A dying TV comedy executive seeks his muse in Shakespeare’s enigmatic Dark Lady. 4,730 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I’d forgotten how my immediate supervisor, Danny Gordon, never really shook hands. He’d just put his in yours and leave it there, small and limp. We’d been holding hands like this ever since he walked into my office to welcome me back. Sweet. I decided it was up to me to end the non-handshake and gently disengage myself from it. Dan still said nothing. The pause was clammier than his hand. “Say whatever the fuck it is you have to say, Dan,” I suggested pleasantly.
Danny winced; his small brown eyes had been fixed on the floor. Now, as he looked up, they darted every which way behind the narrow glasses — furtive weasel eyes trying to escape from his desperately hip green rectangular frames, from his head, from my office. From me. “The thing is, Kenny, I’ve been in communication with the writers, and they don’t think they can work with you anymore under these conditions. I mean, your condition. Trust me, if we had time to find comedy writers who can function when they’re depressed, I would. I just don’t know what to say, Kenny.”
That was three too many Kennys. I willed myself to stay calm but my heart began to rocket around inside my ribcage. I pressed one hand against my chest in the guise of straightening my tie. Even my heart wanted to leave me now, and you know what, I couldn’t blame it.
“Do me a solid, Kenny. Patty’s Going Out and He’s On The Force both got canceled, and it’s only October.” I’d honestly begun to believe that He’s On The Force would be the perfect comeback vehicle for that former child star after two years in a minimum-security prison. I thought Patty had what we were looking for. People loved her on America’s Got Talent but fat is only fine for competition where there’s crying. Now our only hit was about a young veterinarian. Problem was, he didn’t like animals, and animals didn’t like him. It was called Bite Me.
Dan erupted into inappropriate giggles that contorted his thin frame into what looked like a hip hop pose, one heel kicking out and splayed fingers crossed in the vicinity of his groin. “Kenny, one of the writers has come up with such a great story line for the next Bite Me. The working title is ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ Do you love it? It’s from Shakespeare. "How cool is that? I had to take Shakespeare at Palisades High, but the only thing I remember is the kid next to me having to memorize the line ‘Alas, poor York, I knew him well.’”
“It’s not ‘York.’ It’s Yorick," I corrected. "And it’s not ‘I knew him well.’ It’s ‘I knew him, Horatio!’ Hamlet’s standing next to an open grave with Yorick’s goddamned dried-up skull in his hand, and he’s talking to fucking Horatio.”
“It’s all good, Ken.” Dan let out a long shuddering sigh. “Listen, I’ve got to get to the ten o’clock . . .”
“And I don’t . . . kidding.”
I lifted the shiny gold nameplate on my dusty desk — Kenneth C. Harrison, Vice President, Comedy Development — and weighed it in my hand. Heavy. You could hurt somebody with this. I said, “Look, I’m the reason we can say ‘It’s Cable TV For A Network Audience’ on those mugs we give out at the summer press tour. We were the #5 network for four years. Now we’re barely hanging onto #3. You want to go back to picking up the trades and reading ‘mired in fifth place’ every time they mention us?"
“I’m not trying to be difficult, Ken, but this is my call, not yours.” Dan squared his stooped shoulders to the extent that they were capable of forming an angle. Then he grinned. “I didn’t like the mugs that much, but I loved the Bite Me candy rectal thermometers.”
Dan shook his head. “This is hard to say, Ken, but you need to learn when to stop pushing. We love you, but . . . we don’t need you.”
The opposite of what my girlfriend had told me some eight months ago: “I’ll stay with you as long as you need me.” Her pale, sharp features glowed with the pride of self-sacrifice as she said it. Those were her words, but here’s what she meant: “I’ll stay with you even though I don’t love you — because you need me.” That’s something as a 36-year-old I couldn’t live with, especially because it was true. I moved out the next day.
I am alone now, I guess you could say. A Nielsen household of one. The only thing I had left was my job, and I couldn’t afford to lose it. So instead of arguing, I decided to massage Danny. “So, your thoughts, Daniel?”
Dan brightened. “I think I’ve got a win-win for you, Kenny. There’s a slot for a development director over in Movies And Minis. We think you’d be perfect for this exciting new opportunity. Writing the press release in my head. In fact, we were just saying the other day that you’d really be a great help to movies, you know, when they do cancer.”
“OK” was all I could think of to say.
“It’s the best way to protect our slogan: ’Prime Time Is Your Time.’“ Dan stopped speaking for an uncomfortable moment, then “Anyway, I’ll send someone to the office to move your stuff over to movies. Do you know where it is? In the Hacienda. Right across the way from us.”
“I’ve been with the network for five years, Dan. I know what’s on the other side of the fucking parking lot.” The aging Spanish-style Hacienda Building stood across from the contemporary three-story glass box where we were standing now. I’d often heard our building referred to as the “Entitlement Complex,” which seemed a lot funnier before I was asked to move out of it.
Movies and Minis was the only legitimate department in the Hacienda, bounced over there from their suite over here because the network hadn’t had a movie or miniseries hit for 15 solid years. VOD, need I say more? I was being banished to the land of the dinosaurs, a window office in Jurassic Park, a development hell that still existed but from which nothing ever emerged alive. The rest of the Hacienda was an ant farm of failed high-level network executives who now had lucrative production deals — “boy deals,” they called them, since the old boys gave them to each other after their short careers crumbled. I always figured I’d have an office there someday, and frankly I was okay with that. Just not today.
“It’s going to take them awhile to get you moved. Maybe you want to take the rest of the day off, and we’ll have everything ready for you tomorrow morning?”
“Sure, I’ll take the rest of the day off,” I said. “See, I’d hate to have any of your sensitive comedy writers believe that his latest script is a substantial piece of shit just because he happened to take a piss next to me in the executive men’s room.” I cocked my finger at Dan and used my thumb to fire off a fictional bullet. “Kidding again. Hey, after five years, you know me . . .”
“Hah. Hah. Sure, take the rest of the day off. And if don’t see you on Monday — or, you know, again, ever . . . well, take care, Kenny. I mean, that was stupid. Duh, of course I’ll see you. Oh yeah, and leave your men’s room key with my assistant, okay?” He backed out of my office so fast he ran smack into a passing mail cart.
“Later,” I said.
I left my former office and headed for the parking lot. I paused for a second to switch from my regular glasses to sunglasses in front of the corner drugstore, located beside the soda fountain on a street of eerily regular fake cobblestones. A studio tram loaded with visitors rattled by over the cobblestones. I waved. They waved back, in case I was somebody. I took it as a good sign. It was only a matter of time before I returned to my slot as vice president of comedy development, just as soon as everyone here at the network realized what I already knew: I was fine.
I was a straight white male, 36 years old, right in the middle of TV’s most desirable demographic: men 18 to 49. I’m our target audience. I’d been in network television long enough to know that the demos don’t lie. But demographics did not explain why the dark gray lenses of my Oakley sunglasses suddenly fogged and blurred with tears.
The next morning, I had a change of heart. I stopped by my old office on the way to my new office, shook hands with the 24-year-old who had replaced me in that many hours, and picked up the plant. If I was going down, so was the bromeliad.
As I walked into the Hacienda, I could hear a young secretary — excuse me, assistant, there’s no such thing as a secretary in this business — on the phone in some distant office, chattering away about how work was going. “It’s crazed, I’m like so crazed, I’m like, dying!” she gasped. “With this new job, I don’t even have time to be bisexual!”
I was beginning to notice how often young entertainment industry types said they were just dying when, as far as I could see, nothing whatsoever was happening to them. With the big bromeliad blocking my vision, I almost smacked into a guy I did not know coming the other way. He was somewhere in his mid-thirties, an exasperated frown on his owlish face. “Sorry,” I said. “Big plant. How ya doin’?”
He peered at me through round, wire-rimmed glasses. “I’m a gay, Jewish guy from West L.A., and I’m about to sit down under a palm tree to write a heartwarming MOW about a snowy family Christmas in Pittsburgh. For Jaleel White.”
I wanted to tell him don’t worry, this Movie of the Week would never see the light of day. “Good luck to you, man,” I said instead.
The rest of my stuff had already been moved into my tiny new office, dominated by a low, white ceiling fan that threatened to decapitate me. Apparently, the executive who had this office before me was much shorter — at least, he was now. I was going to have to make some calls, pull some strings. Then I remembered: I can’t pull strings, not anymore.
I’d already met the head of Movies and Minis because, at one point earlier in our careers at another network, I had fired her. Blair Smith was about 50 now, with threads of gray in her thin, straight blond hair. She was one of those tall, big-boned women who look like men in drag. “Good to see you again, Kenny,” she said, her tone making very clear that it was not. “I’m very sorry to hear about your, ah, situation, but we’re all excited to have you on board.”
That really was a nice thing for her to say, so nice that I was willing to get past the insincerity. Blair was the only one around here who seemed to get it, although given her age she’d probably be gone by next week. But for now, it felt good. Hey, that’s all I had — a situation. “And, Blair, I want this to be business as usual.”
“Agreed,” she said. “And that’s why I’ve got your first project right here in my hand. It’s a Peters/Brown movie about a woman who’s got . . .” her voice trailed off into nothing.
“I know. I read the press announcement. Amazing that this department still has files from 1979.”
“Good.” Blair cleared her throat as if to make sure the word she’d been about to say hadn’t gotten stuck in there and screwed up her cells or anything. She placed a huge stack of white paper in my arms, way more paper than ordinarily required for a two-hour story. “By now we’ve got so many people attached to this project it’s cheaper to actually produce it than to pay them off.”
“I’ll do what I can with it.”
“The writers would like to talk to you this morning, if you’re ready. They’re very anxious.”
Of course they were anxious. They were writers. I left the Hacienda, headed for the walkway to Peters/Brown in the blazing October sunshine. I was already in the area when it became clear to me it is a bad idea to swallow a handful of new prescription drugs on an empty stomach. I stopped walking as my world slipped sideways. I shook my head, trying to get back my equilibrium. At the same time, I lost control of the script and random sheets of paper fell from my grasp. Even in this alarming moment of vertigo, I couldn’t help thinking this script was probably no worse with the pages missing.
Luckily, I was near the open door of one of the sound stages on the lot. I could go inside and get out of the sun.
I stumbled up the four small steps up to the narrow side door that led into the cavernous sound stage. It was then that I noticed a long, restless line of people waiting to enter this particular studio. These people were shooting pictures of celebrity parking spaces. That said it all. The unruly crowd waiting here could be none other than a live studio audience.
Confused, I looked back at the sign beside the entrance to the building: Studio 7. Shit — of all places. Everybody knew what show taped here TV’s most outrageously popular daytime talk show Really, Girlfriend? hosted by the reigning queen of American pop psychology, Jazzminn Jenks. There were two things everybody in America knew about Really, Girlfriend?: all the guests were women, and each guest was required to take off her shoes and put on slippers before she joined Jazzminn Jenks on the pink sofa. Sarah Palin with a rifle and pink bunny slippers is something you don’t forget.
Instead of climbing up to my seat, I ducked into the tiny men’s room behind the stands and, as quietly as possible, threw up everything I’d eaten since Friends went off the air. I splashed some cold water on my face before making my unsteady exit. But I knew I wasn’t ready to deal with either the bad attitude of the crowd outside or the climbing temperature. I was obviously going to miss my writer’s meeting. So, clinging tight to the railing, I half-walked, half-crawled up to my seat in the back row, and then waited in the dark, alone in the empty stands. I’m pretty sure no one could see me up there.
I looked down at the empty set and then, suddenly, there she was: Jazzminn Jenks, striding out onto the stage, surrounded by an entourage of very thin, worried-looking female assistants dressed in various shades of black. She was five feet tall and no more than ninety pounds, most of it cleavage. But right now, Jazzminn Jenks wasn’t smiling her delighted, billboard smile. She was screaming. “These are the wrong fucking slippers!!! Get me the right ones, Goddamnit!!! NOW!!!”
And then, out from behind the back wall of the set, clutching a pair of pink bunny slippers exactly like the one that had caused Jazzminn’s sudden meltdown, emerged the loveliest creature in the world. Even though the bright stage lights made my head ache like a son-of-a-bitch, I just had to look at her. A cascade of warm, brown curls that glinted with golden lights, flowed down the back of her dress, almost to her tiny waist. Her flawless skin was the color of sweet honey dripping from a spoon. Her slightly slanted eyes were a shade I’m not even sure I can describe — green, I guess, but alive and sparkling with bright particles of amber and silver and gold, picked up by the hot lights. Her slender feet were bare. It seemed strange and wonderful that she had taken off her shoes.
She also had these really great tits. I could tell through the fabric. I look at tits. I’m not fussy about size or anything. I just like them all, as a category.
Without saying a word, the creature took away one pair of Jazzminn’s size-four pink bunnies and replaced them with the other. Then, carrying one of the wrong fucking slippers in each hand, she disappeared.
I could see the red light beginning to flash above the door, meaning it would soon be locked tight. There was no escaping now. But I did not want to escape. I had seen her. I could think of nothing but the barefoot, honey woman in the flowing white dress. Before I knew it, the show was over. The studio audience had to step over me on the way out, though. I had, by now, pulled out of my dreamy trance, only to realize I felt not a whole lot better than I had when I came in. I closed my eyes, leaned my forehead against my hand and drew in a few shuddering gasps, hanging 10 on a wave of nausea. With the other hand, I motioned my fellow audience members to go past me, which they seemed only too happy to do.
“Excuse me, sir, are you all right?” I sensed a hand on my shoulder. Not a particularly light touch — a firm, warm hand. It had been at least eight months since anyone had touched my arm who wasn’t poking around for an available vein. I opened my eyes to behold the woman with the unruly brown hair and the green-gold-silver-amber eyes, staring down at me with an expression of deep concern. She was here.
I lifted my head and stared back. No, not at her breasts — into her eyes. I also checked to see whether she was wearing any shoes yet. She was — no bunny slippers, thank God. I tried clearing my throat. “I came here right from a workout at the gym, and I forgot to eat anything.”
“You are probably suffering from dehydration due to the unseasonable heat. Maybe you should have some fruit juice. We have all kinds of juice backstage. Want some?”
“I’m fine. Terrific. Really.”
She did not look convinced. “Well, if you need anything at all, just let me know. I’m Jazzminn’s personal assistant. I’ve got to get backstage.” She wrinkled her cute nose for a split-second, but very quickly her smile returned. “Just call down for me. I’m Ophelia.”
Her name was Ophelia? Ophelia, as in wacky virgin from Hamlet? Chaste treasure, maiden presence — sweet Ophelia? Hello, it didn’t take a Shakespeare scholar to figure this one out. Fate had stepped in, a heavenly plot point just in time. This was the Dark Lady, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, the Dark Lady of Studio 7, the Dark Lady of television’s most popular daytime talk show, Really, Girlfriend? My Dark Lady.
I had not even had to look for her. She had found me. She had touched me. “You take care, then,” she said, then turned toward the stage.
“Wait, I think maybe some juice might help after all,” I called after her. Actually, I was suddenly feeling a great deal better. But I figured a pathetic request for aid would bring her back. It was much too soon to let her go.
“Ophelia! Where the fuck are you?” It was the voice of Jazzminn from somewhere backstage.
“Coming!” Ophelia trilled back in a voice like spun sugar. I don’t know what Ophelia told her, but soon a whole bunch of those thin young women in black, led by Ophelia in her flowing white dress, began appearing at my side. They were bearing bottles of juice of all kinds and colors.
“Thank you all, but this one will be just fine,” I said, motioning at whatever it was Ophelia held in her incredibly soft hand. “The rest of you can go.” I gave Ophelia a calculatedly weak smile as she placed in my hand a frosted plastic bottle containing – Jesus, what was this? – a banana-coconut smoothie. It was thick, slippery, sweet and wretched. “This is wonderful, thanks,” I murmured. “Could I be any more embarrassed? I’m sorry — I didn’t even introduce myself.” I shook her hand. “I’m with the network — development. Ken Harrison.”
“You’re a network executive?” She seemed to like that. In fact, she sat down next to me, so very close, smoothing her white skirt over obviously amazing legs. “I’m very interested in development, where everything is still fresh and open to change, you know? I’ve been working for Jazzminn Jenks for the past four years, but actually I’m an actress. I’m taking classes.”
An actress? Oh, great. No matter what kind of encounter I tried to have with an actress, it always turned into an audition. But, at this moment, her acting aspirations just might be something I could work with. I needed something to capture her interest, something to hold her before she disappeared. “That’s fascinating. I’m involved in a lot of casting for the network shows. Right now, I’m in movies and mini-series.”
I had said the word “casting” in front of an actress. Her eyes began to sparkle again. My God, what marvelous eyes. I decided to push forward. “Ophelia, I’d really like to thank you for helping me out today. Let me take you to lunch this week. We could talk about your career. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have been in network television for more than ten years.”
“Ophelia, I need you. Is that guy dead yet or what?” bellowed Jazzminn Jenks.
Ophelia jumped from her seat and made a face — not at me. “Um, when were you thinking?” she asked, hesitantly.
“Tomorrow?” I said quickly — then forced a chuckle. “I didn’t mean to sound pushy, it’s just that I’m booked with lunch meetings for the rest of the week, and I had a cancellation for tomorrow. I’m not sure that’s going to happen again for a while. Things have been just crazy.”
“Oh, yes, here too! I’m just dying!” Ophelia nodded happily.
“All right — tomorrow,” Ophelia said.
“Noon, then. I’ll drop by.” I gave her an enigmatic half-smile, the kind that usually worked with women and always worked with actresses. I haven’t forgotten everything, you know.
At first I was just going to leave him alone, because that story about the gym — well, I’m not saying I didn’t believe him, but there are a lot of people with serious drug problems out here in Hollywood. For all I knew he was in a 12-step-program and had already successfully completed Step Eight. Besides, he looked so fragile, sitting there with his head in his hands, his skin as pale as the stars in the Hollywood Wax Museum, swimming in that gorgeous slate-gray Armani suit. His sandy hair was short, like a military buzz cut that’s grown out about half an inch.
Then I realized I had to be wrong — no military man could possibly afford this suit. This was a network executive suit. This was exactly the kind of suit they mean when they call someone a “suit” in Hollywood. Personally I never much cared for that expression, it sounds like there’s no one inside. And I truly believe there’s always someone inside, someone very special, whether the suit is Armani, or Men’s Wearhouse.
I also had to be practical. The ghost-pale man in the Armani suit, though perhaps bravely on his way to conquering his addiction, did look as if he were going to be sick, right then, right there — and I had no desire to face Jazzminn’s reaction should such a thing occur in her newly-remodeled, white-maple, state-of-the-art studio, complete with an Italian marble test kitchen with sub-zero freezer for our cooking segments.
You can’t really thank a person for not vomiting, but in the end I was grateful to Ken for making the right choice. I think it was the banana-coconut smoothie. You just can’t feel bad with one of those in your hand. It’s like your own private tropical vacation. And I was so flattered that he asked me out to lunch. Although, it does happen to me a lot here in Hollywood. Almost every day, now that I’m thinking about it. In fact, I get taken out to lunch so much I don’t even really know how much lunch costs anymore — at least, not at any of the city’s finer restaurants. It’s what it must be like to win an Emmy for production design for the third year in a row. Or like getting fresh flowers, and who ever gets tired of orchids, birds of paradise, blue irises, and tiger lilies? Plus, with my estimated yearly lunch savings, I am able to make a substantial annual donation to the Meals On Wheels program. I can do lunch and do good, all at the same time.
Because I work on a studio lot, the people — men, they’re all men — I do lunch with do tend to be somewhat similar. Caucasian males from 25 to maybe 55 at the oldest, bright, aggressive, cutting-edge. They all have lengthy titles, but frankly I don’t know what they do all day. They’re in the entertainment industry, but they can’t write, or act, or direct, or operate a camera. I don’t mean to be critical. No one is perfect. But they call themselves creative executives, and I’ve as yet seen no evidence at all that they create anything —although, to their credit, they seem extremely skilled at changing what others have put on paper.
I was going to have to cancel a lunch to have lunch with Ken. Canceling at the last minute is a favorite game in Hollywood. It means someone with more power has asked you out, and you want that person to know it. But in this case, I was canceling a lunch with someone powerful to do lunch with someone less powerful. My scheduled date was in feature film development. Ken was in television — which means no matter how expensive the suit, he’ll always be sitting at Hollywood’s B-table. I never really understood that since more people watch TV than go to the movies. But that’s the way it is. An Academy Award trumps an Emmy. And that fact made me feel much less guilty about undoing lunch, just this once.
Every once in awhile I wonder what it would be like to be Ken Harrison — or, if I’m going to expend the energy to wonder, I might as well go ahead and wonder what it would be like to be Ken Harrison’s boss, or his boss, or — just hypothetically — the head of the network entertainment division. Every once in a while I wonder what it would be like to be a suit, what it would be like to have the power to run Hollywood, to have so much of everything given to you that narcotic drugs are the only thing left to take.
Sometimes, when I’m driving up here on Mulholland Drive, on the cusp between Beverly Hills and the Valley, the Southern California sky a big blue blank, winding around the curves past big houses with decks cantilevered out over the hillside on tall stilts, pools, lounge chairs, and umbrella tables just hanging out there over nothing — I wonder what would it would be like if, one day, all the maids, gardeners, nannies, and pool men locked the gates and wouldn’t let the owners of the houses back in. Just took the castles, the way armies stormed the gates and took the kingdoms in days of yore, before there was a Hollywood.
I never tell anyone about my daydream, and certainly not the suits. But this time there was something in his eyes, mournful gray eyes the color of a Midwestern thunderstorm, looking up at me with dazed wonder when I put my hand on the shoulder, that made me think — maybe.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season