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.
When the paparazzi princess disobeys the law, her neighbors suffer. 2,170 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Once news of Venice Hyatt’s arrest hit social media, the paparazzi and TV news vans invaded the streets and crowded the driveways throughout Maureen and Paul’s neighborhood. The gold-diggers had arrived; but instead of picks, rakes, and shovels, they had all sorts of cameras and microphones. Because a picture or a word from the scandalous heiress was worth a fortune on the gossip world market.
A neighbor, Craig, contacted Maureen by phone. He lived up the street from Venice and worked as a nurse at the UCLA hospital. He related how coming home one early morning he had to chase a newsman urinating on his doorstep.
“Now that she has been arrested, the circus will only intensify,” Craig griped. “We need to do something.”
Then came another news break: VENICE HYATT RELEASED FROM JAIL.
What happened was the L.A. County Sheriff ignored the judge’s sentence of 23 days and let the celebutante go free after a mere 72 hours. For an “undisclosed medical condition.” She was to be sent home to serve her sentence while wearing an ankle monitor.
The media as well as trolls on Twitter and Facebook questioned what kind of medical condition it could be since, a few hours before being jailed, Venice was photographed at the MTV Movie Awards. Apparently in perfect health.
When a paparazzi princess moves in, there goes the neighborhood. 2,075 words. Part Two. illustration by Thomas Warming.
Maureen and Paul lived a peaceful productive life on a small winding street five minutes above Sunset Boulevard.
Early mornings at their house were particularly glorious: the chirping birds, the chittering squirrels, the basking sun all contributed to the tranquil bucolic mood, as did the magnificent view. But it was especially the quiet street that made Maureen and Paul’s living environment the envy of all their friends. “You can work here! You can create here! You can sleep peacefully here!” they exclaimed again and again.
Maureen and Paul felt privileged. They earned a good living writing for television but were not rich. Paul was toiling on a second-grade broadcast series. After Maureen’s series was canceled, she was finally trying to write that novel she has been talking about since her glory days in the creative writing program at at Columbia University. They’d acquired their house quite a few years back when prices were still affordable. Today only rich people could build or purchase a home there. The location was so desirable that Maureen and Paul’s neighbors were cashing out by selling their homes to the voracious developers, contractors and flippers eager to buy up any and every property.
One day Maureen heard from her friend Rob, a long-time resident like herself, that the house right below her on Trasher Avenue had sold. Rob walked his dog everyday; dog owners love to chat and keep their ears to the ground. So Maureen got all her neighborhood gossip from Rob.
A week later, he delivered a gold nugget.
“Venice Hyatt bought that house below you.”
“The Venice Hyatt?”
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.
A writer’s lost script is found decades later by people born after his last produced credit. 2,492 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
This all started back before electronic submissions. Wilkerson had knocked out a beautiful script in three days that was a beautiful script. Wilkerson knew it was the best work he’d ever done. So did his wife Alice, who was unerringly right. She had shouted “Yes, perfect!” over and over while reading it with Wilkerson hovering, unable to sit, always desperate for her approval which he always had anyway.
He subsequently made ten copies at Kinkos on Vine, using pale-cream bond pages finished with snappy manila covers. He gave the counter guys old brass script brads he’d found at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, fearing the more flimsy ones might splay and spill his precious tale. But these sturdy warriors would never surrender.
But when he put the screenplay copies on his agent Helena’s desk, she recoiled. Because she’d already read his hand-delivered original and pronounced it dead on arrival and dropped it showily into her massive metal wastebasket.
“So what’s wrong with it?” Wilkerson had challenged his agent in his first yet fatal clash with the woman who had done so much for him. Slapping her was like slapping his beloved Alice.
Helena glared. Then something flickered in her eyes like the dismissive blink of a falcon at full altitude. Helena knew people would despise the script because it was neither fish nor fowl. But she said simply, “It’s a wanted poster for unproducible.”
Yet he pushed on recklessly. “Agents only tell their writer that when they don’t get something but won’t admit it.”
They didn’t talk for three weeks.
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.
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. Illustration 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."