Bernard tries to find out the identity of the writer inputting hit scripts into his computer. 2,144 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Spending money was time-consuming as well as challenging. After a five-day buying spree Bernard Berry found that he still had over a million three in his bank account. He could replace the Benz with something newer and quieter but he was fond of the aging diesel. It smelled like a car, not like an airport. And he was bored.
A week passed and still Bernard had not hooked up his new computer. He missed the online companionship: the junk emails, the chat rooms, the porn sites. So he took the new machine out of the carton, wired it, loaded the new software and booted up. The familiar glow of the screen and the pulsing of the cursor greeted him like the comforting sight of an old friend. Hey, how’re you doing? Been a while…
Clicking on his e-mail program, he discovered that in his absence 59 emails had accumulated. Sent at different hours every day, all were from the same sender. And all said they same thing: “HOW’D THEY LIKE THE SCRIPT?”
Bernard didn’t reply right away. Instead he walked outside the poolhouse. There were leaves floating on the surface of the water. He sat down on a rusted recliner and blinked a few times. He was not dreaming, and this was not a movie. This was his life. His silent partner, somewhere out there in the cyberether, unfortunately wasn’t very silent. Nor did he appear to be going away. On the contrary.
Bernard reentered the poolhouse, sat down and replied to the email. “THEY LIKED IT A LOT. I SOLD IT FOR A LOT OF MONEY. WOULD YOU LIKE SOME OF IT?”
In less than a minute, a new email floated in. “NO.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
The answer was just as quick. “NOTHING. I LIKE TO WRITE.”
A mid-career screenwriter has more fun at his secret avocation. 2,169 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Orson Welles said that, depending where you choose to conclude it, any story can have a happy ending.
My story began the night I met Grace Chase in Cabana in Santa Monica, California.
The sun was living out its final moments, painting the sky gold, and a Pacific breeze flowed through the open-air bar. Hours removed from my first screenplay sale, I spied a beautiful blonde through a haze of tobacco. The strings of “At Last” by Etta James swelled into a crescendo of anticipation as our eyes met and she flirtatiously exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke, compelling me to navigate the swarm of guys that divided us.
“Grace,” she opened.
If my Hollywood story had faded to black at that moment, as the smoke cleared and I gazed into Grace’s eyes, it would have had a happy ending.
Alas, shit happens, as it is wont to do, and four years, three weeks, and two days later, a naked brunette is lying in my bed, screaming, “Choke me! Choke the fucking life out of me!”
A TV writer watching his son at preschool also watches a TV star who could help his career. 2,219 words. Illu2stration by Mark Fearing.
I sing and put my left foot in and out, careful not to stare at Jill Racine as she and her three-year-old daughter grin and sing and put their left feet in and out, too. Two other parents do stare at her – she’s dressed down in sweats with no make-up, or hardly any, I’m not an expert — and two others decide it’s more acceptable to stare at my son Ryder, who lets out a queer cry of joy as he twists his body and jerks his left foot in as the other kids are already shaking theirs about. Two other parents give Ryder the side-eye, another glances at me pityingly. By the time my boy yanks his left foot out, Jill Racine, her daughter and everyone else have turned themselves around and are putting their right feet in.
Jill Racine must be on a hiatus week from her show, since this first day of preschool is the day after Labor Day. If Denny had been on the ball I’d be enjoying a day or two off, too, instead of not having a sitcom staff job for the first time since I started out. No script assignments, either. He got me a meeting last month but I’m sure it was a favor to him, since I had to pitch my story ideas to some lame insecure co-producer with whom I was wasting my time, at best. I’ll force myself to watch that piece-of-shit show every week to make sure the guy doesn’t rip me off, although it’s hard to imagine Denny or my useless lawyer standing up for me against the studio if he does. I clearly need a new agent but everyone knows the worst time to look is when you’re unemployed.
Jill Racine seems to be enjoying the Hokey Pokey. I hear she’s a monster. Amazing what some people do when they get power. Supposedly she fires The Jill Show writers herself, won’t let the showrunner do it, because she gets off on it. Last year some writer told me that at run-throughs she’s into humiliating her stand-in, one of the most vulnerable people on any set; even making fun of the woman’s ears, which are apparently sizable. (They say Jill’s clever nickname for her is “Dumbo.”)
Because Jill Racine is invulnerable. She’s such a huge star and her show such a massive hit and she’s so rich that she can say or do anything she wants to anyone.
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.”
The screenwriter’s script is completed. But how will the studio mogul react to the brutally honest biopic? 2,802 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After finishing Act Two, Dave went on a one-night bender, polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels and falling into a deep sleep on his living room sofa. He awoke with a start in the middle of the night and ran to the typewriter. Through bleary eyes and a cracking headache, he began to type out the opening scene of Act Three: a close-up of a television set.
The Argot Pictures board keeps a safe distance from the blond wood TV cabinet, as if it were some alien life form. But studio mogul Jules Azenberg approaches the contraption and gently strokes it. With that one motion, he demonstrates to the members that he is not threatened by television and that he plans to tame the medium just as he did the movies.
Forced to divest itself of its theater chain following the 1948 Consent Decree, Argot is running a deficit for the first time since the early ‘1930s. There is the smell of blood in the boardroom and Jules must convince the members that he is still in control of the situation. The advent of television gives Jules a new sense of purpose after the prolonged depression he suffered in the wake of his sons’ WWII deaths.
Rather than retread radio stars for television, Jules strikes on an original idea. The next scene is set in a quiet isolated booth at The Brown Derby where Jules is lunching with Madeleine Devane, one of Argot’s biggest stars. Her contract is up for renewal and the aging actress is clearly nervous. They chat for a while as she waits for the boom to fall. In the middle of the meal, Jules lays his napkin on the table and lets out an extended sigh. The color drains from Madeleine’s face, fearing that she’s about to be fired.
“How would you like us to renew your contract for five more years?” he asks.
“Don’t tease me,” Madeleine responds tersely.
The screenwriter of the studio mogul’s biopic works on Act One. 2,036 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
Weak, Dave, weak. Just like your ex-wife said. Or soft, as Jules used to say. Driving out the front gate was like stepping from inside a fun-house mirror. He felt a headache coming on, the kind he used to get when he worked at Hollywood mogul Jules Azenberg’s Argot Pictures – like a nail being hammered into old plaster, making a hole twice its size and sending dust flying everywhere. He never did work for anyone remotely like Jules after leaving the movie business. Television was a completely different animal. Writers like Dave were hired for a series episode for one reason only: to fill in the intervals between commercials. There was no pretense of making art, or quality entertainment. It was called programming for a reason. The beats were all laid out; writers merely inserted new words inbetween. No one expected Dave to pour his heart and soul into a teleplay the way he had with a movie script in the vague hope that a scintilla of what he’d written actually made it to the screen intact. It never did but it never stopped screenwriters from trying. Keeping that kind of delusion going took a great deal of energy. And Dave had paid for it with big plaster cracks.
The next night, over dinner, Dave and his friend Joel Rodgers discussed Azenberg’s offer to write a warts and all biopic of Jules’ life and career.
“You said yes, I hope,” Joel said.
Dave nodded, but couldn’t conceal his unease.
“Good. For once in your life, maybe you’ll be smart,” Joel chided him. “Take the money and run.”
“It’s not that simple, Joel. It’s just that I’ve never been a leech.”
“It’s a wonder you’ve survived,” Joel chortled. “In this town you need to be either a leech or a lemming. Or a rat. So tell your agent to squeeze that little fucker’s balls until he screams. Then, once you have your money, write whatever the hell you want. He gave you permission. Now call him on it.”
A screenwriter turned TV scripter gets a shocking assignment from his old studio boss. 2,996 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
Dave Peterson was racing against a deadline. The F.B.I. teleplay was due in the morning and he planned to pull an all-nighter to finish it. Glancing up from his typewriter, he stared directly at a bottle of booze and sighed. Not tonight, buddy. But I’ll take a rain check. He was alone. Tiki, his Greek-born ex-wife, had run off with her boss, a fruit wholesaler from Woodland Hills. Didn’t even ask for alimony. Had even joked that, if he tried to divorce her for adultery, she would sue him for alienation of affection and name Jack Daniels and Smith Corona as correspondents.
He was jolted by the telephone. He checked his watch. No one called at this hour except for his buddy Joel Rodgers when he needed a loan or a ride for poker night, and that wasn’t until Friday.
“David. It’s Doreen, Jules Azenberg’s assistant.”
“Doreen?” he replied, surprised. No, not surprised. Flabbergasted.
“You must be thinking, ‘How long has it been?’” she said with a brittle chuckle.
“Yes,” he replied, trying to recover.
“You sound busy,” she continued.
“Actually, I was in the middle of…”
“So let me get right to it. Mr. Azenberg would like you to come in for a meeting tomorrow.”
“A meeting? Dave asked. “With me?”
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.”
The wannabe director must decide whether to keep working in showbiz or keep dreaming. 2,306 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
On occasion, while circling the office and delivering the mail, Max tried to engage the studio’s executives in a conversation about a film that had especially impressed him or a book that he’d found particularly moving. Right, Max," was generally the disinterested response. Then they would ask him to make sure that their delivery got right over to Parker or Simons or Goldstein or whomever.
"Ratings, Max. Concentrate on the ratings," one of the executives finally told him. The man’s name was Drew Oberlin and he was only a few years older than Max. He had a big office, designer furniture, and a secretary who could have modeled. Max stood by the door looking in, his hair matted, his shirt clinging to his underarms. Oberlin spoke from behind his desk. "Concentrate on the ratings," he repeated. "That’s what matters."
Oberlin was immaculate in a dark suit and white shirt that snapped in starched perfection when he moved. He offered Max gleaming white teeth as if practicing for an audience, Max his mirror.
Max returned the smile, hesitantly, with more of a grimace.
"I’m giving you good advice here," Oberlin said. "Never mind art. Ratings. That’s all that matters. Say, could I ask a favor of you? I have some laundry that needs to be picked up…"
At Max’s urging, Oberlin read Max’s screenplays and reluctantly proffered the advice that Max might write better as part of a team. "Your work, well, it’s got class. But you’re not attacking the center of the marketplace."
A writer gets a movie job offer on an exotic island and goes to check it out. 2,134 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was bang in the middle of another Writers Guild strike, and I woke up with a throbbing headache. I hadn’t drunk more than half a bottle of Trader Joe cheap red, and in those days that wasn’t enough for me to suffer a hangover. No, the pounding in my forehead was a form of dread at the thought of traipsing over to Sony Studios to join my comrades on the picket line yet again. I didn’t even know what we were fighting for exactly: just something to do with making money from the Internet. All I did know for certain was that I was broke, and my damn headache wouldn’t go away.
As I sipped a cup of coffee inside one of the few remaining rent-controlled apartments in Santa Monica, I felt entirely disillusioned. I couldn’t turn on the TV for any respite because, without the writers, the programming was filled with reality shows and repeats. Nor did I feel like going out for a walk, as the June gloom had set in since L.A. is never as sunny as people like to think. So, instead, I stared at my laptop screen trying to come up with an original story idea.
In theory, this quiet period would give Hollywood writers an opportunity to delve into our artistry and create something we cared about. But my screen remained blank for an hour. If I’m honest, it was a futile task; I hadn’t been able to write anything original since my first script that had snagged me representation. Everything else since then had been assignments.
I was trying very hard to remember what I cared about – maybe that was giving me the headache – when my phone rang. This hadn’t happened in a few weeks. I feared that a comrade was calling out of disgust with my inability to show up at the picket line. But the call was from my agent.
Had the strike suddenly ended? Or was she quitting the business to start up a yoga studio?
Heads spin when a writer and studio mogul start conversing during a pitch meeting. 2,160 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The writer stepped out of the glass elevator and approached the receptionist’s desk. “Richard Blow. I have an 11:30 with Heller and Nero.”
“Good morning, Mr. Blow. Please have a seat. I’ll let Mr. Heller know that you’ve arrived.”
Blow nodded and parked himself under the Rothko. He sat in the chair with a hint of a smile, looking focused but relaxed for what was sure to be yet another ordinary pitch meeting, filled with promise but ending in no result. The receptionist offered water. Blow politely declined. He picked up a magazine, the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and opened it to an interview with the actor du jour Tony Billings. At first glance, the article was the usual puff piece.
After a time, Heller appeared. Blow stood up, and the two shook hands. They’d met before, in previous meetings and on conference calls. They’d run into each other at parties. They had a mutual friend in a talent agent at International Artists. Heller mentioned over drinks at the Peninsula that they were looking for some fresh material. The agent passed along Blow’s name, calling him a super creative guy stuck churning out sitcoms but trying to break into features. He’d written three or four scripts that got some serious looks. He’s developing a story that sounds right up Heller’s alley. Sort of a romantic thriller. Give him a meeting.
Heller set it up through Blow’s manager after watching several episodes of the sitcom. The writing was pretty good — smart and funny. The story had a few surprises but nothing that suggested Blow could handle an original feature. Sitcom writing was formula writing. Features followed a formula, too, but the lack of strict conventions, established characters, running storyline, often presented a daunting task for writers accustomed to the series format. Still, Nero wanted fresh material and fresh faces.
A Reality TV editor abandons his job after a quake and then finds real satisfaction. 1,899 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Dick considered openly weeping onto the editing console. But that, he thought, might short circuit the machine and actually make his workday longer.
The clock on the opposite wall was entering hour nine of what was shaping up to be a sixteen hour day at HRB Post in a dingy room above an even dingier strip mall in one of the dingiest pockets of Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood. Unsmiling men and women of dubious and indistinguishable national origin milled around outside, entirely oblivious to the life of Dick Nadal, age 31, with only that amount in his checking account. His hair was thinning but he was not, and he considered taking a second lunch at the Zankou Chicken on Sunset.
Nobody there would stop him from having a good cry.
Dick worked as Department Editor at HRB Post, a job title that sounded exclusive but was simply a sixteen letter cover-up to mask the horrors of painstakingly editing together Reality TV footage of young idiots into a cohesive show. Today’s editing session was for the third season of The Snatch, a terribly monikered name for a visually harrowing series.
His day was peppered with questions such as whether Cindy, the 23-year-old blonde bartender from Dallas, should be shown spouting quasi-racist rhetoric before or after it was made apparent to the viewer that she was under the influence of several dozen Jello shots. There was a note from the director that the set didn’t even have Jello so now the entire legal team was refusing to sign off. Dick decided to edit in a split second of B-reel footage of an empty Jello box and punch in a musical sting for added comedic effect. He was, by several accounts, a fantastic editor. And yet, sadly, he should really have been working on something a whole lot better. He picked his nose as scene 32-A rolled out.
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.
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.
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.”