TV FICTION PACKAGE: More from behind-the-scenes of The Andy Perry Show host, producers and writers. Part Two. 2,950 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was about noon when Kurt, his feet propped up on his desk, was to have his world shattered. He hadn’t dressed for the occasion, as people whose worlds are about the be shattered are not often dressed appropriately. He was wearing a cardigan that he thought made him look "masculine, but not too masculine," as he’d told the sales clerk at J. Crew earlier that month. He had also bought several checkered shirts, as many young urban professionals of his age and tax bracket frequently do. They made him look approachable and casual, but not too casual, and not too approachable.
Kurt felt very dapper. He leaned back in his chair, riding the crystal clear wave of sartorial confidence all the way to the shores of true relaxation. His was a life that others envied, he thought. He wrote for The Andy Perry Show and lived down the street from the 11th best bagel place in New York. He had an interesting girlfriend who came from a family that had a prodigious amount of old money. Kurt prided himself on the fact that they had sex sometimes more than once a week. They had just adopted an elderly pug. Until that day, Kurt’s life was an avenue of nothing but green lights softly and coquettishly whispering "Go, Kurt. Go."
Kurt felt something bang on his desk. It was Andy’s fist. Kurt was shocked, and nearly spilled his cold-pressed iced coffee all over his J. Crew work shirt and Red Wing boots.
"Did you write ‘Dog President’?" demanded Andy. He had his arms crossed on his chest and smelled faintly like really good chicken.
"Uh. Yeah," said Kurt as he tepidly pled responsibility for his magnum opus and immediately felt his face flush from embarrassment.
"Get your coat," said Andy, "And come with me."
The entire writer’s room became deathly silent.
"He’s not getting fired," explained Andy to the worried faces, "He’s just a moron and he’s getting a promotion. People fail upwards in this business. C’mon people, I urge you all to either become much more political or to start writing more dog sketches. Go high or low. This is a new America and we don’t have room in the middle."
Three of the writers took him seriously, for better or for worse.
Andy and Amy led Kurt to a conference room a few doors down from Andy’s office. It wasn’t used much, as it had no windows and was by far the least visually appealing room on the entire floor. Kurt wondered why he of all people had been led to the "bad room," as it had come to be known. Sure, "Dog President" hadn’t been his greatest work but neither had Chaplin’s early films for Essanay. Even his idol, Harold Lloyd, hadn’t made Safety Last! and broken through until he was 30.
"Kurt," said Andy, "Do you know what Taft-Hartley is?"
"Does he work here?" said Kurt, a little alarmed.
"No," said Andy, "Taft-Hartley was a law that was passed back in the 1940s having to do with union laws."
Amy began reading from a sheet of paper she had printed out and folded in her pocket after Andy had told her his idea in the elevator on the way back from lunch. "The Taft-Hartley Act is a U.S. federal labor law enacted by Congress in 1947. As it relates herein, the law allows a signatory producer to hire a non-union performer if that non-union performer possesses a quality or skill essential to the role and an available union performer with the needed quality or skill cannot be found."
Kurt stared blankly at her.
"Kurt, do you have any on-camera experience?" asked Andy.
"Well," said Amy, "You’re about to."
They led Kurt to Andy’s dressing room. Andy rounded the door and flipped on the light switch. Immediately the dozen low-watt lightbulbs around the mirror cast a flattering yet realistic glow around anyone in the chair, giving them, unknowingly, an almost holy patina. Kurt sat down and stared straight ahead. He seemed very nervous.
"You seem very nervous," said Andy, deftly hitting the metaphorical nail on the allegorical head.
"What are we doing?" asked Kurt. He was starting to sweat a little through his plaid shirt. Even though he possessed the skills of a truly great comedy writer, Kurt was the employee equivalent of a small dog. He had the bravado of a much bigger dog and to that end was able to, but did not yet have, the wherewithal to consistently achieve many great things. Also like a dog, when frightened or scared, he had a tendency to shit the rug on occasion. It also could be verified, particularly amongst the more prank-loving members of the office, that he did not like to be approached from behind. It would be years before Kurt finally shed the aphoristic puppy fat of insecurity. For what it’s worth, he would later go on to be a successful comedian in his own right, and eventually, in the twilight of his years, write speeches for the White House. Yet, at this present juncture in Kurt’s life, he was destined for a much more simplistic, if integral, role.
"We are going to make you," said Amy, "a shoe shine guy."
"Am I getting demoted?" said Kurt without missing a beat. His mind immediately flashing forward to an entirely self-created image of how he was going to break this latest development in his career to hisgirlfriend. How was my day? I’m sorry, darling. I used to work for Andy Perry and now I shine shoes. The poor little rich girl would inevitably cry, and Kurt would take turns holding her and sighing. They’d probably have to move to somewhere like Bed-Stuy. He had no idea where that was but it sounded horrible.
"No," said Andy, "We’re making you a shoe shine guy because we’re creating a new character."
"But why not Lisa or Tony?" sputtered Kurt. "They have improv experience. They can create characters on the spot."
"Kurt, you went to Harvard," said Amy, deductively, "You’re the most qualified of all the writers to do this. Writing is performance, is it not? When you’re putting something down on paper, are you not writing for an audience? And isn’t that the basis of performance in a nutshell? Writing is performance," she repeated, "is it not?"
Kurt had never considered this. He had been too busy thinking about his wardrobe and trying not to think about Amy and his girlfriend in the same headspace.
"And besides," said Amy, "the fact that you’re uncomfortable will add to your performance. It means you’ll try harder."
"What are you gonna have me do?" asked Kurt.
"Well," said Andy, "I was outside on 37th Street. And I had a, uh, I don’t know if you’d call it a revelation. Divination? Whatever it was, it was some sort of ‘ation.’ I’m sending you to Wall Street and you’re going to pose as a shoe shine guy, and you’ll be wearing a hidden microphone. And you’re going to be interviewing Wall Street businessmen about what they do and, um, the rest is up to you. But I’m sure you can get a story out of them."
Kurt Weinerhund had been handed many things in life, but never a purpose. It was in that moment that his years of upper middle class upbringing came to a head, and he saw that people would remember the Weinerhund name. This was the start of something magnificent that would change his life and America for the better.
"Charlie here is going to put you in make-up so you look butt-ugly," said Amy, laughing.
Said Mitch, "You can’t find shit here anymore. Speaking of finding shit, where is everybody?"
"Andy’s in make-up with Kurt and Amy," responded Tony. "Everyone else is…" he trailed off. He looked at the floor and pushed his glasses further up his nose, then looked back at Mitch with a newfound candor sparkling in his expensive designer frames. "Actually," he said, "I have no idea. Amy’s the one who usually corrals people."
"I told her I’d do that for her while she went to look for Andy," said Mitch, "and now everyone’s fucked off. Where are we on the show? We didn’t rehearse the monologue yet. I’m worried. Everything is way off schedule. Can you do me a solid and be in or near the writers room?"
Tony sighed. "Do I have to?" He leaned in a little closer to Mitch, as if telling a secret. "I hate it in there. I like to work on the couches. They’re way more comfy, you know."
Mitch was not one to revert to old habits but as a man in his early 60s he found it especially difficult to listen to anyone under 35 complain about anything that didn’t somehow include the fear of death. He rolled his eyes. He then tried to see it Tony’s way. But Mitch swung wildly, missing the piñata of understanding by feet instead of inches.
"Not everything is comfy. You’re here to do a job. I have no idea how in two generations we as a culture went from invading the beaches of Normandy to being glued to our phones and not being able to sit at a desk lest it offend our moods. And I do find it pretty hilarious," continued Mitch, "that the lot of you went to Harvard, are paid three times the average national salary, and came up with… wait for it… ‘Dog President.'"
"Actually," said Tony, "I went to Northwestern."
"A round of applause," mocked Mitch. He clapped his hands in a circular motion, "Same difference. Can you stay in or near the writers room for me? And tell the others to do the same. There’s a good boy."
Tony’s face appeared to visibly melt under the weight of an oncoming sulk, and he turned and walked toward the writers room with a near-Napoleonic sense of defeat.
Andy looked at Amy who was looking at Kurt who was looking at a businessman getting his shoes shined. All three of them knew that the only certain thing right now for the show was the bad sketch "Dog President." Unless they put together this five-minute filmed breather about income inequality.
Kurt was across the street and looked back in the direction of the van and waved as if he had just recognized Andy and Amy, but in the way someone would if he had ill memories of the people.
"Jesus tap-dancing Christ, tell him not to blow our cover," ordered Andy, "This is already a dubious enough proposition as it is, us sitting in a white van across the street from one of our employees dressed like a hobo from a Steinbeck novel and interviewing a potential captain of industry on hidden camera."
"Cannery Row or The Pearl?" asked Amy, continuing to look at Kurt through her cheap binoculars.
"Cannery Row," answered Andy.
"Nice," commented Amy.
Kurt stared up at the businessman who was waffling on about his penthouse suite at the Ritz Carlton in Battery Park and had been doing so, unprompted, for the better part of the last ten minutes. Kurt had no idea how to shine shoes and applied more oily black shoe polish to a rag and began to shine away. Should he be doing a good job or a bad one, given how much of a vitriolic asshole this guy was? Kurt coughed. The smell of the shoe polish was acrid. He looked back towards the car and saw Amy and Andy looking back at him. Kurt turned towards the businessman and smiled as best he could. It was hard to keep it together in the presence of this spectacle of personified greed. Kurt had a camera in his glasses and there was another one in his shoe shine guy get-up. He had a few crumpled one dollar bills. Seemed almost poetic, Kurt thought, and continued to shine the man’s shoes.
"You getting all of this? This is gold," said Amy to the TV crew. But Andy shuffled in his seat, and it began to dawn on Amy that Andy was going to leave. "Hey, you’re not going to leave me here, right? In the Financial District, alone, with Kurt dressed like a homeless person?"
"I’ve got to admit it’s kind of a good look for him," Andy said. "Better than the misplaced lumberjack thing that every young man on the planet seems to be going through right now."
"Don’t go." Amy looked at Andy like a father figure although she never cared to admit it. "I can’t do this on my own."
"I hired you based on your potential, Amy," said Andy, "This bit has legs, and you have to believe in that. Because if you don’t, nobody else will." He knocked twice on the dashboard. "I gotta go. Get this to Jay in editing by 4. Tell him not to rush it."
"But we tape at 5," Amy pointed out, her voice starting to quiver in a way that she was uncomfortable with. "That’s way too close. And I’m not a field producer. I’m a writer. This is out of my comfort zone, Andy."
Andy coughed and looked out of the window and then back at her. "I had a teacher at Second City in Chicago, a guy named Sheldon Patinkin, who used to say, "Better to be an asshole than a chicken-shit." Andy put his hand on the door handle. "I’m not gonna be around forever. I gotta push the baby bird out of the nest at some point. Let’s just hope I don’t hear a thud."
He opened the door and a warm blast of city air filled the car, and within a few seconds he disappeared into the crowd, his dog-eared Mets hat pulled low. Andy kept his head down and his collar up on the subway and successfully managed to avoid any gawkers as the F train snaked its way through lower Manhattan.He made it up to street level without too much hassle and took a deep breath of fresh air. It smelled like it was going to rain. He walked the two blocks to the studio, stopping only for a coffee from a street kiosk. The clerk nodded politely.
Andy thought back to 15 years ago when, taking the subway to the first week of tapings, he secretly and embarrassingly to him now hoped that strangers would recognize him. He thought back to hiring Mitch almost by accident, as they’d stumbled coming off of an elevator. He thought back to just under a year ago when he’d completely rehauled the writers room. The bits had become too predictable, too setup-punchline, too Borscht belt, too middle class, too fucking boring, quite frankly. He’d gotten into comedy through Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, mid-period George Carlin and others who’d embraced danger. He’d spent entire summer afternoons listening to their records, sitting cross-legged in front of the speaker in his mother’s living room as if he’d found the key to some sort of everlasting career. What else would be his ticket out of Fleetwood, Minnesota? What else was he going to do? He couldn’t fix cars. He couldn’t sing.
He remembered the Friday night when he’d appeared at a comedy club in Chicago and the head of some premium cable channel was among the two dozen people in the audience while Andy was absolutely killing it by surfing the wave of the moment. He’d been allowed to go on for an hour yet had no idea what he’d said because he was half in the bag the whole time. Andy was offered the show and was drunk for the first three years, with Mitch finally getting him on the wagon. Or was it off the wagon? It dawned on Andy that his job had been slowly killing him.
But it was still a job. In a cynical way he was really there just to make the studio money selling dishwashers, cars, sugar water, alcohol. He was a salesman, not the kind of guy that could make any sort of grand artistic statement. So he treated the show as if he were performing in a Chicago club. Anyway, with the lights down low, Andy couldn’t see the audiences beyond the first two rows. Recently, he’d been having a hard time connecting with them. He pictured the palm of his hand up at arm’s length. It always gave him a fair sense of how far away they were from him.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season