Television executives know what it is to work for horrible bosses. Then there’s Niles. 2,261 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The electronic display on his alarm clock read 4:13 a.m. when Peter Hallerman awoke in his heavily mortgaged home in Encino Hills. The emptiness in his stomach, the kind you get when someone breaks up with you or the doctor gives you bad news, made trying to go back to sleep futile. Careful not to wake his wife, Peter grabbed his grey terrycloth Polo robe and walked downstairs to the dining room.
He pulled a deck of cards out of a drawer in the dining room table and began to play solitaire. The ritualistic quality of the game, red on black, black on red, one match leading to another, lulled him into a contented stupor. His father had always told him that playing cards was a great way to relax. “And remember,” his dad, thirty one years a bus driver in New Jersey used to tell him, “it’s not the hand you’re dealt. It’s the way you play it. You make your own luck.”
Peter paused, not sure which pile to pick. And then it occurred to him: what did it matter? He let the card drop to the table. He would be at GPTV in four hours. That was all that really mattered.
GPTV was the brainchild of Auguste Gaumont, a French billionaire who had moved into broadcasting when he bought a second rate cable channel and decided to turn it into an American television network. Like Steve Ross and Sumner Redstone, Auguste had made his original fortune in another business. That business was urinals, which accounted for his company’s name, Gaumont Pissoirs. Naming the network GPTV seemed a way around that, and the marketing department went further, dubbing GPTV “the sixth network.” That backfired when many people in the industry began to call it “the sixth sense,” implying that GPTV was dead as a business only it didn’t know it yet.
Regardless, Peter jumped when he was offered Vice President of Comedy two years ago by Niles Jaeger, President of Programming. It was the career leap he needed, what with a second child on the way and 35 on the horizon. Contract in hand, Peter bought the glass and brick split level in the hills that he had been driving past for weeks. The closer for him: the house had been Michelle Pfieffer’s starter house in the early 1980s.
His first year at GPTV had been painless, since all the shows had been picked by his predecessor. This fall, however, it was his turn. After looking at over 300 scripts, nine of which were sent to pilot, Peter debuted two new comedies: King Arthur Of Burbank, a time travel story about a waiter in a Renaissance Fair restaurant who gets sent back to the Round Table, and Witch Hazel, a high concept comedy about a baby witch born to a pair of unsuspecting parents, both of whom work for Fed Ex, which had recently entered into a product placement agreement with GPTV.
Everyone in television says reviews don’t matter, unless they’re good, and in that respect the reviews for the shows didn’t matter. But the numbers mattered, and by the fourth week both series were pulling in under a million viewers. During sweeps, Niles pulled them for a pilot he was especially keen on, The Women Of NASCAR.
Niles had pointedly ignored Peter all week and now it was Friday.
Friday was the Day Of The Dead at GPTV, when programming executives were fired. The drill never varied: a ten o’clock meeting with Niles, the opportunity to clear vital stuff out of your office during lunch while a security guard observed, and the issuance of a late Friday afternoon press release which announced that you had “decided to leave GPTV to pursue other opportunities.”
Yesterday Niles’ secretary had called to say that the boss wanted to have a meeting with Peter at ten a.m. Friday.
Why, Peter wondered, did GPTV think it was less obvious if they brought the blade down on Friday so that the bad news could die down before Monday? The blogs always had the firings posted by day’s end anyway.
Peter slipped into the shower, the warm water drumming on his back and relaxing him, just as the solitaire had earlier. Running his hand over the pink and aqua tiles, Peter realized that he was going to need a less expensive bathroom. Well, there were decent houses in Van Nuys. And little Jeffery probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Campbell Hall and public school. And who needs an Audi instead of a Kia?
“Hi honey,” Peter said as he walked into the kitchen to find his wife feeding baby Lylah and simultaneously getting Jeffrey ready for school.
“You’re up early,” she said giving him a kiss scented with carrot flavored baby food.
“I’ve got a meeting with Niles.” Peter told his wife nothing because he didn’t want to worry her until it was absolutely necessary.
“Do you want me to fix you something?” she asked.
“No. I’ll just grab Starbucks on the way in.”
Peter smiled grimly and headed into the garage. Turning on the Audi, he thought about his boss. Niles was a chaos junkie who thrived on rage and particularly enjoyed firing people. Six months ago, he had cut loose a manager in drama by throwing a plate of jelly donuts and a pot of coffee at the poor guy as he slunk out the doorway. And last week Niles fired an Asian woman in reality programming by informing her that her work had “set back diversity to the days of Tokyo Rose.” His meanness seemed deep, inbred, bottomless. According to Kate Mars, the head of GPTV legal who had grown up with Niles, “As a little child, he set fire to his toys and threw them out the window.”
Passing a 7-Eleven on Ventura Boulevard, Peter turned in to get a cup of coffee. Might as well get used to it since Starbucks had become so pricey. He poured himself a vanilla nut and walked over to the young Russian behind the counter.
“How much is a ticket for the Powerball?” he asked, seeing that the jackpot was currently worth one hundred and nineteen million dollars.
“I’ll take one and the coffee,” he said, handing over a five dollar bill.
On his way out, Peter stepped over a man who was slouched against the outer wall, his face sandblasted from sun exposure, his hands thick with grime. “Hey buddy, spare some change?” the man asked.
Suddenly, on impulse, Peter gave the man the Powerball ticket.
“Good luck,” he said, getting back into his car.
Peter glanced over at Trader Joe’s where trucks were dispersing their morning produce onto the loading dock. Peter squinted and saw a green light at the end of the store’s loading dock. Could it be? Here on Ventura Boulevard? “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning —” Peter resolved that after he was fired he would spend the fall re-reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works.
The ride was calming him. When Peter arrived at GPTV headquarters, he went directly to his office, shut the door, and began playing solitaire again with the deck he had pocketed from home. Red five on black six, black two on red three, move the ace down. Only there was no ace to move. Playing out the hand, Peter couldn’t uncover the face cards and aces he needed to win. He paused. Then he picked up one of the piles, shuffled though it, and pulled out a red queen, which immediately helped to open up the board. Screw it, he thought, who would ever know?
An hour later, his private line rang. “Niles is ready to see you now.” He stood up and checked his appearance. He looked at himself in the mirror and mouthed the words, “Good luck, buddy.”
The door was open when he reached Niles’ office. Niles was standing with his back to Peter, looking out the large picture window onto a landscape of palm trees. “Close the door behind you and have a seat,” said Niles, without turning to acknowledge him. Peter did as he was told and settled into the Barcelona chair that was in front of Niles’ desk.
Niles turned around. His face looked unnaturally pale, and, for a long time, he said nothing. “I thought we should talk,” Niles said finally, sitting behind his desk. Peter’s stomach was in a knot, his mouth desert dry. “It’s clear that both King Arthur Of Burbank and Witch Hazel aren’t working. There was a time when this type of idiot programming was popular. But the audience has, somehow, grown smarter. And we have to stay smarter than the audience. Or we have to move on.”
Niles paused and looked directly at Peter for the first time in the conversation. Niles’ eyes looked watery and unfocused. Then Niles shook his head and threw up his arms. “Do you know what happened to me this morning?” he demanded.
“I have no idea,” Peter replied.
Niles stood up and began to gesture with his hands, something he rarely did, as he spoke. “I was driving down the hill from my house to the intersection, like I do every day of my working life, five times a week, for four years now. I was coming to the intersection, and I started to cross it when a black Mercedes came racing towards me from the left side of the cross street. Right at me, driver’s side. The damn car was going about sixty and I just froze with fear. Just a few feet and it would have crashed into me. But the car ground to a halt. I could smell the tires burning.”
“Oh my God, Niles,” exclaimed Peter.
“I just sat there in the car, shaking, and this bitch in sunglasses sticks her head out the Mercedes window and gives me the finger and drives off.”
“Oh my God, Niles,” repeated Peter.
“I just sat there and started to cry,” continued Niles, whose face was even paler than before. “I cried and cried and then… I wet my pants.”
“Fortunately, I keep another pair in the office,” interrupted Niles. “But forget the pants. I could have died this morning, Peter. Died. I was there crossing the intersection and,” he snapped his fingers, “like that, I could have been gone. One minute I’m alive, the next I’m dead.”
“Jesus,” exclaimed Peter.
“Okay, that’s one Jesus and two Gods. The next time could you just say Mohammad for variety?” said Niles, with the soft outline of a grin forming on his face. “I was going to fire you this morning, Peter. The press release was written and the two shows were going to be pulled from the lineup next week. But this morning turned my head around. I can’t fire anybody today.”
Relief flooded through Peter’s body. Niles walked over and put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “I think you just need to come up with some more creative stuff. Something that pops. You’re a bright guy and I’m sure you can change these shows if I give you the chance.”
“That’s really kind of you, Niles,” Peter said, clamping his hand together to keep them from shaking.
“Here’s your first idea,” said Niles, walking Peter to the door. “Why not hire some of these kids who are YouTube sensations and put them on the shows. And maybe we can get pre-teens who aren’t yet full time drug addicts to watch us. In the end we’re all just puppets, weaving and bobbing through the minefield of life. This morning I almost died. Next week, you may save one of your shows.”
“Thank you for this opportunity.” Peter felt such gratitude that he was on the verge of tears. Niles, for the first time ever, grabbed Peter and gave him a bear hug.
Peter walked down the corridor, passed his office and continued to the men’s room. He sat in one of the stalls and pulled a bunch of toilet seat covers from the dispenser and buried his face in the papers to muffle the sounds of his uncontrollable weeping. He was saved.
Later in the day, after he left the office, Peter walked into the bar area of a small Italian restaurant off Ventura. He approached the attractive brunette who was sitting there.
“Hi,” she said, putting down her drink and flashing him a smile.
“How’d it go?” Peter asked, taking the barstool next to her.
“Like a charm,” the brunette responded. “I barrel-assed straight towards him and then slammed the brakes. Nothing to it.”
Peter smiled as he pulled an envelope out of his jacket and handed it to her. “Well, you scared the shit out of him.”
The woman smiled back as she accepted the envelope. “I didn’t do stunts on The Fast And The Furious for ten years and not learn a trick or two.”
“It’s all there, in hundreds like you asked for,” Peter said.
“How’d it go for you?” said the woman.
“It looks like I’m going to get a chance to fix my shows,” he answered.
“This must be your lucky day,” the woman said.
Peter stood up and brushed his suit off, getting ready to leave. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “My father always told me you make your own luck.”