The has-been talent agent starts to school the wannabe comedian. 1,890 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As much fun as I was having bodysurfing this glamorous riptide, I knew all along that I was in danger of losing sight of my mission. Being inside the gates of Castle Roy was not enough. Yet as badly as I wanted to tell Golden about my secret act, show him my voices, solicit his advice, I also knew that the second I brought it up, the dynamic between us would change forever. In fact, he could fire me for it, guilt-free. Hollywood was full of wily entrepreneurs like me trying to sneak in the back door. So I held back, waiting.
I drove Roy down Wilshire in the bumper-to-bumper afternoon. He was oblivious, sitting in the back of the Benz, yelling at somebody on the cell, throwing his pauses like punches. “I have…the receipts. Yes. All…the proof…you need.” Roy grunted. “Well you tell him…it’s worth it…to ME.” Then he hung up with an exhalation of great disgust.
We approached a red light. I I flipped down the sunblocker, the glare was killing me. I knew that, when it comes to fame, there’s no sneaking in the back door, no ginger pussyfooting around the dream, protected by your irony and your patience. No way. You go for it. You skate out onto thin ice.
So I said, “Roy, you know I never told you this but I was on TV as a kid.”
“No kidding,” he grumbled.
“Just a season. I still perform.”
“I do celebrity voice impressions—“
Silence. I continued.
“—at amateur hours.”
I checked him neurotically in the rearview mirror. He was in catatonia-land behind his shades. “So you’re an amateur,” he groused. ”That’s no fun.”
“I would love for you to check me out sometime, maybe give some advice.”
No response. Nada.
Red turned green. I drove. Nothing but the killing hum of the Mercedes. I had crossed that line, that sacred employer/employee trust line from which there is no turning back. Or maybe he hadn’t really heard me. Or maybe he heard me but couldn’t believe the insolence of it. The limo driver wants a break, whattya know? Or maybe he was just gonna fire me on the spot.
I pulled up to the loop at the Chateau Marmont and, just before he hoisted himself out, he adjusted his sunglasses and said, “Kid, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but me and showbiz are going through a terrible divorce. Irreconcilable differences.”
Now if the old man had been drinking or had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, he might have said, “So you think you’ve got what it takes to be a stand-up, you Israeli putz? Go take these bills to the post office, that oughta be a laugh.” But even his schemes had an agitated quality now.
As for me, he ordered bakery runs and dry cleaner pickups and going to every magazine stand in town in search of Single Malt Aficionado, The Journal For Finer Scotch Enthusiasts. It was everything but showbiz.
Still, what could I do? Roy was all I had in the way of gate-key-holders. One morning, he ambled down the walkway holding a crazy oversized mock-up jar. It was the size of a crockpot, with oversized printing on one side that read “MIRACULOUS FAT-EATING THIGH CREAM” and on the other side some health gibberish mumbo jumbo.
“So you think you’ve got what it takes to be a stand-up?” he asaked.
To which I replied, in Donald O’Connor’s voice, “Why I was born to make ‘em laugh.”
Roy rolled his eyes and said, “Nobody cares about that impersonation shit anymore. That’s a dead art.” He thrust the big jar in my hands and gave me a slap on the back. “All right, funnyman, today you’re gonna try your hand at selling some of this shit. If you can’t hustle fat cream, you’ll never get laughs onstage.”
I loaded the giant jar model alongside some boxes of little thigh cream jars in the trunk and we were on our way.
The doors of Bloomingdale’s and its air conditioning enveloped us, with me trailing behind, shlepping the boxes. What did I know about selling fatso cream? His mission was to hit the five biggest cosmetics counters on the Westside and personally demonstrate the miraculous goop to “seed the market” and “build a story”, whatever the hell that meant.
The floor manager took our papers and disappeared. When he finally returned, he was carrying two wooden stools which he placed near the moisturizers and exfoliants. We set up our boxes, our model, and a small sign that reads: “LOSE WEIGHT NOW! MIRACULOUS FAT-EATING THIGH CREAM.”
“First, watch me,” Roy said. There was no opening act. Within seconds, Roy had coaxed a browsing auntie to the stool and he was rubbing in the white cream and promising “results, not tomorrow, but later today, this afternoon.” And as she cut the check, women of all ages and shapes, colors and sizes, started to line up. The jars were flying out of the boxes and it wasn’t yet noon.
During a tiny moment of down time, Roy leaned into me and said, “Okay, you take the next one. The floor is your audience, the cream is your material. And remember…” — here he dropped the magic pause — “…don’t forget to always remember to get all the money. Go.”
That’s when I realized he wasn’t kidding; by accident or by design, this was training. Face to face, I had never sold a thing in my life. I straightened my tie and eyed the department store floor, but I was trembling inside, half-hoping for an earthquake or a blackout.
My first client was a dishwater blond woman in her early forties. I pushed the stool under her and said, “This cream was developed by a team of top research and development scientists and experts who understand how to destroy fat.”
I scooped out a small dollop and she eyed me uncomfortably. Suffice it to say that Roy had to finish the sale. “What’s the matter with you? You’re about as spontaneous as a goddamn potato. Where’s the eye contact? Where’s the feeling? You’re a human being not a robot. Take the next one. And, remember, it’s a relationship.”
Up walked a slightly heavy-set woman with greying black curls, mid-fifties. I held her hand as she took a place on the stool. I cleared my throat and went soft-spoken into my tentative spiel. “This is a brand new cream which gets rid of unwanted weight gain. Not that you need it,” I said nervously. Roy shot me a miffed look: don’t overdo it,
“Well it certainly sounds miraculous,” she said.
And she was gone. No sale. I was sunk.
Roy said, “Better. Better. But stop being such a nice Jewish boy. You sound like you’re apologizing.” At this Roy faced me, eye to eye. “If you wanna do real stand-up, you’re gonna need conviction like you wouldn’t believe. Next broad that comes here, remember: it’s already sold. The demo is just a formality, a little show.”
The rules were piling up in my head: stronger, softer, do this, don’t do that, it’s a relationship, it’s a formality. And when my next customer approached, a real brassy type, I thought: this is it, I don’t have a chance, I’m gonna bomb. It had to be obvious to her that I wasn’t a pro.
In a panic, I conjured a voice. Let’s call it Mr. International. A drop of Israeli accent with a touch of faux Italian and syntax from God-knows-where. I said, “It’s weight loss cream, all new.”
As she cut the check I saw Roy in my peripheral vision, not looking at me but gazing straight ahead. His lids were heavy and he gave that slight and almost imperceptible nod. It was the highest compliment I’d ever received in my life.
For the next six weeks, the jar was the star. Truth be told, I felt a kind of sibling rivalry to the whole project, and my mind raced to come up with a way to sell it better, the better to impress Roy. I wanted to upstage the thigh cream.
A new deeper phase of my hazing kicked in. On our hit list was High Spirits Vitamin Gulch, the superchic “health food boutique” on Melrose.
“This is your pitch,” Roy said outside the store, getting serious. “No more piggyback; you work solo. There’s a manager chick in there. Young like you. Turn it on. Flirt with her. I’ll be trailing behind, to make sure you don’t say anything stupid. I want this account. Do not let me down.”
“Excuse me,” I said approaching her. “Are you the manager? I’ve got this new product I want to turn you on to.”
She kept her back to me. “I’m sorry, I really can’t take on any more stuff. We’re jam-packed.”
I turned to walk away but Roy blocked me, shaking his head.
I asked her, “Can I at least schedule a demonstration?”
Now she spun around, visibly pissed. Then she stopped herself and said, “Wait a minute, don’t I know you?”
Roy and I exchanged glances.
“I’m sure I know you,” she insisted. “I do know you, you’re hilarious!” She took the jar out of my hand, laughing in disbelief. “You do impersonations, right?”
My face felt hot and I stammered. Roy pushed me out of the way and lit up like a slot machine. “I’m Roy Golden, this is Tom Ellis, my business partner. As you know, he’s a man of many talents—“
“He sure is,” she said, not looking at Roy. “Tell you what. I’ll take a few jars on commission if he gives me a free impersonation.”
“Well,” I said. “Who do you have in mind?”
“Uhhh, do Brando.”
I looked around and mentally cleared a space. I slumped my shoulders and ran a finger slowly down the edge of my nose, then went straight into my heavy duty Stanley Kowalski drawl. “Take a look at yourself here in a worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for fifty cents from some rag-picker. And with a crazy crown on. Now what kind of a queen do you think you are? Do you know that I’ve been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes? You come in here and you sprinkle the place with powder and you spray perfume and you stick a paper lantern over the light bulb. And, lo and behold, the place has turned into Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile, sitting on your throne, swilling down my liquor. And do you know what I say? Ha ha! Do you hear me? Ha ha ha!”
I made the sale. Roy was not amused.
Halfway home, I slid open the privacy panel and said, “Now when you gonna come see my act?”
Roy stared at me in disbelief. “Act?! You have no act. You couldn’t survive thirty-five seconds on a real comedy stage. I am disgusted with you, Ellis. That broad was dying to give you her phone number and you didn’t even have the balls to ink the deal. I should fire you on the spot, you arrogant son-of-a-bitch!” He slammed the privacy panel shut with a grunt.
The next day he booked me.