A producer, writer, and songstress whose careers are slipping away find one another. 4,265 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Dan Schneider was feeling desperate. It was Labor Day and he had gone into the office because he didn’t know what to do with himself. Looking at the four walls of his rented executive suite, bare save for three colored Post-its on the wall listing the three movie projects he still had to his name as a producer, he wondered what he was going to do.
Last spring, he had an office on the Fox lot, an assistant, a development exec, and a parking spot. He received a salary and a contribution was paid to his health plan. He had a movie set up at Warner Bros, with not one but two major stars attached; three movies at Showtime, two financed by Fox, the third by Paramount; a project at TNT with a director attached; and two Internet series he was developing for online streaming service Cupboard.
In July, Dan’s first-look deal at Fox didn’t get renewed. The head of the studio was under a mandate to cut costs, and she decided to cut deals. She wasn’t going to cut her own salary, was she? Dan would have enjoyed hating her, but it wasn’t long before she lost her job, too. She had spent two years screaming about how everyone else was an idiot. Now no one would hire her. No one owed her and no one wanted to be in business with her. She had pissed off too many people. Her career was over. By contrast, Dan was a producer. A salesman. He would continue to do what he did, and once one of his projects went into production, he would get another deal. Or so he believed.
Then Showtime put two of his three projects into turnaround. The TNT project died. Cupboard imploded during a mini-tech bubble correction. And the news on his strongest project, the feature at Warner Bros, was not great — his executive had left her job and the studio decided to put a new writer on the project. Dan had come up with the original idea and brought it to the writer; together they’d taken it to the executive, who became a close friend. It was as if Dan had been standing in the center of the room and was now exiled to a corner down the hall. The writing was on the wall: The project would proceed, but he would have less and less to do with it.
Since leaving Fox, Dan had lined up more than $1 million in fees from his production projects, but the effect on the current balance in his checking account was negligible. In the past year Dan had given up the following: his assistant (a huge savings as he paid her salary, her parking, and her health care); his personal trainer (for the cost of one session he joined the YMCA, which had a gym where there was no chance of running into anyone he knew); his shrink; and his business manager. A guy used to come to his house once a week to wash his car. Now he went to the car wash once every two weeks, on Tuesdays, which was bargain day.
Being cheap now was like being rich used to be. Thrift, Dan had discovered, carried its own bragging rights. He could spend a whole meal telling someone about how much he was saving and what corners he had cut, and the person, rather than being horrified, was impressed. And then Dan didn’t feel bad about asking to split the check.
Dan needed something new to pitch. Something to get him out there meeting with execs. Something that would make him some money. Trying to get the film rights to a book made no sense. Even if he could find a book that was available to option, doing so required money. Besides, he liked were hanging out with writers and developing ideas with them.
The phone rang. The sound startled him. He knocked over half the items on his desk as he lunged for the receiver. “Hi. It’s Dan.”
The voice at the other end seemed surprised to find a human answering the phone during lunch hour on Labor Day. “This is Bob Bernstein.”
Bernstein was a legendary manager — certainly in Bernstein’s opinion — who had made a fortune by aligning himself with the careers of The Comedy WOW Army, an improv school troupe whose performers filled the ranks of TV and film comedy. Bernstein would have been plunged into permanent infamy when his most famous client, Jeff Beluga (aka ‘The Whale’) expired of a coronary induced by years of legendary drug excess – a legend Bernstein had played no small part in creating, condoning, maintaining and exploiting. Were it not for the fact that Bernstein’s management company and production entity had come to dominate Hollywood. A fact that appeared in print a little too frequently to be an accident.
Two months ago, Dan had met with a writer for Vanity Fair about The National Joke magazine’s glory days. It was high-concept time: Dan wanted to pitch it as a movie, Animal House in the publishing world. The writer was all for it, saying, “Speak to Bob, he’s my manager.” Dan had called Bernstein twice. No response. He’d sent him emails and a fax and then followed them up with a call. Still no response. Now, at 1:30 in the afternoon, during lunch hour on a holiday Monday, Bob Bernstein was returning the call. Why? Apparently so no one could say that Bernstein doesn’t return calls. But in his wildest dreams, Bernstein never imagined anyone would be in the office.
Dan was enjoying the moment. He knew he’d never hear from Bernstein again. But he would always savor the phone call. In fact he’d be dining out on it for years to come. But, now, he had to rush. He was meeting a writer for coffee.
Mark was feeling desperate. It was Labor Day and his career was dying a slow death. He was in his early forties. For almost 20 years he’d had a pretty good run. He went straight from improv school to writing on a half-hour. Then he sold a spec script that put him in the feature film business. The next 12 years went by in a blur of working on other peoples’ scripts – doing drafts, rewrites, and an occasional polish.
In all that time, only two of his movies had been made and both were terrible. One was a hip-hop comedy that, in the released version, was neither hip nor hop nor particularly funny. The other was a children’s fable that was one of the biggest budget fiascos of its time. Studio execs lost jobs over it. The director had never worked again. (Mark recently spotted him wearing a caftan while picking through a tag sale in Santa Monica.)
And that was the end of his feature film career.
His agency representation was the clearest proof of his career decline. In the last decade, he’d gone from his original agent at CAA, to a baby agent at CAA, from there to UTA, from there for a second to Original Artists, and from there to Affiliated Artists Agency aka “Triple A,” a second-tier agency that sounded larger than it was but where the agents were human beings and the clients seemed to work. At least that was the idea. He asked his agents to get him what they could. He took out a home equity line of credit. He still hoped to write his way out from under his debt.
Triple A got Mark some meetings and even an assignment for a TV movie. Whereas in the past Mark might have passed on these projects, he now said yes, and pretended to be enthusiastic. And he was enthusiastic — about working again and getting paid.
The TV movie was about a famous New York media executive who blamed her fertility doctors for causing her cancer. She had triumphed over her illness thanks to as little western medicine as possible and a whole lot of alternative and holistic treatments. The network execs were totally behind this woman’s controversial and important story – that is, until she relapsed and died. Then the network killed the project.
Mark’s agents were trying to get him on staff at a Disney Channel show, the last refuge for older comedy writers. Mark wasn’t ready for that. So he started calling every producer he knew, trying to pitch them every idea he had, in hopes of a Hail Mary Pass. Dan Schneider had said yes because he was desperate to be in the TV business, his agent said. They’d agreed to meet for coffee on Labor Day.
Mark, like many a comedy writer, saved the funny for the page. In person, he was intense, grumpy and belittling of everyone else. Not great qualities in a pitch, or a general meeting, or in life, for that matter. He was also rigid, inflexible and had plenty of rules: he had to work out every morning but no gym or class would do. It had to be a run following the same route at the same time every day. He couldn’t do breakfast meetings because he worked out, had his coffee at home, and then started writing. Monday through Friday, he wrote every day from around 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon — spec screenplays and spec pilots which he sent to his agents. He couldn’t do lunch because he was writing. He couldn’t do meetings before 3 because he was writing. And then in the afternoon, he would do emails or watch old movies.
It was a monkish, reclusive way of life, and he was not making any money doing it. His joints ached and he was balding. However, he was convinced of his own ability to write his way out of his problems. So he emailed and called whomever he could. He could no longer rely on his agents to do so.
In Mark’s estimation, based on no facts whatsoever, Dan was a journeyman producer, a survivor, someone who was creative enough. And, most importantly, Dan was good in a room. At this point, that was more than Mark could ask for.
Mark stood as he saw Dan approaching at Starbucks he and Dan clasped hands. They were more on a handshake than a hug basis. They ordered and put it on one check. Dan handed over his credit card.
“I’m the producer. I always wanted my business card to read: ‘We buy writers meals.’ Or as my father used to say: ‘Let me be big about small things.’”
In no time they began to commiserate. Dan let Mark bitch first. Mark spewed forth a litany of who was ruining what project and the extent to which the scripts were all stalled. It was Dan’s duty in this part of the conversation to nod sympathetically and punctuate Mark’s monologue with occasional interjections of “What an asshole!”
“There’s something I wanted to pitch you…” Mark leaned forward, as if, God forbid, anyone at a nearby table heard his idea. “Do you know the singer, Molly B.?” Dan liked the few songs of hers he’d heard although he’d never actually paid money to see her or buy any of her music. “My friend Ben Witkowitz is her attorney.”
“I know Ben. That’s how I first met Molly. So you’re friends with her?
“We’re not friends, really. But we’re friendly. We’ve hung out. Anyhow, she’s about to get dumped by her label. Ben wants to reposition her by showcasing her at the Aspen Comedy Festival. Do something to raise her profile. Get her to do a special. I was thinking maybe we produce a low-budget concert film that’s quirky and edgy. Those can be really lucrative."
Dan tried not to show his disappointment. “I don’t know what there is for you to do at an Aspen showcase. And a concert film? Jesus, there’s got to be a value proposition. What exactly are the people who are not buying her music going to get out of that? I don’t know.”
“That’s the point,” Mark said. “A documentary type concert film about someone who should be more successful and famous than they are. Sort of like Anvil: The Story Of Anvil.”
“I liked that. But you had a filmmaker who makes a good living making commercials doing this as his own passion project. Besides,” Dan added, “I wouldn’t even know how to begin to produce that.”
Dan could see Mark slip into a bog of despair before his very eyes. Dan had to throw him a lifeline. “Listen, what do I know? Let me tell you the projects I passed on. American Beauty. When I read the script I said: ‘So let me get this straight: the suburbs are not what they seem, the military guy is gay, and the gay guy is suicidal, and the teenage girl is a Lolita. Where’s the news?’“
Mark nodded in appreciation.
“And Fight Club? I couldn’t imagine anyone making that movie, much less going to see it. So I’m a cretin. But Mark, I like you, I trust your taste, and I love Molly B. So if you think there’s something there, I’ll be supportive. Let me know when you have a pitch, or a treatment or whatever.”
“She’s performing next week,” Mark said. “We should go see her and talk about it.”
“I’m there.” Dan had no intention of going. But next week was next week.
Molly B. was not feeling desperate but she should have. She, too, was in her forties, and was permanently on tour, going from small gig to smaller gig, and staying in friends’ homes. She had just finished a performance at a women’s rights festival in Michigan to a really enthusiastic crowd. She had sold out all her CDs and T-shirts there.
Home, for the time being, was a room above the garage of a couple with real-world jobs. Most of her friends were other performers; she saw her oldest friends infrequently anymore. They were caught up in their careers, their children, their lives which had evolved. Molly’s was basically the same for the last 20 years.
Molly had been raised in Tulsa to bible-fearing parents and had shocked them by going to Austin for college. At 19, she decided to spend her junior year in Paris which held much appeal, including the fact that French university students were not big on attending class. They preferred to sit in cafes, have parties, go to clubs late at night, and plan vacations in exotic locations like Djerba in Tunisia or the Ile de la Reunion, wherever that was.
To make some extra cash, Molly started busking in the Paris Metro and was discovered by a manager who was on his honeymoon. The manager wrote off his trip – and the marriage. Molly never returned to college. she had never dreamed of being a rock star or even a singer songwriter. She had actually never had much of a dream at all. She decided to try performing for a year and see what happened. She began appearing in clubs, talking as much as performing, and, after being told the economic necessity of doing so, she started writing songs – quirky personal tales that often featured the same chord changes and required no back-up band.
She was witty, clever, and like many an auto-didact, extremely well-read and prone to pronouncements that proved it. She developed a following. Her fans were, increasingly, mostly blue collar lesbians. Her records were beloved but did not sell in large numbers. This meant constant touring. And, like that, more than 20 years went by.
But that was exactly the problem: Molly still dressed, lived, and earned like a 20 year old. She was still sleeping on couches and worrying that she was losing her indie cred. What did it say about her life that her music attorney had a better guitar than hers?
Mark had been insistent that Dan and he go to Molly’s upcoming gig. Ben had put them on the guest list. Dan’s plan was to cancel at the last minute. On the appointed evening, Dan called Mark. “I just spoke to Molly,” Mark said, “She’s really psyched that you are coming, She remembers meeting you with Ben.”
“Here’s the thing,” Dan said, but Mark interrupted.
“About tonight. I can’t go. Family stuff going on. But you need to go. And let’s meet tomorrow afternoon at that same Starbucks around 5. I really want to hear what you think.”
Dan stammered. He knew he’d been played. Worse yet, he was now going to have to see Molly B. at Largo. As he drove to the music, comedy, food and drinks club on La Cienega Blvd in his recently leased Prius, Dan fumed. So typical. Being the producer meant doing everybody’s job for them. He hated the idea of going to a club alone. But hanging out was where he got his best ideas and how he made his best connections, and how he found his best material. It was better than staying home, he told himself.
Largo charged $10 for valet parking which seemed outrageous. So Dan drove by the club and found a spot two blocks away. His name was indeed on the list kept at the door, and he settled into a seat in the second row. The lights went down, the followspots came up and Molly came on stage with a cheery bounce, swinging her Gibson traveling guitar. She looked tomboyish in a man’s shirt, jeans and Converse sneakers, her dark hair cut short. Small and wiry but with a grin as big as her whole face, if she noticed that the room was only three-quarters full, she didn’t let on. The hometown crowd responded with loads of love, hoots, whistles and loud applause.
“All right,” Molly said, taking control. “That’s enough of that. I’ve got some stories to tell you tonight…” And with that, Molly launched into her first song, SWF Seeks WWF, which compared Molly’s love life to a professional wrestling match. The song had a certain poignancy that Dan responded to. Her next song, Night Job , told the story of working part-time in a health club only to discover her boss was moonlighting as a dominatrix. She followed that with a song about what it would be like in an America where Donald Trump was President, followed by a much beloved tune about the challenge of writing a gender-neutral love song.
For the next hour and a half, song followed song, all ironic and clever. Not quite Woody Guthrie or Rambling Jack Elliott but she shared with them a certain strength, couched in the point of view of an underdog fighting for a moment of triumph. Her songs shared an optimism, even when talking about horrible behavior, that was enormously charming. Mark was right, Dan thought, there’s something to Molly. But what was it? Dan didn’t see her doing a one-woman show. Though Molly had charisma and charm, there was no indication she could act, and no chance any network or studio would let her. There was no musical to be made by linking her songs together. There was no biopic triumph over adversity or rags to riches saga to be told. Where was the larger story?
This is exactly why sitcoms are developed around stand-up comics, Dan thought. Comics create an onstage persona. Comics flesh out a world. Comics had a point of view they could bring to relatable life situations. Which, Dan had to admit, was what Molly did. To close out the show, Molly performed When I Win The Lottery, a song that expressed Molly’s optimism in the face of staggering odds, as well as a certain revenge fantasy. The punchline was that, when she wins the lottery, the first thing she’s going to do is get an unlisted phone number so all her so-called friends who never gave her the time of day when she was poor couldn’t mooch off her.
When I Win The Lottery is not a bad title, Dan thought. He began to smile. When I Win The Lottery is a point of view. When I Win The Lottery is something everyone can relate to. When I Win The Lottery is a show.
Does anyone really know how inspiration happens? For Dan, it appeared as a clear-headed moment of insight. Producers more successful would find stand-up comics to turn into series. Writers more successful than Mark would be asked to create the shows. But no one else was going to see in Molly what he did: a show that he could produce and Mark could write about thhe dilemma of Molly’s life — how it informs your material, if it’s really what you want, whether you should move on. That was something people could relate to. More importantly, that was something he could sell. And that would be for Molly like winning the lottery.
Molly was manning a table after the show where she signed CDs, sold t-shirts, and talked to her fans who ranged from the sweet to the deranged. Dan took his place in line. When he reached Molly, she stood up and hugged him. Dan hugged back.
“Great show. You definitely won them over.” Dan was such a producer. "Listen. Mark suggested we all grab a coffee to discuss doing a show. How’s tomorrow at the Starbucks in Westwood? Around 4PM?”
The next afternoon, Dan was sitting in Starbucks as Mark walked in. Mark was dressed in hipster uniform: grey porkpie hat perched on his head, fitted dark Pixies T-Shirt, black jeans and grey desert boots. Dan was wearing his producer’s uniform of an unconstructed blazer over a black James Perse polo, AG Jeans and grey leather Stan Smiths.
“I invited Molly to come meet us,” Dan said by way of launching the conversation.
“Did you love her show?” asked Mark.
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you first,” Dan said. “There’s definitely something there. But I don’t see a concert film doing any business. You may think this is crazy. But given that you are a TV writer, I was thinking about a TV series — one that doesn’t star Molly but is based on her life and incorporates her songs.”
“I’m not getting this,” Mark said flatly.
“It’s what you said: her songs are so narrative.”
“Give me an example.”
Dan knew it should have been the other way around: the writer was supposed to be pitching him. But indignity of indignities, he now had to pitch Mark. “Like Night Job, about her friend the health club instructor with a latex fetish — that’s an episode.”
Now Mark was getting it. “So you’re thinking it’s Seinfeld?”
“Yes – in part,” Dan said, smiling.
This was a good sign. Everything was Seinfeld. And Seinfeld, in the series world, was everything.
“So each show is about how a songwriter comes up with her material?” Mark asked.
“But it’s also about being 39,” Dan said, “and still living like a 19 year old.”
“Is the show about Molly getting laid?” Mark asked. “And if so is she straight or gay?
“Maybe even she doesn’t know,” Dan said, “But the larger issue is: what does she really want? Should she give up the dream she had when she was a teenager, sell out and settle down? Or is there something she can do to make her music career more successful? Or, as Peggy Lee sang, is this all there is?” Which is when Molly, as if on cue, walked in to Starbucks.
Dan launched in. "So here’s the thing. While I was watching your show –“
“Do you think I should be videotaping the shows and live streaming them?” Molly onterrupted.
“That’s a cool idea,” Mark said. “But Dan I have been talking and we have a much more radical idea. We want to do a half-hour comedy based on your life and about how a songwriter comes up with ideas for her songs.”
“This is a show about the dilemma of doing something commercial, and we want to present that in the most commercial format imaginable.”
Mark added: “It’s like that song Night Job, isn’t that based on a true story?”
“Yeah, I worked at Equinox in New York. For about a week,” Molly said.
“Exactly.” Mark said, “That would be an episode.”
“I also worked the gift wrapping desk at Bloomie’s one Christmas,” Molly added.
“That’s another episode,” Dan said. Molly nodded. She was warming to the concept. Dan wanted to wrap it up. “The show is about someone like you – not you – and there are other characters who help carry the narrative weight. Her roommate, her best friend. And the beauty part is you get to be a producer on the project and have your music in the show, so you are making money in the most commercial way possible to support your own completely separate performing career. That way, if you want to do a concert movie, or livestream a show, you can.”
Molly was smiling. Dan and Mark started to smile as well. Dan knew there would be months of meetings, and they would have to pitch this all over town, and the chances of success were small to nil. And that, contrary to what he needed, there would be no money for him in developing this. But he also knew he was going to pursue it. Because doing something was always better than doing nothing. Succeed or fail, didn’t really matter. He felt like he was back in the game.