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.
The TV writer feels like Benedict Cumberbatch has forsaken her. Or has he? 1,974 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Kaylee wants you to come back,” Alex tells Melanie.
“Come back and do what?” Melanie is pleased. But suspicious.
“Pitch the pilot for Creepy.”
“So they’re giving me the job?”
Silence on the phone. her agent clears his throat. “Not yet.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Melanie says.
“Kaylee likes you. She says you have a feel for the characters. And she was very impressed with your vision.”
“So why don’t they give me the job?”
“Because she has to meet with other people.”
“She doesn’t have to. Alex. Maybe we should move on.”
“I think you’re going to get it, Melanie. She told me the two of you had a connection.”
A TV writer facing a career crisis finds Benedict Cumberbatch in her kitchen. 2,152 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Melanie forces herself not to be bitter at lunch with her pal Paul when he’s talking about his new job on Mind Your Manners.
“It’s the most amazing staff. Everybody is super nice,” Paul says. “The showrunner, Betsy, is famous for the way she treats writers. No long hours. Catered lunches. She’s already had two parties at her house so we can ‘come together as a team.’”
Melanie loves Paul. She tries to remember how much she loves Paul as he goes on and on about Betsy and the room. The actual room. Sofas and comfy chairs and windows with views of trees and mountains. When is the last time Melanie worked in a room with windows?
Melanie’s agent Alex put her up for Mind Your Manners. She didn’t even get an interview. When she complained to Alex, he told her she should write a new spec.
“But I don’t want to write a new spec.”
A dispirited film journalist in Hollywood is having a dismal time in this book excerpt. 2,777 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It sucked being on the Red Carpet again. It may seem exciting on TV, but in real life it’s a drag. It’s always at the end of the day, your feet are hurting and you just want to go home but, no, you’re in a scrum down. And you’re not even guaranteed the “talent” is going to talk to you unless you’re Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood or some other high-power purveyor of poop, which Renny Aucoin was not. Instead he was a low-power purveyor of poop, writing for Wonderwall and MSN. Could be worse, he thought, could be August and 100 degrees and sickening with the smell of perfume and sweat. Mercifully it was May and pissing rain instead.
He hadn’t done a Red Carpet in years, but the damn intern didn’t show up, and his editor threw it at him. What could he say? The venue was 6925 Hollywood Boulevard. A quintessential movie palace from the golden age, this kitschy Chinese deco gem upstaged only by its famous courtyard featuring an endless array of handprints dating from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks through C-P3O, whose imprint had to be reworked after Regis Philbin stepped in the still-wet cement during a broadcast.
Renny knew all this on account of his life-long love affair with movies. Since childhood they represented an aspirational universe, a shining city on the hill, and Old Hollywood was the Garden of Eden. He quoted movies the way others quoted scripture, and the Chinese Theater was his Vatican.
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 world loves entertainment. But everybody also wants to get paid for it. 2,078 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“We should just let him in,” Greer said, watching the cop on their CCTV feed.
“Oh, sure,” Hugo replied. “Just bring him right down and show him the whole setup.”
But his tone wasn’t as confident as his words — not nearly. He was her boss but she scared him with her dismissive coldness and chess-move thinking. She didn’t argue it now; she just hit a couple keys. “Officer?” she said into a microphone. “Or is it Detective?”
“Detective Evan Ridge,” the guy said, clearly knowing that it sounded good. “I’m here because a TV writer exited The Farmer’s Market at closing and crossed to a far corner of the parking lot to his silver-metallic Kia Soul. He carried takeout cartons and grocery bags and was jumped by three black-clad men. They beat him, emptied his pockets, took his stuff, stole his car, and left him gashed and bleeding.”
The L.A. therapist is pursued by his first celebrity sex partner. 3,419 words. Part Seven. Illustration by Thomas Warming
Speed west on the 10 freeway and you fast run out of land. Just in time, you whip through the rightward arc of a tunnel that shoots you out onto Pacific Coast Highway, due north. On your left: blue-green water from here to infinity. On your right: the Santa Monica Mountains, parched and immense. Dead ahead: the promontory of Point Dume. Beat lights and traffic — a long shot, at best, in your soon-to-be late-great Camry — and in twenty minutes you’ll turn onto an asphalt ribbon known as Old Malibu Road. It’s where Dennis Corbin, celebrity therapist, is heading to make a house call. A beach house call. Oh, the travails of a country doctor.
“Did I wake you?”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s wrong?”
“So agitated, I’m gonna scream.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“Can’t breathe. God, those crashin’ waves. They’re relentless.”
“Where are you?”
The L.A. psychologist is finding fame and fortune from his celebrity patients and their pals. 1,887 words. Part Six. Part Eight. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
After some back and forth, we agree on a price. More than I’d imagined. I will get a flat fee per gossip tip, contingent on its veracity. There’s a time lag while it’s investigated. The money is payable to Alan Shepherd Black, LLC. Cost me $49 to incorporate in Nevada without my name in the filings. How it works: I give Stop The Presses! a lead. They assign the story to a team who tail and photograph the target, interview friends, neighbors, and colleagues. If they go with it, funds are electronically transferred to the LLC. To encourage speedy payment, I decide to withhold new tips till I’m paid for the previous ones.
I do have ethical ground rules. First, I will not divulge anything a client has told me in confidence that relates to his or her psychic pain or treatment. Gay? Alcoholic? Cheating on a spouse? I’ll take your secret to the grave.
Second, the tip can’t be something that only my client knows, thus traceable to him — and by extension, me. No, it must be a thing two or more people know so as to obscure its source.
But this leaves so much else. What do I consider fair use? Idle gossip. Trash talk. Celebrities love to dish about other celebrities. It’s a stall tactic, a digression, to avoid dealing with their own shit. Every day I get an earful. The married actress sleeping with her nanny; the producer nailing his son’s wife; the Beverly Hills dermatologist meth addict; the talk show host sex offender; the transgender Victoria Secret model; the HIV-positive action star; the sex tape starring “America’s Sweetheart.” And more. Lots more. So much loose talk. Hell, I even hear things outside of therapy. Did you know that Hollywood’s biggest entertainment attorney has a whole second family? Kidding. I would never. But you get what I’m saying.
I’m about to test the system.
The Hollywood therapist needs money quickly. A book? TV talk show? Gossip? 2,050 words. Part Five. Part Seven. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“So I made some calls.” It’s my college buddy, entertainment attorney Barry, over the car speaker. We haven’t talked in a few days about my book idea
“And?” I say into the hands-free. Looking around for a place to eat.
“There’s qualified interest — Audrey, will you send this to Frank Matteson for signatures? Then you can go home. Sorry, Dennis.”
“What are the qualifications?”
“You said qualified interest.”
I turn off Venice into a random mini-mall.
“The market is saturated,” he says. I park, facing a crimson neon martini glass: the Hi-Lite Lounge, next to an army surplus. “They’ve got self-help books up the wazoo. And since they’re all the same book, you need a hook…”
“Do I have a hook?” I rummage in the console for an Altoid. Starved.
“A great hook, the Hollywood hook. But you need a title they can promote: Tales Of A Hollywood Shrink… Psychoses Of The Stars… How To Get Laid Like DiCaprio… So they can book you on Ellen and the morning shows.”
The L.A. psychologist now enjoys the high-profile life as Hollywood’s favorite shrink. 2,893 words. Parts One, Two, Three, Four. Part Six. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The restaurant on Culver Boulevard is not far from home — at least geographically. I roll up to the “Valet Parking $9” sign behind Myrtle’s black Escalade. On the sidewalk, a clutch of paparazzi stirs like pigeons. Even in a city not obsessed with faces and bodies like Hollywood, this crew would be a grungy lot. Pungent from catnaps in sunbaked Hondas. Fueled by junk food, stale coffee and masturbation.
Myrtle’s driver walks around to the curbside of the SUV. The windows are blacked. He opens the door as if unwrapping a gift. There! A lightning barrage of strobes hits the two women. They step down in an artful maneuver acquired through practice. All body parts move as one, lest a stray nipple or errant snatch adorn the cover of Globe Magazine. Sadie and Myrtle stride through the flash storm in a herky-jerky silent movie. The shutterbugs glide with them. Their sheer number, all grabbing virtually the same image, ensures a small payoff for the effort. They shout provocations.
“Drinking tonight, Sadie?”
“Who are you screwing?”
“Myrtle, let’s see the new tits!”
“Who said? These are the same old tired ones.”
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.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: Not everyone can win Academy Awards. But the few, the proud, the drafted will produce them. 2,152 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I had been to the Academy Awards once in my life, for a film I produced because the writer and the supporting actress were nominated. My dearest friend, Graydon Carter — I’m kidding — did not invite us to mix with that crowd of actors and executives whose eyes always wander over your shoulder to make sure there wasn’t someone more important than you. After my nominees lost both our categories, I took them to the Beverly Hills Hotel and we all got drunk. The writer was only thirty-two but the terrific actress was no longer young and this was probably her last chance. She burst into tears. And, inexplicably, so did I.
The Academy Awards are the most boring and self-important awards show on TV. At least the Grammys and Tonys have music. And, in a weird way, those shows are more authentic. As for the Oscars, I have four words for you: Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. What is that? Humanitarian? Who’s kidding who? That’s why the Academy moved this farce off the broadcast and into the untelevised Governors Awards. As for the rest of the show, there were all those clunky dance numbers and awards for sound effect editing and set decoration? And… I could go on and on. Yawn.
My Academy odyssey began one morning in November. I went to the Soul Cycle class in Brentwood at 6 a.m. Only the hardcore show up at that time — the producers and agents and managers and studio executives who shower afterwards and flee in their Teslas and Maseratis to UTA or Paramount or NBC to start another happy day in Hollywood.
I drove to my office on Sunset which is in the same West Hollywood building as Soho House. Julie, my assistant, was already there drinking her green health food breakfast -– a thirty-five year old woman who seemed to work day and night and was more protective of me than my mother.
A celebrity dead pool puts this deeply in debt showbiz agent on tilt. 2,371 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood agent Jason Axelman sat down at his dining room table and did the math. His client, Louie Morales, had left at the beginning of the year, taking with him his show, his production company, and the two other shows his company had on FOX. That was about two million a year in billings. Jason’s divorce from Robin had cost him a million and a half plus thirty five thousand a month in alimony and child support. That weekend in Vegas, an attempt to recoup some of these losses, ended up costing him another half million. The consolidated bank loan — to cover the mortgage, the car payments, the shrink, the gardener, the grocery bills, even the flowers he sent the few clients he had left when they won something — was fifty thousand, due the first of every month. Perhaps Wells Fargo could be persuaded to accept a partial payment, he thought as he bit into an apple. Perhaps Israel and Palestine would declare peace in the next month. Anything, he felt, was possible.
But not this. He was broke. Broke the way a junkie is hooked, and Jason couldn’t get out of it. He had lived well, the bottom had fallen out, and there was no reserve. The agency was probably only weeks away from asking him to leave. And he would have to sell the house. He had fought for that house in the divorce. A house in Bel-Air had once seemed to mean something. When he was a young agent, his mentor Abe Saperstein had told him, “An agent must never lose his house.” Abe was dead now; he’d never know.
Jason walked into the living room and sprawled out oon one of his two matching chocolate leather sofas, designer pieces that would have been repossessed had it not been for the bank loan. He picked up the remote, clicked it, and Turner Classic Movies appeared on the 55-inch television screen.