The wannabe comedian goes to work for the has-been talent agent. 1,955 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was the good life. Castle Roy was drunk with color, lush green grass and gently bowing palms, wild purple jacarandas, blazing orange and blue birds-of-paradise, and everywhere unrestrained bougainvillea surging over the balconies. The place could have given the Garden of Eden a serious run for its money.
We worked in the guest house just behind the pool that looked like the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs if the Seven Dwarfs had been sportin’ major bling. This bungalow alone was bigger than many shameless American homes, and it housed the laundry room, Roy’s working office, a two-car garage, as well as the furnished studio apartment where I had been living for almost three months. Behind the garage was a storage space with a coin-operated Madame Esmeralda Prediction Dispenser. She was out of cards, but I still had one question for her: Will I be able to turn Roy Golden into my own personal Jewish Yoda, master of the comic pause?
In the office, Roy conducted his business from a throne — an actual throne that had been given to him by the Princess of Estonia. The whole place was plastered with awards, trophies, heads of the hunt. And there were at least a dozen framed gold and platinum records.
But the best was this one framed photograph up there, my all-time favorite: Roy yelling at Johnny Carson backstage, with a sheepish-looking young Barbara Streisand giggling in the background. Johnny had his hand up as if to say, “Hey, wait a minute, Roy.” But Roy was pointing, furious, absolutely undeterred. What a photo! You couldn’t tell what was happening exactly. Was Roy protecting Barbara Streisand or interrupting her? Was Carson deferring to Roy or avoiding him? And who the hell had the balls to yell at Johnny Carson in the first place?
The telephone rang and Roy placed his hand over the receiver, shot me a look, and said, “This next call will be the one which changes our lives — forever.”
Then he picked up the line and it was like watching Picasso lifting the brush.
“Yes Chuck, it’s me. Yes, the Roy Golden. Your Roy Golden.”
He waited semi-patiently, but when he launched back in, he was no hard-seller. He spoke with measured ceremony, like an approaching tornado in the far-off. “Chuck, I am the only person qualified to handle this project. First, because I don’t want to see you fall on your tuchus. But also because, if my fifteen percent ends up being less than a million dollars, I’ve wasted my precious time.”
In Roy, I believed. For the first time maybe ever, I believed. It was glorious, this glamorous education. I was Roy’s driver, assistant, gofer, secretary, advance man, and Dude Friday.
We dined at Delmonico’s for salmon or Mr. Chow’s for Szechuan dumplings or Factor’s Deli for blintzes or Craig’s just to be seen. WP24, before it got crazy, we were there. We shopped on Rodeo Drive or In Brentwood. And we made frequent visits to See’s Candy for Roy’s mandatory chocolate-covered cherries; he would pop them like vitamins just before we rolled into the Improv or the Comedy Store to accept the table front and center.
In comedy, he was a living legend. The seasoned guys, even the name ones, broke into a sweat when they saw him in the audience. They might make fun of the people to the left or the right but they never addressed Roy Golden directly. And the most amazing thing was that Roy never laughed out loud in the clubs. He knew the syntax, the code, the secret rhythm of humor so well, he would just give a knowing and barely perceptible nod when a good punchline hit. Meanwhile, I’d be doubled over, crying with laughter, or else breathless with envy. To be up there, blowing the crowd away like that — the whole thing was just magic.
Unfortunately, these trips to the clubs were rare. He wasn’t repping any solo comics to speak of, and most of his new clients were in what he called “special projects.” Still, we were out every night. There were so many parties and previews and screenings and tributes and gallery openings and ribbon cuttings to attend, and Roy could not sit still; he had to be there for all of it. Once he told me, “Life is a personal appearance.” He was big into Jewish charities, too. If you put a Star of David on the brochure, he’d cut a check.
Most mornings you could find Roy wandering around in the garden in his thick white monogrammed bathrobe, winding himself up for the day, scratching at the gold embroidered RG, and sweetly cooing to the flower beds. Watching him out there, it occurred to me that his plants were like another attention-starved client — the world was Roy’s client. He had his hand in everything: a Latino theater troupe, a guy who did a street act where he rolled around on broken glass, a pro basketball coach with some kind of “Awaken Your Inner Viking” self-help column, an Asian guy who exported purebred dogs, an old tin can folk-artist who lived out on the Grapevine, a Mexican-American female investments pundit with a radio show, and more. He’d take anything on if he felt the mysterious “it” in his kishkes, his gut. He was even handling the debut of a new line of high-end cheesecakes from a Santa Monica bakery. “The cake is decent,” the bakers told him, “but we need Roy,” as if referring to some magic ingredient.
There were “longshots” and there were “easies.” But deep down, of course, he always had a special fondness for the “longshots,” especially back in the 1960s when he had handled quirky folk acts like the Washbasin Gang, Maria Malone’s Blues Society, the Chocolate Overcoat, and Gary Gestalt, the world’s first psychotherapeutic folksinger.
But Roy was no Broadway Danny Rose; he was always trying to look past novelty to the great fundamental universal. He wanted to make not just a statement, but a contribution, to honestly and truly shake the very roots of civilization and advance the human race.
My so-called regular day had one instruction: roll with it. I might start in the morning cutting out newspaper clippings that contained some kernel of something Roy thought he could squeegee into a project. Then it was onto the entertainment trades which he scrolled through himself, braced yet bored, like someone reading their high school alumni letter. On his desk, there were piles of clippings, mementos, bills, letters, unpaid dues to SPERDVAC (that’s The Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy), and half-eaten See’s candy everywhere. It was the greatest junk sculpture I ever saw in my life.
Alongside this pile was a behemoth sub-stack: the deals-to-be. Roy loved to sign papers, but not the papers. There were always contracts to preclude contracts, a scribbled something which might later represent the deal memo which might later blossom into the agreement itself. Of course, 99 times out of a 100 the great big contract never happened, because if it didn’t inspire dizzying envy, why bother? I had tried to purge some of the scraps, but Roy wouldn’t have it. “Wait, don’t throw that one away, keep that,” he said. “When we make our move, they’re going to be so jealous, they’re going to get nauseas and vomit.”
Of all Roy’s tics, though, the most surprising to me was that he truly treasured regular old dumb jokes: knock knock jokes, Polish jokes, blond jokes, a Priest and a Rabbi and a Muslim Cleric jokes, a guy walks into a bar jokes, and so on. It was as if Michaelangelo had set about collecting little glass vagabond figurines. Roy hunted down the cornies everywhere he went, and he fired them off at all occasions.
Often, he’d greet me with one in the morning:
“How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I give up.”
“It’s okay, I’ll sit in the dark.”
“What are the four least heard words in Hollywood?”
“The accordion player’s Ferrari.”
“Why do Jewish men like watching porno movies backwards?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“To see the prostitute give the guy his money back.”
Nobody could lay it down like Roy. The older and dustier the jokes were, the more amazing it was how much juice he squeezed out of them. A joke you heard a thousand times before could bring you to tears. I watched him as one watches a magician, searching for the secret string, but the only string was his music-less rhythm, a mystery gap without countable beats, so that even as you laughed you asked yourself, “How the hell did he nail it like that?”
In every random person who crossed his path, Roy Golden took a personal interest. Even me. He probed me with constant questions — about my life, my friends, my habits, my love life. I told him everything except one thing, the amateur hours. “What the hell do you do with your free time, anyway?” he said, smiling from his throne. “You act serious but deep down, you’re a nut. I can tell. You don’t fool me for one second.”
Funny to think that all this running around like a headless chicken was really secondary to my Main Duty, my Stated Purpose, the actual barometer of true acumen, which was picking the right motor vehicle for the right occasion. He had a fleet of beauties, filling up both garages as well as the long curving entrance driveway. There was a 360 SL and an old bathtub Porsche, the Hummer, the Stretch, the Bentley, a cherry VW bug and a rare fiberglass MG that wasn’t freeway legal. There was also a monstrous Packard and a Harley just for show. We were sick with choice.
With this cornucopia before me, the only solution was to go intuitive. I mean, the Jaguar looked great but I didn’t like being that close to the ground and Roy had to fold up like a contortionist to get inside. The Hummer on the other hand was an awesome ride, but you couldn’t take it everywhere, like to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Heal the Bay. The vintage Bentley — that was the love of Roy Golden’s life.
“This car was a gift. From Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records,” Roy told me. “My previous Bentley had broken down. It was a big day, we had a meeting to sign a new disco act — Les Cherry Belles. And the damn car wouldn’t start. I called Neil and told him I was having car trouble. Neil said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Roy. Lemme give you a car. I’ll send another Rolls Royce right away.’ So I say to him, ‘Neil, thanks for the offer but I don’t drive a Rolls—‘”
And then Roy looked at me and paused, one of his magic comic pauses that stopped the world dead in its tracks, letting you know that gravity was about to hit, a pause that could not be measured by stopwatches for it clocked itself by the heartbeats of the listeners in the room, a karate chop pause before the black belt master punches through the stack of bricks in one single hit, a pause that maybe, just maybe, he could teach me—
“’…I drive a Bentley.’”