A down-on-his-luck social message documentary filmmaker is asked to work on a Reality TV show. 2,323 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The phone jarred Michael awake at 6:18 am. It was Eva, his sister and self-appointed agent, calling from her Audi on her way to the gym.
“You couldn’t wait until you finished your workout?” he said groggily.
“Today at 11,” she reminded him. “I sent them over your teen hooker piece and they love it. They’re eager to meet you. Now don’t screw it up.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior,” he mumbled.
“Don’t you dare embarrass me.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
“You’re such an asshole,” she said and hung up.
Michael got out of bed and brewed some coffee. He knew he should be grateful for Eva’s attempts to get him work, but reality TV? He had become a documentary filmmaker to make the world a better place, not to contribute to its degradation like his sister, who represented many of the worst offenders of the genre. “Reality TV,” she once told him, “is the 21st Century equivalent of the gladiatorial arena. The Romans loved it and so do we. It’s human nature. We glorify the strong and want to kick the weak.”
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."
Out-of-work Hollywood types travel to the middle of nowhere to make an adventure show. 2,332 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Mann.
We were desperate. Art. Bruce. Lance. Tony. Scott. The whole lot of us. Desperate for another break. Desperate to make another month’s rent, another phone bill, another car payment. Desperate to make something happen. Tired of waiting tables, waiting in open houses, waiting to get slaughtered at the next cattle call. We’d all had a break or two already – a national commercial, a recurring role on HBO or FX or AMC, a juicy part in a fourquel splatter-fest. Just enough to keep our hopes up, keep us out of real jobs and real money. Only the breaks hadn’t led to bigger breaks. We needed that big roller to take us over the top. And this was our wave machine.
“Can you believe this shit?” said Art, an aspiring film editor scraping by on local commercials and backyard bare-knuckle brawl videos. Believe it or not, they pay people to edit those things. He got four hundred bucks and an eight ball for the last gig, which launched the career of a 380 pound overalls-clad cyclops named Opie Mohammed.
I couldn’t believe the tab as I looked at it, dollar signs burning my eyes. Even out in the middle of nowhere like we were, in some Northern California town where the redwoods met the Pacific, it was possible to run up a four figure bar tab. Before I could react, another round had arrived — bottles of Budweiser and whiskey backs, although you could have them in any order you liked. I could already feel the hangover and I knew a couple of the others were half blind. Somebody had to pay for this. The credit cards were maxed. We didn’t have the budget for this bill. I hailed the waitress and ordered another round of whiskey.
As soon as I said it I got hit in the eye with the flash. “How come every time I order a whiskey, you take my picture?” I asked.
Scott slipped the phone back in his pocket. “Because in Argentina they say ‘whiskey’ instead of ‘cheese’. Picked it up on a shoot in Patagonia.”
A Reality TV editor abandons his job after a quake and then finds real satisfaction. 1,899 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Dick considered openly weeping onto the editing console. But that, he thought, might short circuit the machine and actually make his workday longer.
The clock on the opposite wall was entering hour nine of what was shaping up to be a sixteen hour day at HRB Post in a dingy room above an even dingier strip mall in one of the dingiest pockets of Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood. Unsmiling men and women of dubious and indistinguishable national origin milled around outside, entirely oblivious to the life of Dick Nadal, age 31, with only that amount in his checking account. His hair was thinning but he was not, and he considered taking a second lunch at the Zankou Chicken on Sunset.
Nobody there would stop him from having a good cry.
Dick worked as Department Editor at HRB Post, a job title that sounded exclusive but was simply a sixteen letter cover-up to mask the horrors of painstakingly editing together Reality TV footage of young idiots into a cohesive show. Today’s editing session was for the third season of The Snatch, a terribly monikered name for a visually harrowing series.
His day was peppered with questions such as whether Cindy, the 23-year-old blonde bartender from Dallas, should be shown spouting quasi-racist rhetoric before or after it was made apparent to the viewer that she was under the influence of several dozen Jello shots. There was a note from the director that the set didn’t even have Jello so now the entire legal team was refusing to sign off. Dick decided to edit in a split second of B-reel footage of an empty Jello box and punch in a musical sting for added comedic effect. He was, by several accounts, a fantastic editor. And yet, sadly, he should really have been working on something a whole lot better. He picked his nose as scene 32-A rolled out.
The front desk man at a talent agency for Reality TV finds the job too real too often. 2,375 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Security calls me and I say, “Send him up,” with the air of a gatekeeper. Any second now, this guy will be pushing the buzzer and I have no idea why he’s here. It’s 4:25 on Friday. I thought we were done for the day.
The guard downstairs says the guy’s here for Daniel Turner. I have access to Dan’s calendar on Outlook, and I see no appointment for 4:30. I have five minutes until then to figure this out.
The buzzer sounds and the camera’s feed lights up. There he is, the mystery man, his hand already on the agency’s front door handle. An eager beaver, this one. I unlock the door with the push of a buzzer and he walks in, glancing around the space. He spots me and flashes a smile. He’s tall and handsome but has an air about him that suggests he’s used to the royal treatment.
Usually, visitors approach my reception desk to check in. Many are already familiar with the procedure and simply give a wave and go straight for the sofas. But this guy stays rooted where he is, probably expecting me to come to him.
“Hey there, I have a 4:30 with Dan Turner,” he tells me with a snap of his fingers.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A veteran producer learns from one of his teen contestants. 2,442 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
People have a lot of questions for me lately. How did I come to fire the most powerful law firm in Hollywood? Tear up the contract that governs how most reality competition shows do business? Lose the potential breakout star of my TV singer-songwriter contest Troubador?
The last one is the easiest to explain: Why didn’t I sue Brady James when he gave me and my series the finger and walked away?
He didn’t have a contract.
It started with me watching Crystal Bowersox on season nine of American Idol and thinking — that girl writes her own songs so let’s hear some of them. The idea took shape with Phil Phillips and this latest kid Mackenzie Bourg. I quickly realized a new show could put everything I loved together in one package. I love music. I love songwriters. And as I’ve proved during a thirty-year career working with all four networks and a couple of cable newbies, I love TV. So why not air a performance contest for singer-songwriters? Forget LaPortia Renae standing up there in the laser show belting out some old Mary J. Blige number. My vision was 1974’s Joni Mitchell standing up with a guitar, no light show or pyrotechnics, and simply singing Big Yellow Taxi. Or Bob Marley performing No Woman No Cry for the first time on my stage. Or – why not, shoot for the stars, Danny! – Bob Dylan, scruffy and unknown, knocking the world on its ass with Mr. Tambourine Man. You’re telling me the world ran out of Joni Mitchells and Bob Marleys and Bob Dylans? Seriously?
Then check out Brady James. I knew he was the genuine article at the first Troubadour audition. And it was a big relief, let me tell you.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A reality executive gives the presentation of his career. 2,201 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
Marty Nordin was sweating at his desk. He had a presentation due in 10 minutes and it wasn’t just unfinished but he hadn’t even begun to write it. It would be his last opportunity to keep his job. Because he couldn’t count on the shows he had developed to save him.
Some 13-year-old boy in Norway was getting 19 million views per week on a YouTube video while Marty’s series on the Watch-it! Network were lucky to attract 35,000. Fuck. And what was the kid doing that was so goddamned compelling? Playing a kazoo and simultaneously playing a video game. Crap.
Marty was 48 years old and had spent his entire adult life trying to create a hit TV series. To be honest, he’d really spent most of that time just trying to stay employed. But making a hit was the goal. He had tried at one point to develop quality dramas, but he had ended up in reality shows just like everybody else with half a brain. Scripted TV was deemed too formal. Viewers no longer wanted beginnings, middles and ends. They wanted chaotic stuff stitched together.
He could thank the cable industry’s package pricing for the proliferation of channels like the Watch-it! Network that get less than 50,000 viewers. Marty was responsible for developing Eat-it! where several people ate gross stuff and made each other eat gross stuff and then talked about eating gross stuff. And he launched Play-it!, a show with a room of “famous” people with very different POVs on life playing board games until it disintegrated into name calling and brawling. Shove-it! didn’t even make it past pilot but Marty felt it had more dramatic arc than anything on YouTube, dammit.
Now the pressure was on. New bosses. Ratings that sucked. A media landscape that just didn’t make sense anymore. The channel was being shopped to whichever buyer took control of a chunk of Congruent which was the giant corporation that owned the corporation that owned the Watch-it! Network. Between the corporate bullshit and the kids on YouTube, Marty was starting to think it time to get a real estate license. How long did that take?
TV FICTION PACKAGE: An adventure channel crew reconsiders after a scary encounter. 2,347 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After the monster bit our boat, we got the hell out of the river.
Our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, laughed as we climbed up the bank and made our way in the dark to the van. Nothing seemed to slow him down. Not even an evil villain sent straight from hell. Less than an hour ago, we were standing knee-deep in a Central American river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat us. At night. So we could shoot dramatic footage in the dark with Grady as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. In small rubber boats, no less. Me, I almost saw the headline flash before my eyes when he went under the water: “REAL LIFE ACTION HERO KILLED MAKING TV ADVENTURE SERIES.” People do die making our shows.
Top that, Hollywood.
“Pura Vida!” Grady said.
“Or Aloha,” I said. “Whatever.”
Helping Grady was exhilarating, but for me it represented a new low point in my career. I was glad to be outdoors, shooting video in an exotic location. It sure beat smoking crack next to our headquarters in the middle of downtown Washington, D.C. on my lunch breaks every day. But this was getting too weird. Even for me. No, I don’t really smoke crack. It’s a metaphor. My job now was chasing killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching from the safety of editing rooms.
A performer on Reality TV is fooling everyone until a woman makes a fool out of him. 3,972 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Zoltan Zarkini stood just behind his assistant, Frieda Guenther, surrounded by thick burgundy curtains. Frieda leaned forward, her right eye against a peep hole peering out at the audience in the main showroom of Las Vegas’ newest luxury resort, The Black Crystal.
“Anyone interesting?” Zarkini casually asked.
“I see several women who might be good candidates,” Frieda said.
“Do any look like they have money?” he asked.
“Yes, one, a woman wearing a large diamond necklace and matching earrings. I’d say they’re worth at least thirty thousand dollars. Black sleeveless dress. Cleavage. Long auburn hair. In good shape. Age about forty. Quite striking.”
“Does she appear extroverted?”
“I can’t say. But something tells me she’ll make a worthy subject.”
Zarkini liked what he’d heard. “Let’s do her third, as usual.”
“What about the people from Bravo?”
“The three cameramen are filming the audience coming in. Mr. Newman is sitting in the front row. Mr. Decker is sitting next to him.”
Zarkini laughed harshly. Newman and Decker were executives at the Reality TV cable channel, here to film an upcoming episode of Bravo’s latest hit show Incredible People. Both were obviously very intelligent, but Zarkini knew they’d seemed skeptical of his powers.
Tonight, he thought, they’ll see my powers in person.
Is the young Asian shaman a wise man or a con man? A Hollywood has-been can’t decide. 2,859 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I met the Zen Writing Coach in a bar in Hollywood. The kind with rotting stuffed chairs and odd wooden tables scattered about. Dark so you couldn’t see what you didn’t want to see. The walls were painted navy blue which nicely set off the truly hideous original art work posted for sale.
I sat down next to the Zen Writing Coach at the bar. Well, I left one stool empty between us, of course. He was wearing a flowing robe that was undoubtedly Asian, but to me looked more like what those American Indians wore at Wounded Knee when the blue coats shot them down. He was a slight Asian man, as you probably figured — but young, which you probably didn’t. Twenty-five, give or take. A lot younger than me. I was disintegrating my way through my forties.
I ordered my usual for the middle of the afternoon at least: a double Americano and a piece of pumpkin bread from Lilly, a tatted waitress out of Jersey who showed no sexual interest in me. She was very hot. Also gay. I liked Lilly. She was one of the few gay women I’d ever met who didn’t automatically treat me like I had killed her dog.
The Zen Writing Coach had a laptop open in front of him and was meticulously arranging piles of note cards around it in an easy rhythm. It was almost hypnotic to watch. Like the three card monte dealers in New York. I was curious. The robe, the cards, yet he didn’t seem insane or even homeless. So I spoke to him even though I never start up conversations with strangers. But I once went out with a woman whose Native American name was “Talking With Strangers,” so I know how it’s supposed to be done.
“What are you doing?”
A TV team for an adventure channel goes in search of scary footage. Unfortunately, they find it. 3,502 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
And there I was.
The point of this exercise was about as stupid as it sounds when you say it out loud. I was standing knee-deep in a river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat me. At night. We were launching two rubber boats so we could head out into the warm murky water and shoot dramatic footage in the dark with our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. Yeah. In rubber boats. Jesus.
Yes, I just took the Lord’s name in vain. Sorry if you are offended. I am a bad man. But not bad enough, as you may soon see from the confessions I list. Why should I fear hell? Some of it was right here. At the moment, we had some huge real-life demons to deal with.
Confession #1: I absolutely hate this particular species.
You’ll get none of that noble carnivore crap from me. In India and Africa these evil mutants have been known to devour small children and old women. They are killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching in editing rooms. Which is where I usually was. Not now. With the extra camera, I would catch another angle for editing purposes. I was the writer-slash-producer-slash-director of this show.
My job title was not as glamorous as it sounded. In TV, if you write it, you usually have to produce it and direct it, to see that it’s done right, and that can mean shooting footage, or editing, or even narrating the piece. If you managed to read those tiny credits at the end, while the channel was promoting the next program coming up, you might have seen my name fly by.
Granted, it was kind of exciting to be out here near them in the open. But the creatures we were hunting? I detested them almost as much as I feared them. I have my reasons.
TV and film collide on a serial murder case with the LAPD and a detective turned screenwriter. 4,813 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jim Brandt was too old for this shit. He should be home in bed with his wife, not stuck in a car on an LAPD stakeout. Detective Dana Hansen sat in the passenger seat, sensitive to his every move. They both looked out the windshield of the Ford Crown Victoria to the unimpressive apartment building across the street.
The cameraman directly behind her broke the silence. “I need something white,” he said. “You got anything white?”
“You need something white?” Hansen asked. She was petite, and the cameraman could only see her crown of dark hair over the seat’s headrest.
“Yeah, white, to color balance the camera.”
“Brandt, you got anything white?”
“No,” Brandt said. “Just everybody don’t move around so much. Keep your eyes peeled.”
The car fell silent. Brandt worked the kinks from his neck. Stakeouts were bad enough with only two people confined in a car for hours, listening to each other’s grumbling intestines and breathing air scented with sweat, hamburger grease, and farts. But a stakeout with four people was impossible. He blamed the show, the goddamned Manhunt show. The brass downtown thought a network reality program was the perfect opportunity to show the progress the LAPD had made since the dark days of Rampart and Rodney King.
The apologizing comedian Tommy Dash is back boasting about his new gig with a TV sitcom. For now. 3,716 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Happy New Year. Happy High Holidays. I’m planning a real show business Yom Kippur fast. I’m going to try and go 24 hours without having to eat shit.
I missed the Emmys. Did Caitlin Jenner win for Best Editing? I read in Allure she had surgery to have her Adam’s Apple flattened. Wait a minute. She had something flattened and she calls herself a Kardashian?
I’m sorry we haven’t been in touch for a while. I’ve been busy. Which, if you know me, is not my natural state. I will say, it’s alarming to be this kind of busy, which for me means having to get up early but not because I’m due in housing court.
Oh, enough dawdling: I got the gig…
Actually, I got a few gigs on this series I Don’t Get It. We’ll get to the fucking terrible name of the show later. (And I can say “fuck,” because the show is on a network where it’s okay to do that.) Don’t go nuts. I did not get the big gig. I didn’t bag the part of the father, the bitter old comedian who moves in with his successful young comic son. But I got many little gigs. Three, maybe four. I’m something called a “character consultant,” which means I’m not technically on the writing staff but I sit in on the meetings and they pay me Writers Guild minimum, which is $3,800 a week, but they don’t have to give the Guild its taste. And neither do I, so that’s just beautiful. I have a part in the fourth episode where I play the father’s former partner from when he did a double-act in the 1980s. Somebody told me, it might have been CAA agent Denard Sharp who has swooped back in after firing me, that’s worth about five Gs. If I do well, they bring me back. And, once we start taping, I’m the audience warm-up guy, which is another sweet sweet $500 AFTRA dollars an episode. Now, you’re aware I won’t see a dime of that until Episode Six because of my outstanding dues. But after that, I become a paid-in-full working union stiff for the first time since Luke married Laura.