Bill Scheft  - Welcome Back To Show Business - 5

Welcome Back To Show Business
Or Whatever It Is I’m In

by Bill Scheft

Further adventures of un-politically correct comedian Tommy Dash in the writers room of a new sitcom. 4,052 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


Before we begin, congratulations to George Clooney on his one-year wedding anniversary. If you’re looking to send a gift, he could use a couple of guys to help him start digging an escape tunnel…

If you had October 8 in the pool for the date I’d be fired from I Don’t Get It, you lose. Calm down. I had October 6. Actually, I bought four boxes. I had October 1, October 3 and November 19, which is the two-year anniversary of the last time I took a Quaalude. Or the last time I could find a Quaalude. So, I’m still alive.

And so are all of the writers on the show. It’s a miracle. I’m telling you, no jury in the world would convict me if I capped one. Or paid the guy I know who’ll do anything for $300 to cap one. With rare, rare exception, this is the most arrogant, condescending bunch of fucks I’ve ever been around – and mind you, I once gave Bill Maher a lift to Burbank Airport.

Sadly, they’re all kinda talented and I understand why Danny Musselman hired them. Which is more than they understand about me.

Let’s run down the I Don’t Get It writers room, complete with their approximate ages and their odds of still breathing in the year 2016:

CAREY NIX, 32 (199 to 1) – What a complete piece of shit. He’s worked on a bunch of half-hours. He’s known as a young genius, which means he was once mentioned in a 10,000-word profile of Louis CK. It also means he comes up with the one visual moment in a script that gets the biggest laugh and shows up in every review. I’ve seen him do it four times so far, and three of them involved a toilet. Yeah, he’s a genius. Oh yeah. If he leaves the house without his pants, people will start mistaking him for Einstein. He’s also the only guy other than me who’s been down to see Janice in HR more than once. His latest indiscretion was taking a fire extinguisher and topping off a latte belonging to Dawn the receptionist. That went away with a $100 Starbucks card. Janice’s idea.

Have I mentioned that I may have a thing for Janice?

JAKE SATINSKY, 41 (3 to 1) – I have privately nicknamed Jake “Kalahari” because the chance of a shower is zero percent. Jake is Danny’s #2 guy, and I mean that as both his title and another reference to his personal fragrance. He’s been on staff at all of the other shows Danny has worked on and is a script machine. Now, if we could just install a button on the script machine for Fabreze, we’d have something. Of the 10 episodes I Don’t Get It was picked up for, he and Danny will write eight. He’s a pro, and if you leave the door open, relatively easy to get along with. But I’m telling you, three times so far we’ve been waiting for a food delivery at night and different interns have walked by the room and said, “What did you guys order, Indian?” And it was Jake.

CINDY WINTER, 35 (1 to 5) – We have two women on the writing staff. The other one we’ll get to. This is the good one. Cindy is funny and smart with an infectious laugh and she consistently comes up with the best lines for Melanie, Clark Keegan’s character’s girlfriend, and Dara, his manager. (By the way, Clark Keegan’s character’s name? Clark Kogan. Simple operation performed by Danny. He removed two vowels, added one, and poof, the guy’s a Jew.)

Back to Cindy. She does not pipe up nearly enough in the room. But to be fair, who can blame her? Let me say, I completely understand why women are furious they are not better represented as television comedy writers. I get it. However, after four weeks of sitting in this room, I ask you, why would any woman want to work on one of these shows? When one of the girls says something funny, you get that “Hey…” like you couldn’t possibly have come up with that on your own. And by you, I mean them. And if there’s anything remotely secretarial to do, you get to do it. That’s if you’re average looking or, uh, not slim. If you’re good looking, that’s an additional bag of rocks.

Of course, your mileage may vary. I used to feel the same way about women sportswriters. Why would you want to wage a legal war for the right to be in the locker room after a game? But now, having spent a month confined with Jake Satinsky, I get it.

And I am not saying all this because Cindy Winter has been maybe the only one to genuinely laugh when I say anything. Which is one more genuine laugh than either of us gets from the other jagoffs. If I say something funny, I get my own version of “Hey…” from them. I get “Hey… is that yours?” Which, like I have to tell you, if it was any more emasculating, I could hit from the ladies’ tees at Lakeside. That’s if Danny is out of the room. When he’s in the room, and he laughs, it’s like he’s starting a lawn mower with the others.

(Speaking of which, remind to tell you about the lawn mower joke I did during the warmup. Before I had to stop by Janice’s office.)

FRED DELLAFERA, 40 (20 to 1) – Nora Ephron supposedly once said about Billy Crystal, “There’s not enough love in the world to fill that hole.” Well, Nora never worked with Fred Dellafera, who, if he was any needier would be naked in an African desert with flies on his face. Honest to Christ. I never met anyone so desperate for approval, and I once sat through a Dodger game with Tom Dreesen. Fred’s odds of survival would be higher, but he always sits next to Jake Satinsky. So, for that alone, he’s dropped to 20-1.

Fred has two moves. The first one is if anyone comes up with a line or a premise, he explains it back to you in the form of a question. I’ll give you an example. In the second episode, Clark tells his manager that he can’t make a meeting because he has to go with his girlfriend to an award luncheon. His manager, Dara, says, “Easy there, Kanye.” Jake came up with that line, and Fred says, “And you’re using Kanye because he goes to award shows and interrupts people?” Imagine that a few dozen times a day. It’s like OCD Jeopardy.

Fred’s other move is after he comes up with a line or premise of his own. He does not wait for a response. He immediate rejects it for the group. Example: In last week’s episode, we needed the father, Morty, to fuck up something in his kid’s apartment. Fred says, “What about if he tries to dry his underwear in the microwave… You’re right, it’s garbage. I’ll shut up.” Now sometimes, he’s right and it saves a lot of time. Sometimes, he actually comes up with strong stuff. But either way, you get, “You’re right, it’s garbage. I’ll shut up.” And let me tell you, as annoying as the other thing is, I cannot get enough of this.

MISSY FRIEDMAN, 29 (45 to 1) – Missy is the other female writer on staff. And I’m gonna guess the other kind of female writer. Remember, I’m new at this. She is not without considerable talent, but most of that considerable talent is housed in the way she casts herself as the protégé of every male writer on the staff. She is also unfairly good-looking, so really, when she pays any kind of attention to any of these chuckleheads, they are an absolute puddle. She has a magnificent fake laugh, which comes standard with the option of the fake tear-wiping. Tears that, in four weeks, have yet to streak her perfect makeup. She has been around these rooms long enough that she knows how to make things sound like a joke. And she’s not afraid to ask for help. Or purr. Jake, can we do something with this? Carey, you’re good at this. What about… Beck, can you tag this…  Danny, fuck me if I’m wrong on this…

If you wonder how I can sit in a room for hours at a time and keep my mouth shut and my job mostly intact, I just watch Missy Friedman in action. It’s easy. And I am spared her gaze because I am technically not a writer and of no use to her. Except once, two days ago. We were breaking for lunch and on the way out I reminded Danny of the time we were watching some kid at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach, and a heckler yelled out, “Hey, move away. I can’t see the fucking bricks!” Danny lost it and put his arm around me. Well, two seconds after that, Missy Friedman walks by us, giant smile, and says, “Hey Tommy, where we going?” And I almost fell for it, but I was on my way to see Janice in HR about the lawn mower joke.

BECK CHADWICK, 11 years old (1,000 to 1) – This fucking guy. All he needs to do is say one more thing to me, specifically, and we’re gonna go. I’m serious. I am undefeated for my career in fights. I beat up a kid in seventh grade, Michael Tillich, who didn’t even know he was in a fight, and I retired from the ring after that. This fucker, Beck, is half my age, but if we go, I swear he will not walk out of the building. For the first two weeks, whenever Danny was out of the room, whenever I would suggest anything — a line, a plot idea, a blow-off to a scene, an aside — Beck Chadwick would say, “OR…” Loud. The first time he did it, after I said, “What if Morty says, ‘Hey kid, where’s the claim check to your balls?’” Beck said, “OR…” And stopped. And I’ll be honest, I thought it was funny. His timing was perfect. And I thought we should incorporate that as a catchphrase for Clark Kogan, the young comic. And I said as much to Beck. “We should do that. You know, like a catchphrase” were my exact words. Which got nervous giggles from everyone else. Fine. Might have been my first or second day in the room. But then, the next six or seven times during the next two weeks, after I noticed Beck only did the “OR…” thing after I spoke (and again, only when Danny was out of the room), the device had lost its considerable ability to charm me. I said, “Chadwick, are you looking to get your ass kicked?” And Carey Nix, his buddy, said, “OR…” And that broke up the tension. When we finally finished for the day, around 11 pm, I cut off Beck’s path to the door of the conference room and braced my left hand against the wall. I said to him, very quietly, “You need to cut out that shit with me. I am asking you, like a gentleman, which is more than you deserve.” That is all I said. I swear. I did not threaten to put him in the hospital. I did not throw him against the wall. I did not do it in front of the other writers. That was the version he gave Janice in HR. The version he waited two weeks to give Janice. The version he waited two weeks to give Janice after he stopped doing the “OR…” line on me and instead had put it in the script for Episode Four. Which, if you remember, was supposed to be the episode I had a part in. I’m now in Episode Six, which was moved back when the script had to be rewritten. By Beck. And he hasn’t gotten to it yet. I know, shocker.

When Danny saw the revision in Episode Four this morning, he said, “Who came up with this line, ‘OR…?’” Everyone mumbled Beck. And Danny said, “Well, it’s a killer. We need to make it, and I hate this word, a catchphrase for Clark.” And I said, “Catchphrase. Dynamite idea, boss!” Loud. And Danny stifled a laugh, and said, “Okay, I deserve that. But blow me, Dash.”

Then Carey Nix, who’s pretty quick, did a perfect Popeye, “Well, blow me Dash!” And that got a big big laugh in the room. And if I was a betting man, which I am, I would throw my wallet at whatever window would take the action that “Well, blow me Dash!” will be the new response from these pricks any time I say anything from now on.

CURTIS CLETHAN, 37 (1 to 2) – Curtis is a black guy. Can you still say black guy? Well, he’s a black guy and he’s represented by CAA agent Denard Sharp, who last I checked, was also still a black guy. Curtis is a veteran of several sitcoms, and is the fellow you bring in when your show is in trouble. And by trouble, I mean just after the folks at the ACLU call and ask if there’s a black writer on your staff. Curtis is as bright as I am not. A former English teacher with a masters degree from USC who has published three novels. That kind of bright. He is also prompt, attentive and prefers a grunt to an actual laugh. And other than, “Yo, that sandwich is mine,” he has said exactly two words in the four weeks I’ve been here. Last Wednesday, we were trying to come up with another word for pot when Clark is trying to ask Morty if he ever got high. And Curtis Clethan, MA from USC, published author, said, “Cheeba skank?”

I mean, if ever there was a time to say, “OR…” that was it. But Beck Chadwick is a double-threat, a disruptive mindfucker and a complete pussy.

So, there they are. Your writing staff for I Don’t Get It.

I haven’t mentioned how it’s gone with the warmup. I’ve done it twice. Today will be the third time. In fact, I need to get over there in an hour. We film the show from 4:30 to anywhere between 8 and 9. So, I am on the hook for at least four hours. And let me tell you, whatever talking I am not doing my two days a week in the writers room, I am giving it all back and more in the bleachers with the studio audience.

Just about every audience warmup in LA or New York is done by a stand-up comic. But not every stand-up comic can do warmup. There have been 5,000 live audience situation comedies in television history and six guys who really knew how to warm up the crowd. Before he got Family Feud and way before he had the bad taste to kill himself, Ray Combs was the king of the warmup. Jimmy Brogan was great. JJ Wall was really strong. I saw him do a Cheers taping in 1986 that ran six hours. Joey Kola is still doing it in New York, running from talk show to talk show and kicking ass. Even though you are addressing a live crowd and trying to get laughs, audience warmup has as much in common with stand-up comedy as Mel’s Drive-In has with haute cuisine. Audience warmup is about keeping people engaged, being accessible, maintaining the energy and being the cheerful, informative liaison between what is going on down on the sound stage and the 200 or so people in the bleachers. You’re obliged to make it seem like it is going much much better, and much much funnier.

Reread that last line and ask yourself, with what you know about me, do you think Tommy Dash is capable of any of this? If I gave you a thousand words to describe me, would any of them be “engaged,” “accessible,” “informative” or fucking “cheerful?” Okay, I’ll give you “informative,” because we’ve all learned a lot in the last couple of months. And unless you are looking to score some cheebah skank, I have never been a liaison. But it’s $500 for the day, and that’s my price for trying to play along.

And really, you should have seen me the last two weeks. You wouldn’t have recognized me. I combed my hair and put on the unstained sweater vest, and I said things like, “You people are the most important part of this entire day! We could not do the show without you! And we wouldn’t do the show without you! Hey, how about a hand for the hair and makeup people? Working so hard! Hey, let’s see if we can get Clark Keegan to give us a wave! There’s one of the writers, Carey Nix. Tremendous guy! How many of you know what a subplot is? I Don’t Get It. Is that a great name for a show, or what? No, that’s not Alan Arkin. It’s Sonny Regal. He’s better! Hey, how about another hand for the hair and makeup people?” Wait. Not things like that. That.

Seventy-five percent of audience warmup is about answering their questions, even if you don’t know the answers, and even if they ask the same question six times. Six might be low. I cannot tell you how often they want to know if the show they’re watching being filmed right now will be on television when they get home so they can watch it again. Let’s all just let that sink in for a second. This is where you would want to say, “Uh, the answer is the same one I gave to the last fucking moron. You really think that they’re gonna turn four hours of film into 23 minutes on your ride home? How fucking stupid are you? I bet you think midgets perform the show inside your television…” And by you, I mean me. But I didn’t say that. I said the things I was supposed to say. I got back to them with real information when they asked a question that needed a real answer. I dusted off my old MC chops and lightly made fun of the out-of-towners and what they did for a living. I did the seven clean minutes of my act I could do with a mixed-aged crowd in the middle of the afternoon. And for Christ sake, don’t tell anyone, I may have led them in singing “Happy Birthday” a couple of times.

By any metric (I got that word from one of the children in the writers room) I did the job. And I know I did the job because when I got home, I was dead asleep by 10 for 12 hours without my usual nighttime doze-off dose of Wild Turkey and generic chlor-trimetron.

So, why did I almost lose the warmup gig after last week’s taping? The lawn mower joke.

We were running really late and the crowd was dragging. We were past hostage-taking and were moving toward Waco. There were a lot of stoppages and re-dos, where the audience had to act as if they were hearing the same shit for the first time. Which is the kind of acting real actors go to class for. I was long out of out-of-towners to make fun of or questions to answer. I went for another hand for the hair and makeup people, and some housecoat-wearing slug said, “You did that already.” A guy from Dayton, who was clearly the funniest guy at the Dust-Off factory, says, “How about a joke?” He’s trying to help me out. I say, “Do you have a joke?” And he stands up and says, “Okay, this Muslim…” and I yell, “Thank you!!!!” And it gets a big laugh. Even I laugh. As the Dayton guy sits down, he yells, “How about you?” There’s a little encouragement applause. They clearly want a joke. Now, I know a lot of jokes. And I’m running through them in my head and crossing them off for reasons of, let’s say, decorum. I decide to tell the lawn mower joke.

It destroys. I mean, a giant giant laugh. To the point where people from the crew look up. That was my problem. Apparently, a couple of gals on the crew complained and the next thing I know, I get called in to see Janice in HR.

Now, I don’t mind this. I had seen Janice two days before, about the two-weeks-after-the-fact nonsense with Beck, when she heard my version of the confrontation and then asked Beck to come down and sign his harassment complaint, which he never did. (You can file that paperwork under “sack of shit, lying.”) She was smiling throughout, and if it hadn’t been a potential legal thang, I would have brought up cocktails.

This time, I walk in her office (this is after the “Hey Tommy, where we going?” fake come-on from Missy) and Janice is not smiling. Which was not something I was planning on. I figured she was going to tell me the Beck thing went away. And then we would go away… somewhere.

“What did I do?” I say.

“Let’s talk about the lawn mower joke,” she says. And she goes on about how three women on the crew called and said I had told a vulgar, sexist and inappropriate joke. Two of the women want me replaced immediately. Of course, none of the women remember the joke, so she went to Danny Musselman about it. And Danny told her, “Do what you want, but if it’s the lawn mower joke I think it is, it’s a pretty good joke.” And he started to laugh.

“So,” Janice says, “let’s hear it…”

1:00 in the afternoon, middle of the friggin’ day. All the shades are up in Janice’s office. Sun streaming in. Standing with her arms folded. Not a drop of alcohol in her. Not a drop in me. And I gotta do time.

“Okay… 18-year-old kid walks into a general store. He’s looking for a summer job. The owner is behind the counter. He tells the guy he needs a job. The owner says, ‘I need a salesman. Have you ever sold anything?’ Kid says no. The owner says, ‘Well, stand over there, watch me, watch everything I do, and I’ll teach you everything you’ll ever need to know about salesmanship.’ Kid stands off to the side. Man comes in, goes up to the counter. Owner says, ‘Can I help you?’ Man says , ‘Yeah. I need a 10-pound bag of grass seed.’ Owner says, ‘Here you go. Want a lawn mower with that?’ The guy says, ‘What?’ Owner says, ‘A lawn mower. Look, you’re buying the grass seed. You’re gonna put it down. The grass is going to grow. It’s gonna get real high. You’re gonna need to cut it. And the lawn mowers are 50 percent off today only.’ Man says, ‘Great! Give me a lawn mower.’ He walks out, and the owner says, ‘See, kid. That’s the secret of salesmanship. Always make the customer think he needs more than he actually does. Always make the customer want more than he actually does. Let’s see you try.’

So, the kid gets behind the counter, and another guy walks in. He’s a little nervous. Kid says ‘Can I help you?’ Guy whispers, ‘Ah, yeah. A box of tampons.’ Kid grabs a box of tampons, hands it to the guy, says, ‘Here you go. Box of tampons… Hey, how about a lawn mower?’ Guy says, ‘What would I want with a lawn mower?’ Kid says, ‘Well, I figure your weekend’s shot, you might as well cut the grass…’”

Janice, God bless her, tried to keep it together. And she did, for about a second and a half. But she ain’t made of stone. She gave it up. But good. And I got real tears from her, too. What I live for.

When she pulled it together, Janice said, “Okay, just don’t do it again. And Tommy, please don’t let me see you back here again. Please. That would really help me out.”

I wanted to say, “What about outside of here?” But I didn’t. And if you’ve been paying attention, that is pretty enormous for me. Instead, I thanked her, walked out, heard her laughing after I closed the door, and tried to think of the last time a woman asked for my help.

Still thinking. Let me get back to you.

Bill Scheft on twitter
About The Author:
Bill Scheft
Bill Scheft was a 16-time Emmy-nominated writer for David Letterman from 1991 until May 20, 2015. He spent 12 years touring as a stand-up comedian until he was hired as a monologue writer for Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. He has authored 4 novels: The Ringer, Time Won't Let Me (2006 Thurber Prize For American Humor finalist) , Everything Hurts, and his latest Shrink Thyself. @billscheft

About Bill Scheft

Bill Scheft was a 16-time Emmy-nominated writer for David Letterman from 1991 until May 20, 2015. He spent 12 years touring as a stand-up comedian until he was hired as a monologue writer for Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. He has authored 4 novels: The Ringer, Time Won't Let Me (2006 Thurber Prize For American Humor finalist) , Everything Hurts, and his latest Shrink Thyself. @billscheft

  8 comments on “Welcome Back To Show Business
Or Whatever It Is I’m In

  1. I love these dispatches from Bitmo. I’m laughing out loud, just from reading words on a page — no visual schtick, no performance, just the words. How often does that happen? Robert Benchley, Woody Allen’s mafia essay, Tom Robbins, now and then. Not often. Nice way to start the morning.

  2. He’s back, baby, he’s back! Show Business is officially now Tommy’s oyster! Unless he’s allergic to shellfish. Still, anaphylaxis is a Day at Disneyland compared to working with the weasel-souled Beck. Beck must be destroyed. Not just for Tommy, for all of us. (And just to digress a minute, about that nice memory of Ray Combs– back when we were yuppie larvae, we would cut class and sneak in to hear Ray do warm-up for The Golden Girls. And he was just flat-out great.) So, Tommy’s actually now reached the goal he set up in Episode One: continuing his alleged career. But we hope there’s still more to come. We don’t really know him but we already love him. Even though it’s always something. Even though it’s not a sure thing. We’re going all in. With Tommy, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl. If that’s not love, what is?

      1. Everyone at the table was laughing so much, we went a little nuts writing the comment. Great story! All the best…

  3. Just when we were feeling Scheftless, and that Mercury might be retrograde, incoming — Tommy Dash lands another funny — hahaha!

  4. This is not the affable, laid back near-deadbeat casual Tommy Dash we have come to know and love. This is the getting paid professional who takes his work seriously- maybe just a little TOO seriously- Tommy Dash, who’s been around and seen enough to know what a tough racket comedy can be. When a writer’s room stinks, in more ways than one, it’s hard to keep any sense of cool. If Tommy lasts for the whole ten shows, it’ll be a combination of miracle, money, and good will from Janice! Who, BTW, needs to get her lawn mowed! Yeah, I said it, so write me up already!

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