins, were at summer camp.
The solitude was lovely, the only sound her stiletto heels clicking on the heart pine floors. Valerie now needed privacy. Her husband Raymond had texted in the morning that he would be working late. Again. Something about an emergency reshoot. Again. Such was the predictable unpredictability of a highly paid TV showrunner with a moderate hit and a homelife relegated to a footnote.
This showrunner, at least.
TV’s top actress helps the struggling writer – but can he help her? 3,268 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Suicidal and in denial? Hysterical bleeding? This is way beyond everything I thought I understood about actors, women, anything. Jill Racine – if there’s been another actress who draws on a combination of comedic chops and sex appeal to such great effect since Carole Lombard, I’ve never seen her — is a danger to herself and me and anyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves in her orbit.
I figure I’m here because Jill had sensed my vulnerability and desperation at pre-school and assumed I’d do anything. I feel like the sap in some perverse religious film noir.
“Do we have a deal?” she says. “You don’t even have to believe me.” She grimaces in pain again. “Say yes fast,” she adds, “I need a clean fucking towel.” The moment the ink on my deal is dry, I’ll call her doctor.
The next day, I drop Ryder off at pre-school and park in what my hotshot new agent described as a spot on the studio lot “that four guys I know would kill for and one actually did.” The deal’s still verbal, nothing’s signed yet so they could theoretically take it back, but I’m not a Producer, my previous credit. I’m an Executive Producer, a huge jump in salary and status. With no history on The Jill Show and a modest reputation in the industry, I outrank everyone but Ivan, the creator and showrunner, and, of course, Executive Producer Jill herself, on the most popular television show in the land.
I’m ushered into Ivan’s enormous office. Shaking my hand and introducing himself, Ivan – a boyish, prematurely gray fellow a couple of years younger than me whom I hear is a decent guy – smiles as he asks me, on behalf of his staff, his cast, his crew, twelve million fans and a gossipy Hollywood community, what the fuck I’m doing here.
This struggling writer is back at the behest of TV’s top actress. 2,010 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I have no idea why Jill Racine’s flunky just asked me if I could come to his boss’s house “right away.” A job? Sex? Right. I’ve seen Jill in passing, she drops off her daughter at pre-school every morning, and all I’ve been able to get out of her have been waves and smiles I’m certain are insincere. Why should I expect more? The day I met her, the kids’ first day, I planned to make her laugh to pave the way for hitting her up to get me in to pitch stories for The Jill Show but ended up sobbing uncontrollably in front of Jill, the other parents, two teachers and a dozen terrified three-year-olds, including my son Ryder. He’d been diagnosed with cerebral palsy just a couple days before and I wasn’t prepared to deal with it. I am now, albeit after ordering a non-existent God to go fuck himself a few thousand times. I don’t really care what this actress wants, I needed to get out of the house. But it’s all I can do to stop myself from plowing into the lovely young couple traversing this crosswalk.
I drive down a long winding driveway to a closed gate, peer up into a security camera and yell at a speaker, “Eric Ornstill.” No answer. “To see Jill,” I add stupidly.
“Come in.” The male voice in the box is different from the one on the phone. She probably has a fucking army working for her.
The gate opens, I steer farther down and around and finally park near a low-water garden that fronts a huge Mediterranean-style house. The distressed ochre finish reminds me of the trip to Pompeii Leslie and I made when we had money and not mental issues and a 3-year-old we love whose body is degenerating. Not another servant but Jill herself pushes open the hand-carved front door and, with a big smile, bounds straight for me.
Her hair’s tied back, her pants are ripped at a thigh, her shirt at a shoulder. The clothes are clean, though, only her gardening gloves are browned with dirt. She shouts, “Thanks so much for coming over,” and Jill Racine gives me a hearty hug! I smell a rich perfume and wonder whether she’s using it to overpower the smell of the alcohol I’ve heard she likes to abuse. She hooks her elbow into mine and leads me into her home. I should give her a chance, whatever it is she wants; she was friendly that day we met, too, not cruel like her reputation says she is.
Hollywood P.I. McNulty pieces together the puzzle surrounding the missing TV showrunner. 2,160 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
McNulty was finishing a fourteen-hour day piecing together all the images related to the year-long disappearance of TV showrunner Dana Delongpre. The images from his iPhone. The surveillance video from the convenience store where she’d last been seen. And all the photos posted by CHP Officer and wannabe screenwriter Chet Nichols on his Facebook and Instagram pages expertly hacked courtesy of McNulty’s Nerd Ninja team.
Blurry-eyed from hours of frame by frame studying on his notebook screen, McNulty leaned back in his chair and knocked back the last mouthful of Glenlivet, his mind still sharp and focused. And now he was damn sure he knew what had happened to Dana. And it wasn’t murder at the hands of her husband.
“Wanda!” the Hollywood P.I. barked into the office intercom. “Get me Shamrock!”
‘Shamrock” was the code name for Killian Cleary, a former IRA soldier and roguish Irish mercenary who’d seen action as a private CIA contractor in many of the world’s hotspots. A dead shot and skilled martial arts expert, Killian Cleary was McNulty’s secret go-to guy whenever back-up was needed on an investigation.
“Got one, boyo?” Shamrock laughed, recognizing the number on the burner phone McNulty used exclusively to contact him.
“It could get sticky,” McNulty admitted.
“Where and when?” Shamrock asked.
“Tonight,” McNulty replied. “Bring the beast.” That was another coded reference for Shamrock’s armored Hummer which he’d outfitted with an impressive array of firepower.
The showbiz sleuth follows up on a freeway hunch in search of a missing TV showrunner. 1,965 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
A hundred yards behind where he was parked, McNulty’s camera drone hovered over an area where the 14 freeway crossed over the concrete channel of the California Aqueduct. Suddenly, the Hollywood investigator’s eyes were drawn to something glinting in the sun on the center median. As he dropped the drone lower, he could see the shiny object was glass in a broken plastic shell possibly from a vehicle’s side mirror. There also were red fragments apparently from a tail light. McNulty realized that his hunch was gaining traction.
Directly ahead were two large openings that dropped some twenty feet into the concrete channel below and encircled by guard rails but not completely. For traffic moving north, the protection was on the south end; for traffic moving south, on the north end. The cost-cutting logic being that guard rails were only necessary on the sides facing the oncoming traffic lanes.
“What could possibly go wrong?” McNulty muttered, shaking his head at the stupidity.
As he surveyed the scene, he imagined what might have happened to Dana Delongpre when she suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. He theorized that she’d been driving north in the southbound lanes, lost control of her vehicle, skidded across the median toward the unprotected opening and then plummeted into the watery channel below. It was only a guess, McNulty knew, and he needed something tangible to make it real.
His gut told him it was lying there at his feet.
Hollywood P.I. McNulty is back, hired by a missing TV showrunner’s husband accused of murder. 2,064 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Nearly a year had passed since Dana Delongpre had gone missing. She and her Range Rover had seemingly evaporated into thin air on a dark and lonely stretch of Mojave Desert highway. Now you see her, now you don’t like some spangled magician’s assistant in a Vegas lounge act. But this was no magic trick, nor was it just another routine missing person’s case. This was news. Not just in Hollywood where Dana was the creator of a hit TV series, but throughout the world because, well, she was the creator and showrunner of a hit TV series.
“Dozens of people go missing every day,” McNulty grumbled at the time. “But when there’s a Hollywood connection, the media’s all over it like glitter on a pole dancer.”
As the days blended into weeks, media speculation about Dana’s disappearance ran the gamut from running off with a lover to alien abduction. What was known for sure was that Dana was driving back from a location shoot near Lone Pine, a three-hour drive from L.A., after filming on her series The Paradox Files had gone late and she’d left sometime after eleven p.m. Pings from her cell phone showed her heading south on 395 before taking the southbound Antelope Valley Freeway. She was even picked up on surveillance cameras buying gas and coffee at a convenience store on the outskirts of Palmdale. That was the last time anyone saw her. Authorities quickly launched an intensive week-long ground and air search along the freeway and the intersecting California Aqueduct, but found no trace of Dana or her Range Rover.
Now, as the first anniversary of her disappearance approached, the media was interested in the case once again. Only this time they dug up new information that Dana’s marriage had been a troubled one. She and her husband were on the verge of divorce, and police had responded to at least two domestic violence calls. As a result, what had started out as a tragic missing person was now being looked at as a possible murder investigation. And that made Dana’s talent agent husband the prime suspect.
A hit TV show set in Hawai’i is ending an eight-season run. What’s the local crew to do? 2,581 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"Now, this is the exact location of the camera of the title sequence, which we all know so well. Place your hands like this," as Waimea made a bracket to simulate a camera’s view in front of his face. They were standing on the valley ridge and all four held their hands in front of their faces like directors do. "Then, we slowly pan across that jungle edge to the ranch house. Then we zoom in, pan slowly, then zoom out and we keep panning across the valley as the music builds. We keep panning, panning, until we settle on the beautiful blue Pacific and a spectacular sunset."
"And up comes the Paniolo main title!" said the woman.
They all stared, squinting in the bright sunlight. There was much to see. The bright green of the valley floor that deepens to brown at the top of the jagged primeval ridgeline. The bright blue of the sky and the bright white of the billowing clouds. Waimea turned to the young girl and asked, "Can you tell me what Paniolo means?"
She proudly replied, "Hawai’i cowboy!"
"That’s right. Now we’ll head to craft services and get you some lunch. And then you can see your Aunt Amanda. She only has one fast scene today. Then I think she wants to take you to the North Shore."
At they arrived at the buffet barbeque, Waimea turned to the family and said, "It was a pleasure to have met you. Here is my card. If you need anything on your vacation, please call me. I’m a local boy. Make sure you try a little grilled Portuguese sausage, yah? It’s hard to find on the Mainland and it’s everywhere here. Savory.”
Waimea Ward thought savory was a good word. The cast and crew of Paniolo were savoring their last days. Their familiarity, long taken for granted over the last eight seasons, would soon disappear. The show was ending. Strong ties would unlace. Routines vanish. Lovers uncouple. The mood on set was underscored with unspoken goodbyes.
A TV showrunner trying to learn more about women characters does research in a strip joint. 2,930 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zack was glad in this moment to be in Brooklyn, at this bare bones den of bare flesh. Also, he needed material for Season Three.
He had been given carte blanche as showrunner for Season One and Two. Season Two was “not a dud, by any means,” wrote a critic for The Carrier trade, “yet it paled in comparison to Season One. It was young Faulkner, in over his head. It was strained with forced mystery. One had to wonder if Zack Randke was being pedantic on purpose, in the hopes of disguising an unfleshed-out narrative and betting on the possibility that his work would be seen as too genius to be understood.”
“Eh, take it as a compliment,” his agent had said after an hour-long verbal lashing over poolside mint juleps in Los Angeles. Zack kicked his boots off the end of the lounge chair, pulling his ball cap down lower on his forehead. He was still Zack Randke. That had to count for something. After a year of meetings with his agent Alan, the word poolside now felt like a threat.
“You told me the episodes were good,” Zack had whined.
“Listen, kid, you’re the writer. If you’re going to demand sole writing credit, and you know you need three-dimensional women, then you better know what a 3D woman is like. You researched it, right?”
“A woman was the goddamn lead character of the whole Season Two,” Zack said, throwing up his hands.
“Yeah, but they didn’t like it that she got knocked up at the end, and she didn’t die like the men.”
A TV show’s writers room assistant plots more creatively than her bosses. 2,556 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It must be weird that we’re exactly the same age and I’m an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and you’re the writers assistant.”
She really said “slash.” She said it two times.
I wanted to tell her it was fuckloads easier to make it as an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator when your father is a major exec at a major studio and he got you that first job on an insanely hot Netflix series not because you were qualified, but because your father was owed a major favor from a Netflix VP thanks to a gambling debt. And so, Graylon Kipling, freshly graduated from Cornell, got plopped into a top-tier TV job even though she couldn’t write for shit and everybody wanted to fire her fat nepotistic ass – and eventually did. Now, because of another chit called in by her father, here we sit in our offices on the NBCUniversal lot ready to start work on a ten-episode order of Graylon’s very own new series, TabOO.
It was harder for me. I grew up in the Midwest with a dad who sold Toyotas and a nurse mom. They thought my being a CPA would be an awesome job instead of those “Hollywood dreams” harbored by their little girl. So I have an accounting degree which I never plan to use. But I made it to L.A. and did the barista thing and met a guy at Peet’s who helped me get a job on a Nickelodeon show as a PA. I ended up in the writers room as the assistant after the current writers assistant crashed into a morning rush hour pile-up on the 134 freeway.
But this is the conversation I only play inside my head, very fast, because Graylon’s waiting for me to answer her question. I look down at my feet, as if I’m trying to be humble and oh so thankful for this opportunity, and I say, “Yeah, it’s really weird that we’re exactly the same age and you’re an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and I’m the writers assistant.”
A fired showrunner’s assistant looks for a new job as a writer. Good luck with that. 3,027 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Caleb was glad when the show was canceled. He felt guilty about his schadenfreude for about five minutes. Now he wouldn’t have to make up a lie about why he wasn’t returning or, worse, tell the truth: that he “hadn’t been invited back,” which was code for being fired.
He had done his best to make amends for his wrap party meltdown – going off on his boss for sleeping with a young female staff writer and not promoting Caleb, dissing the TV community’s push for diversity which meant young white wannabes like himself had a tougher time getting hired. After a few weeks, he’d asked the showrunner Bryan to lunch so they could bury the hatchet. Bryan downgraded the lunch to coffee.
Caleb had worked for Bryan for four years, and that hopefully counted for something now. The showrunner came through. He gave Caleb a signed letter of recommendation and a business card with the number of an agent at CAA. “I sent your writing samples to Terri at the agency. She used to be my agent Bob’s assistant. She just got promoted and she’s hungry for clients. I told her to make you a priority read. And she will. Lord knows I’ve made that company enough money.”
It was a whole lot more than most showrunners in town would have done for an ex-assistant, and Caleb felt pretty grateful.
Caleb didn’t even wait until he got home to call Terri. He texted her from his car. Surprisingly, he got an immediate reply: Will call in 45.
That was at 11 a.m. For the rest of the day, Caleb’s heart skipped a beat every time his cell vibrated.
Writers on a new TV series love everything about their job. Well, almost everything. 1,983 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It’s a dream job. I imagine Disorderly running for years. A guaranteed job. No more jumping from show to show to show. I’m working on a TV series with smart, funny, non-asshole people, a production company that buys us lunch, a pilot plus ten order guaranteed, and a show that’s fun to write. It’s about crazy attorneys and cops. Imagine an amped up, whacked out Law & Order. The showrunner/creator, Stefan, is amazing. No ego, a nice guy who insists on sane hours, thinks writers get burned out by being in the room too long. The first week of the show, he invited us over to his house for a barbeque. He didn’t hire a caterer, either. He did the grilling himself. His wife made cupcakes.
Like I said, dream job.
The rest of the Disorderly staff is great, too. And I’m back with my friend Lisa from Ghombie (aka piece of shit). Thank God, it got canceled. “Pinch me, Kyle,” Lisa says on the job every day. “This is way too good to be true.”
“Don’t jinx it,” I tell her.
Stefan wants us to meet the cast so the actors and actresses stop by the office. It’s mostly an ensemble show, but there are two big guy parts. Matthew Roth is the arrogant attorney. He’s done a ton of TV and a couple of indie films. The first thing he says is how blessed he is to be doing a show like this. Blessed.
An escalating mystery threatens to end the increasingly difficult sitcom industry. 3,189 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
That day, I set out to find Larry David. I had seen Curb Your Enthusiasm enough to know what Larry’s house looked like but how to get there was the problem. I GPS’d “Larry’s House” but ended up at Larry The Cable Guy’s mansion. I headed down to Sunset to meet with my undercover celebrity map guy. I followed the map’s directions to an inconspicuous mansion sitting in the middle of a drive-thru cul de sac. If not for the fifty-foot hedges sculpted into the shapes of some of Larry’s top neuroses, I might have missed the house altogether. Shame and Paranoia flanked each side of the massive front doors.
On Larry’s front step was a stack of old People magazines. I picked up one and walked towards the threshold. I hoped that my magazine delivery ruse might get me through the portals and I would soon meet the man who had changed television. I swallowed hard, unsuccessfully attempting to dislodge the ever present glob of anxiety-generated saliva that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in my throat. With a deep breath that seemed to carry a toxic mixture of excitement and nervousness, I raised my hand to knock. But before my fist reached it, the door opened.
As if I had just become Curly (it could have been Shemp, but definitely not Curly Joe who ended up on Abbott and Costello’s show), I ended up knocking on Larry David’s head.
“Is something wrong with you?” he said. “What are you trying to do? Who are you?”
“People magazine delivery boy.”
A great sitcom writer has disappeared. Who or what caused it? And why? 2,449 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Was that a backfire or a punch thrown by an animated super hero? Perhaps I was in an Adam West Batman episode. I had no idea what was real and what was a cult classic.
Of course it could have been both a backfire and a punch happening simultaneously, a contrived scenario much like the moment a sitcom character alludes to “the one thing that would never happen,” and much to the surprise of the viewer – wait for it – it does. You never see it coming, that is, unless you’ve ever seen any film or television show.
No, that was definitely a backfire. I have got to find some mechanic I can trust.
Christ. I’m staked out in front of the mega-mansion owned by Larry David, the celebrated star/creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm and co-creator of Seinfeld, just hoping I might be able to snag that long-awaited magazine interview we’d arranged. Now I’m stinking up the driveway with explosions produced by a running internal combustion engine that occurs in the air intake or exhaust system rather than inside the combustion chamber. Wikipedia is such a great source for car repair information.
I turned off the engine and jumped out of my car. My heady prudence came coincidentally from my friend Prudence who once revealed to me the secret that had prevented me from putting courage ahead of safety: “The only thing worse than an unemployed writer? An ignored unemployed writer.”
The douchey showrunner of a dumb YA series turns up the heat on his writers room. 2,105 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
My agent Chad tells me it’s a good idea to staff on a show, just to keep my name out there. I tell him I’m a big fan of Veep and GOT and Transparent and he says there’s a staff writer opening on WitcheZ. I’ve never seen WitcheZ, it isn’t the kind of show I watch – teen witches and warlocks who fight each other, and have sex. A lot of hot sweaty witch-y sex. Not exactly in my wheelhouse.
“It’ll show your range,” Chad says.
WitcheZ is in its second year. It did okay the first season – medium ratings and terrible reviews, but has a strong social media presence that keeps the network happy. “They’re rebuilding the staff,” Chad tells me and I ask my friend Suze who I met on Melancholy, my first TV job, to translate. She says “rebuilding the staff” is usually a euphemism for a creator/showrunner being a paranoid control freak asshole who fired everybody. She doesn’t know this guy, Scott Buckley, but she’ll check him out.
“Takes lithium. Had a big coke habit a couple years ago,” she reports back. “Resents the fact he’s writing a shitty YA show and thinks he should be on cable winning Emmys. Once mentioned The Crucible to a reporter and said Arthur Miller was a hack who at least got to bone Marilyn Monroe. Likes being boss. Makes writers come into the office every day. No writing at home because he likes an audience.” Suze pauses. “Oh, and he plays the guitar.”
TV FICTION PACKAGE: The flirting and gossiping ends badly for someone on this series. 3,759 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The wrap party was being held at the cheesy cowboy theme bar at Universal CityWalk. Caleb hated that development next door to the lot where he worked. Even the name grated on him: “CityWalk.” It was everything that pissed him off about L.A.. The antiseptic tourist trap was so utterly un-urban. He could rattle off at least a half-dozen bars on nearby Ventura that were far superior. But he was just a lowly writer’s assistant so it wasn’t his place to question the chosen location for the wrap party. Actually, he wasn’t surprised. He worked for a cookie cutter network procedural, and the powers-that-be had chosen to end the season in the most uninspired way possible. Little wonder that he always could predict each show’s ending.
As he parked his car, he thought about Nora, the staff writer considered a “diversity hire.” She had once confessed to him that she loved the City Walk. Of course, Nora loved the City Walk. Caleb hated Nora. He didn’t see her talent, or what she offered to the show, or why Bryan gave her two scripts. Caleb was really hoping he’d get to co-write the finale, like Matt Weiner’s writer assistants, but instead Nora got it. Like she needed another credit. Caleb had read her pilot back when he was Bryan’s assistant. It was fine, the dialogue was cute, but the story was nothing special. Rom-com chick stuff. He’d been working for Bryan for four years, and Nora had never worked on a show, but she was a staff writer and Caleb was the writer’s assistant. Bryan told him it was because of money. The show had spent too much of its budget on upper level writers, and the studio would pay for a “diversity writer.” That was Nora. A Korean girl from Encino… How fucking downtrodden.
While she would never tell any of her fellow writers, Nora loved Universal CityWalk. As a kid growing up in the Valley, it was the closest she ever got to actually walking onto a studio lot. L.A. kids aren’t supposed to get starstruck. But Nora just couldn’t be jaded. She wanted to belong to the business, not merely be adjacent, and write for a real primetime TV show with millions of viewers. Now that she was, Nora still liked to visit CityWalk to remind herself how far she’d come. About once a week, she’d arrive an hour before work, go to Starbucks, drink her latte and think about how she was about to go work in a bungalow on the real lot. Though she questioned whether she deserved to be there. But if she really was nothing more than a token, Bryan wouldn’t have given her two scripts. She knew Caleb resented her and coveted her job. But she was working her ass off, agonizing over every word of procedural exposition instead of scripting for people to ignore while they did their laundry. Nora had long ago learned that hard work was the best remedy for insecurity.