The unemployed TV writer joked about the most depraved series ever for a black kid. Uh-oh. 3,254 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Eric Ornstill was imparting phony inside tidbits about Tom Cruise during another of his tours to the homes of the stars when the name of his former agent, who’d fired him a few months earlier, lit up on his phone. Eric jerked the van to the side of the street and informed his tourists he was about to present them with a very special treat: a conversation between a habitually unemployed TV comedy writer and a bona fide Hollywood dealmaker. He tapped the speaker icon on his cracked iPhone 4 and turned to face his confused passengers.
“Denny?” Eric asked, trying to mask his incredulity.
“Network’s got a show for some kid under contract,” said the agent. “Want to meet him?”
A few hours later, Eric called Denny and reported on his meeting with the talent and the talent’s manager.
“I sat in the Yum Yum Donuts at Melrose and Highland, with an African-American woman and her son, the star of the series, a somnambulant 5-foot-8, 286-pound 12-year-old who occupied the two chairs opposite. The mother didn’t pitch me a premise, she pitched a bunch of fat jokes while her son never took his eyes off his cell phone and consumed the contents of a box of Boston creams. It was clear to me that this grotesque excuse for a parent considers it in her interest – and, yes, in her son’s interest – that the kid remains morbidly obese for at least as long as it takes to produce a hundred episodes of the piece of shit she pitched me, if he lives that long.”
“And you nodded and smiled, right?”
Hollywood is known for horrible executives. But some are way worse than others. 1,697 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Jeff Sterling, the President of America’s pre-eminent TV network, GBN, bought Lincoln HIgh in the room. Or to be more specific, in his cavernous Hollywood office. He liked the synopsis and had listened raptly to my proposal. He said yes before I even finished. Sterling was legendary for trusting his gut, for making split second decisions based on his instincts.
"This is just what I’ve been looking for," he exclaimed.
In our youth, we had worked together for the legendary Hollywood mogul, Len Richmond, and I had shamelessly exploited that connection so as to pitch the project directly to him.
But by going over the head of Conrad Cadwallader, the Global Broadcasting Network’s V.P. Of Movies, turns out I had unwittingly raised Cadwallader’s ire.
"There’s nothing like it on TV," Jeff Sterling pronounced as he escorted me down the hall to Cadwallader’s office. "I bought it," he bellowed when we entered unannounced. "I love it."
A prominent TV producer’s death is both mourned and celebrated simultaneously. 3,192 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Melody Grant observed life through a writer’s eyes, composing on a laptop in her head. That way she could imagine her husband’s recent death — ninety-five per cent factual, with dabs of embellishment for color and drama — as a passage in one of her novels:
On the eve of his greatest glory, Arnold Chafis was not merely upset, he was thunderbolt-shaken and enraged, Vesuvius about to blow. He had tried to remain calm while continuing to read, grinding his teeth as his volcanic anger built, until pain erupted in the middle of his chest. Then his arms, then his jaw. Suddenly, eyes clouding and brain swimming, he felt faint — then fear. Arnold, a prominent TV producer, was 63 when he died in Hancock Park. His wife, the mystery novelist Melody Grant, found him in the evening, slumped over his banquet table-sized desk in front of an open laptop. He’d been reading reviews for Remorse, his highly anticipated weekly TV drama about a young doctor accused of malpractice. It was to premiere the next night on ABC.
Notices for the series had been blurb-ready and glowing:
Congenitally glum Val Steinway of The New York Times cheered: “Hats off to a brilliant and vibrant new feather in TV’s cap!” Roger Kale of the Wall Street Journal, famously unkind to anything attached to a broadcast network, toasted “this HBO-worthy Chafisian work of genius.” Politico’s resident skeptic Carrie Rice-Wentworth rated the new series “many times smarter than ABC’s Shondaland and — no exaggeration — nearly equal to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.” And in Variety, difficult-to-please Vince Nichols forecast “a ton of Emmys for this stunningly boffo TV.”
Only one major critic panned. It was this scathing review — by usually-measured, never-shrill, bordering-on-dull Dean Formento of the Los Angeles Times — that Arnold had been reading when his heart stopped.
A newly hired channel executive thinks up the best for the worst. 1,195 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
To: FRN Staff
CC: Skip Delicious, Executive Consultant
From: Jack Ahze, President, Fake Reality Network
I am proud to welcome Mr. John “Skip” Delicious, Executive Consultant, to our FRN family. Mr. Delicious will be responsible for reimagining Fake Reality Network’s programming and turning it into a premiere niche network in at least 17 of the 48 continental United States and maybe Guam.
Mr. Delicious has had a long and storied career as an Executive Consultant in a variety of industries, from medical technology (The Ouchless Catheter) to fast food (Ox ‘n’ Brew). And his rate of success as an Executive Consultant is unparalleled in the annals of consulting. In fact, he was born to be a consultant. When he was seven years old, he used to walk down the street and stop random passersby and say things like, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” and “Might I suggest you diversify?”
I first became aware of Mr. Delicious in 1994, when he was working as a Executive Consultant in the field of Public Relations, and he advised Al Cowlings to “drive slower and put O.J. on the phone – you’ll get more face time.” I knew, even way back then, he and I would work together some day. And today is that day.
In the coming weeks you’ll all get to know and work with Mr. Delicious, and together we’ll make FRN destination viewing!
To: Jack Ahse & FRN Staff
From: Skip Delicious, Executive Consultant
First of all, CALL ME SKIP!!! I am happy to be a part of the FRN team and make us the best fake reality network we can be. Let’s hit the ground running!
A humongous Hollywood merger has unforeseen consequences for all involved. 2,559 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Margaret Sewell sighed as she sat across from her friend, Lou Delray, at the Fox studio commissary’s outdoor patio. She had little appetite and barely touched her salad. “My boss said, ‘I wish I could take you with me.’ And he didn’t even bother to try and sound sincere. Then he gave me a holiday gift card to Neiman-Marcus. As if that was supposed to make me feel better. ‘Hey, clown,’ I wanted to say, ‘how about a gift card to Ralphs, so’s I can buy some food after I start collecting unemployment in 2018.’”
Lou was only half-listening. He hadn’t filed for unemployment since losing his first job right after college. For the past twenty years he’d been a teamster driver on a succession of studio TV and film projects. The studio facilities would remain and his boss, Henry, claimed Lou had “nothing to worry about.” But when your boss tells you not to worry, that’s precisely the time to start making other plans.
With the departure of the television and movie production units, sooner or later, probably sooner, something was bound to give. And that usually meant the older and more expensive workers.
“They’re saying that, after the merger, ten thousand jobs are going to be lost in all. Screw Murdoch and screw Iger twice,” Margaret said as she threw her salad into the trash. A number of heads turned and nodded, some eyes rolled, and a couple of mouths uttered sarcastic laughs.
Buoyed by the reaction, Margaret added, “I might as well tattoo ‘Roadkill’ on my forehead. Am I right?”
A showrunner’s fired 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.
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.
No matter your religion or ethnicity or race, people inside and outside Hollywood will see your true colors. 1,782 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I used to do Roseanne.
No, no, not do Roseanne. I mean – hell no, are you kidding me? — I did Roseanne and Madonna and Cher as part of my “Tour Jetay’s Naughty Nasty Nineties” cabaret show. But Roseanne never really took off and people would boo even though I thought it was pretty clever, me going from sexy Madonna (hair flip/ pony tail/pointy bra: never gets old, bitches) and Cher (talk about never getting old: Cher is my spirit animal) to a fat frowzy housewife. Come on, she had the most popular show on television. You rooted for her. Everybody rooted for her. Roseanne was a heroine. Back then.
I’d lip sync to “American Woman” wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, the only concession being 5-inch pumps — because, hello, 5-inch pumps? — with a strip to a lamé version of jeans and a flannel shirt. Funny, right? A teased-up black wig and an exaggerated mouth. In the middle of the number, I’d usually let out a Roseanne-inspired, “Oh, Dan.” But it never caught on. “Sweetie pie, honey bunch,” Amber Skyes said to me once, “Tour Jetay is class. You’re high-brow. You’re drinking tea with your pinky stuck out. Roseanne is a bowel movement. And not an especially satisfying one.”
So Roseanne was a bust. Instead, I added Britney and Princess Di. And they worked much better. Sorry, Roseanne. I tried. But it wasn’t meant to be. Cut to two years later.
TV sitcoms survive on babies, weddings and controversies – in that order. 1,749 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The ballyhooed nationwide talent search for a Muslim-American actress to play the lead in Alisha Loves Fred concluded with the selection of Chandra Parva, a stage-trained ingenue whose TV worked consisted mostly of Law & Order and Criminal Minds roles as the girlfriend or wife of suspected terrorists.
The network’s marketing guru Nina made certain that her staff touted Chandra’s American background. Born and raised in Iowa, even a member of the 4H Club, Chandra was not too dark or light complexioned, and she possessed just the right amount of spunk to make her interesting but not threatening. Still, it wasn’t sufficient to quell the Twitter-sphere where the most popular deprecation called her “a honky in a hijab.”
Casting for Fred narrowed down to the minor country music singer Blake Cummings, a Bakersfield native and bland enough Christian to pass muster. Again, his selection was trashed on social media.
This controversial sitcom is in trouble and network execs are in crisis mode. 1,953 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The first thing they agreed on in the programming meeting was that Alisha Loves Fred, a proposed sitcom about the romance between a Muslim feminist and an Evangelical redneck, was a horrendous concept. The second thing they agreed on was to take it straight to series. A full season’s commitment without a pilot.
As the senior executives shuffled out of the conference room, JoJo Travis, the network’s programming president, JoJo arrived back at her office, reached into her desk’s side drawer, popped a Xanax and washed it down with a shot of whiskey, hoping to quell her immediate buyers’ remorse. Then she whispered to her assistant, “Tell Nina I need to change my quote in the announcement release. It sounds too much like the one I made when we were dealing with the ‘Asian situation’.”
Nina Torkay, the marketing Executive VP, had worked at the network long enough to predict a wreck before the train had even left the station. She understood the politics behind this particular decision but the release announcing the series was ready to go. That JoJo would delay it by fussing with her quote and possibly jeopardizing the story leaking to the trades – for which Nina would be blamed, of course – was merely another glamorous perk of her profession choice.
The wannabe TV scribe meets the show’s head writer who is arrogance personified. 1,637 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I set up my new working area right by the only window in the room. The glass pane was so filthy you couldn’t see if it was night or day.
Milky came over to inspect. “It’s so crowded in here, Rocky, that you’re gonna have to lose some weight or park your ass out the window to make room.”
I decided to join in. “Is that a window or am I looking at a large glass of tomato juice?”
Milky thought this over and a little smile came to his face. “Okay, not bad. But take my advice: you’re gonna be dealing with four of the smartest and funniest people in television so you better stay on your toes or you’ll be eaten alive. You know how I know this? You see that Emmy award on the shelf?”
I looked over at the bookshelf that hadn’t seen a dust rag in years and found the Emmy with a bra hanging off one of its wings.
“This ’53 Emmy,” Milky continued, “tells you we are the best comedy writing team in television, at least for last year. And that…”
He stopped in mid-sentence, looking at the bookshelf and then around the room. He went to each desk and looked underneath. He even searched in the wastepaper basket and in the closet. He stopped and rubbed his chin and then threw up his hands. He looked over at Hattie.
“Where the hell is it?”
A wannabe TV writer starts his dream job amid the stuff and staff of nightmares. 2,220 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I guess it was the mid-fifties; the only way I can visualize New York in those days was in the leafy fall and the cold gray days of winter. It comes back to me like one of those art house films. Everything seemed painted in white, black and gray.
I was living a great life back then. I’d survived the Korean War and dodged working at my father’s bookkeeping firm by using the G.I. Bill to get into City College. That’s where I graduated with my English Lit degree and decided to practice my new craft in the NBC mailroom. A great job if you have no other ambitions in show business. You make all the right contacts and you have a little gambling book on the side. If you don’t screw up the mail, you’ll have a job for life. It was there I came to know Mort Schumacher, the Head of Programming, and started dumping my scripts into his mail slot.
I did this for three months: banging away at my father’s old Underwood at night and finishing a script every two weeks. The first one I personally handed to Mr. Schumacher and told him how much I wanted to write for television and why it was my life’s ambition to become the Chekhov of the electronic media age, and on and on. After, I’d just leave little notes attached: “Here’s another one! Hope you enjoy… Rocky.” Or, “Cranked this out in forty-eight hours and no sleep and seventeen cups of coffee. If you get the chance, please look it over… Rocky.”
My real name was Lucius Bauderchantz and my family called me Luther and my friends, Lucky. It was in the service — because of my stocky build, curly dark hair and bent nose — that they started to call me Rocky, after Marciano. This confused the hell out of my parents; when people would call the house and ask for Lucky or Rocky, mom and dad weren’t sure if they’d forgotten about another son hidden somewhere.
All of my hard work finally paid off one day when I was summoned to Mort Schumacher’s office on the thirty-eighth floor, all brass fixtures and wood paneling.
The flirting and gossiping ends badly for someone on this TV series. 3,759 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The wrap party was being held at the cheesy cowboy theme bar at Universal CityWalk. Caleb hated that development next door to the lot where he worked. Even the name grated on him: “CityWalk.” It was everything that pissed him off about L.A.. The antiseptic tourist trap was so utterly un-urban. He could rattle off at least a half-dozen bars on nearby Ventura that were far superior. But he was just a lowly writer’s assistant so it wasn’t his place to question the chosen location for the wrap party. Actually, he wasn’t surprised. He worked for a cookie cutter network procedural, and the powers-that-be had chosen to end the season in the most uninspired way possible. Little wonder that he always could predict each show’s ending.
As he parked his car, he thought about Nora, the staff writer considered a “diversity hire.” She had once confessed to him that she loved the City Walk. Of course, Nora loved the City Walk. Caleb hated Nora. He didn’t see her talent, or what she offered to the show, or why Bryan gave her two scripts. Caleb was really hoping he’d get to co-write the finale, like Matt Weiner’s writer assistants, but instead Nora got it. Like she needed another credit. Caleb had read her pilot back when he was Bryan’s assistant. It was fine, the dialogue was cute, but the story was nothing special. Rom-com chick stuff. He’d been working for Bryan for four years, and Nora had never worked on a show, but she was a staff writer and Caleb was the writer’s assistant. Bryan told him it was because of money. The show had spent too much of its budget on upper level writers, and the studio would pay for a “diversity writer.” That was Nora. A Korean girl from Encino… How fucking downtrodden.
While she would never tell any of her fellow writers, Nora loved Universal CityWalk. As a kid growing up in the Valley, it was the closest she ever got to actually walking onto a studio lot. L.A. kids aren’t supposed to get starstruck. But Nora just couldn’t be jaded. She wanted to belong to the business, not merely be adjacent, and write for a real primetime TV show with millions of viewers. Now that she was, Nora still liked to visit CityWalk to remind herself how far she’d come. About once a week, she’d arrive an hour before work, go to Starbucks, drink her latte and think about how she was about to go work in a bungalow on the real lot. Though she questioned whether she deserved to be there. But if she really was nothing more than a token, Bryan wouldn’t have given her two scripts. She knew Caleb resented her and coveted her job. But she was working her ass off, agonizing over every word of procedural exposition instead of scripting for people to ignore while they did their laundry. Nora had long ago learned that hard work was the best remedy for insecurity.
Which is worse on a TV shoot: wrangling insane directors or stupid executives? 1,850 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
You know it’s a bad day when the Network appoints an incompetent head case to be its new programming chief and the guy you chose to direct your latest movie turns out to be a fraud.
Let’s just call it a massive Xanax day.
My name is Ray Medly and after years of toiling in the fields and learning my craft, I now produce motion pictures, including theatrical features, movies for television and streaming video.
I’d begun shooting Wagons West on the same day Mascot Cable trumpeted the hiring of Truman Rombolt, the third member of a three person team of programmers at RBP Productions and the subject of much industry speculation as to what it was they were thinking when they hired him.
When it was announced he was to become Mascot’s new head of programming, a collective groan could be heard all over Hollywood.
"Clueless," was how one producer described him.
"A deeply disturbed human being," commented another.
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.