A late-night TV talk show host undergoes an existential career crisis caused by an anniversary. 4,767 words. Illustration by John Mann.
"Even a weak man should want to leave a legacy," Andy had said, rather off-handedly, to the man sitting next to him. It had meant nothing at the time, but years later it became difficult for his narrative to escape those ten words that had been so hastily scribbled down moments later.
They weren’t his last words, either. Those had been "Here it is."
And the first word Andy Perry ever spoke was "peas," blurted out at 14 months old from the back seat of his mother’s 1964 Ford Bronco.
Andy had said a lot of things between his first and his last words. It was in many respects his full-time job, and he was very good at it. Every Monday through Thursday night, from 11 pm to midnight in New York City, he stood in front of a large group of people and a few television cameras and said a lot of things that in turn caused people to laugh. That was his job, and at times its sheer simplicity made him feel uneasy on a base level, as if he fundamentally should be doing something else.
He secretly envied people who work with their hands, yet found it hard to verbalize this to anyone who does lest they think he was mocking them. He could watch people cook for hours. And when he managed to escape the confines of the building’s television studio and his adjacent offices, he’d find an inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall restaurant nearby and watch the chef’s hands for hours.
This helped explain why he was an hour late to rehearsals on this particular day in late October.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Andy apologized.
"You’re not sorry," said Mitch.
Andy shrugged. "You’re completely right. What did I miss?"
"You’re due on stage in five minutes. No, wait, three minutes, and you’re going to do the first run-through of the monologue," said Mitch. "And I’m hungry and I’m tired and to be honest I’m cold.”
"You complain about the heat half the year and then now you’re complaining about the air conditioning in here. You’re beginning to sound like my grandma."
"You know I like to work cold," said Mitch, begrudgingly. Mitch was an older guy, with a physicality like a gorilla who in some twist of fate had become the Willy Loman of gorillas and carried the weight and the crushing ennui of the hapless gorilla middle class on his silverback shoulders.
"OK, Cap’n," said Andy.
Mitch looked at him quizzically. He lowered his tone from jovial to somber. "I’m going to say it once, because I know you treasure your time out of the office. And I get that, I really do. But you missed rewrites on the monologue, and this is a new team of writers. You’re confusing them. You gotta nurture them and chew their food for them and stand over them like this," he said and began to mime the motions of a feeding bird.
"Thank you for the community theater theatrics," said Andy, "I’ll be sure to throw in a few good words of your performance in the review."
Mitch was not in the mood to add a further log to the conversational furnace. He gathered a stack of notecards from the space in front of Andy’s mirror, and lingered a few seconds to soak up as much air conditioning as possible. He turned and smiled as he left and said, "OK. Sermon over. See you out on the dance floor."
The glow of a dozen 40-watt bulbs around Andy’s mirror filled the room, and the TV talk show host felt a tingle at the top of his head. He’d read somewhere, years ago, that this was the brain’s equivalent of having an orgasm, a mental picture that he found silently hilarious.
Andy stared at himself in the mirror to see if everything was as it should be, and it was, although he was still largely unhappy with his appearance. He was handsome in a way that commercial airline pilots were handsome; a rakish yet wholly familiar and unthreatening type of handsome that unbeknownst to him was one of his greatest assets.
He looked at his nose and thought about how his life might be different if he had been born with a different one. Stray facts that he had gleamed from a documentary on sommeliers ambled their way across his memory, reminding him that they had incredible noses. He thought it must be incredible to have such a power. It was just then that Amy, his head writer, walked by the open door.
"Amy, do you know that the human nose can catalogue over a trillion individual smells?" he told her.
"What does that have to do with anything?" said Amy, pausing in mid-step.
"Nothing. It has nothing to do with anything," said Andy, "Amy, have you ever looked at a nose for a long enough time? It’s kind of like when you look at a word long enough. It becomes something totally different. I have no idea what my nose is doing right now.”
"You’re really weird. Do you know that, Andy?" she said. She rested her elbow on the door frame and scratched the back of her head. This was a popular pose for her to strike.
"I’ve been told that my whole life," Andy said. And he had.
He also had been told that he had the skill to look at someone right in the eyes during conversation and make them believe that they and they alone were, for at least the time being, the most important people not just in the room but in the world. Also that he had a unique voice that transcended the line between husky and nonchalant, like that of a former choirboy that had smoked cigarettes throughout puberty. Andy had grown up in semi-rural Minnesota and his voice still maintained a whisper of the pinched consonants and lolling vowels of that part of the country. It was a voice that made it difficult to lie.
"How are we doing on time?" he asked Amy.
"You could stand there and look at your nose in the mirror as if it had tonight’s winning lottery numbers," said Amy, "Or you could come out into the real world and run through the monologue."
"How is it today?"
"It’s all right."
"Just all right?"
"Yeah. Kurt wrote most of it."
"Which one’s Kurt?"
"The new guy. You met him. Short, with glasses. Wears a flannel shirt. Has a lot of followers on Twitter."
"That’s half the people in Brooklyn," said Andy, being completely accurate whether he knew so or not, "You’re going to have to be more specific."
They left Andy’s dressing room and walked down the hallway.
Thanks in large part to sense memory and approximately a dozen years of hitting his head, Andy ducked at the low-lying beams. There were six of them on the way to the stage from his dressing room; the studio itself had been built nearly a century ago during a time, Andy supposed, when people were much shorter. There were many idiosyncrasies about the building and about the floor itself that he had just become accustomed to. If he used the bathroom underneath the sound booth, for instance, he had to stand with his legs farther apart. Like a giraffe taking a sip of water from a cool lagoon.
"How bad is the monologue," he pressed Amy. "Really. You can tell me."
"Well, I’m not thrilled," she replied. "I let Kurt handle it. I think I fucked up in that regard."
"If you’re saying it before we even get to the stage, this isn’t a good sign."
Andy ducked under the sixth and final low-hanging beam and was within arm’s reach of stage right by the big midnight blue curtain. He remembered about a dozen years ago standing right where he was now wearing a brand new Mets hat as he and Mitch went through the studio and picked out the items that would become so commonplace now. The blue curtain. The red audience seats. They were comfortable seats, too. He’d fought hard with the network to spring extra for the right chairs. He’d wanted the audience to be comfortable.
There were about a dozen people milling around Camera 1 and watching. The writers, a handful of individuals who looked like they were waiting at a bus stop outside a mental hospital, nervously rubbing their hair or lack thereof. And as Andy entered, Mitch stood by Camera 2 and began to pat a drum roll on his thighs.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced Mitch, "From New York City, it’s THE ANDY PERRY SHOW with your host, Mister Andy Perry."
Amy nodded, and Andy strode out to the tape-marked “X” in the middle of the soundstage, waving to an audience of nobody.
Kurt watched nervously from the side of the stage as Andy began to read his jokes. Kurt dug his hands deeper into his pockets and began to think back to Michigan, about his father, about Christmases as a child, about his family dog, about the sound of peanut butter being spread on toast mornings in the kitchen, about moving to New York and getting the coffee machine to work that first morning in his apartment, and then finally about the coffee he’d had this morning in October. And the toast, too, with peanut butter, on this, the very day that he had to write the monologue for Andy for the first time. He thought about how he was nervous, about how he’d tear the bottoms of his pockets if he pressed any further into them, about anything to keep his mind off Andy Perry reading his jokes out loud. It was both thrilling and extremely worrying.
It had only been in the last two years that Kurt had understood the nuance that human beings could hold two directly opposable motions about the same subject at the same time. He brushed his hair to the side and looked at Amy. She stood there wearing the same green hoodie she’d worn three days in a row with her sleeves rolled up past the elbow. She had a clipboard, although he couldn’t see what was on it. She looked at it and wrote something down. She had her hair pulled back today and she wasn’t wearing much makeup, but he thought she had the kind of complexion where that didn’t matter. She looked a little Mediterranean. Maybe Greek. Maybe he should ask her to the Greek place on 48th Street that had excellent falafels.
Andy was still reading the words Kurt had written, and Amy was still writing something down that he couldn’t see. He wanted to vomit.
Amy Barrow hadn’t had a falafel in four years, but she was aware of Kurt eyeing her from a few feet away. It wasn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world, honestly, to be leered at by a work colleague. She related it to how a gazelle must feel being watched by a sexually frustrated lion — but she could tolerate it. This was hardly anything new. Even when she wore this completely sexually neutral hoodie, she found guys absent-mindedly staring at her tits in the elevator.
Andy flubbed a line about the governor of New Jersey, and Amy wrote down to scratch that joke. Kurt would probably take it personally. He seemed to take everything she said personally. She looked at him and he turned away quickly to adjust something in his pockets. No man ever looked good finding something in his pockets, remembering all too vividly the family summer holiday when her uncle wore shorts that were borderline offensive every time he reached deep to retrieve his keys or his wallet.
Andy shook his head at a joke. and Amy made a note on her pad, writing down the words "dog in hot car" with a distant knowledge that in tenminutes she wouldn’t remember at all what this note meant, prompting her to sincerely rethink her note-taking skills.
The monologue wasn’t particularly bad, Mitch thought, but it could use some punching up. He thought about food. Good food.
Mitch looked at Amy, Kurt, and the rest of the writers and crew. He liked about three of them. Mitch could intrinsically tell that Andy was wrapping up by the cadence of his voice.
"… So stick around, we’ll be right back," said Andy, and took a bow. There was a silence, then a small ripple of applause. Kurt held back. He didn’t know if he should be clapping or not. He never had any idea what do with his hands.
Now Andy was addressing the small group on the sidelines. "OK. The dog line didn’t work. And there’s a bunch of jokes in the middle we’re going to make more topical. But otherwise pretty great job, Kurt."
Kurt didn’t react.
"Kurt," said Andy, "Hey. Earth to Kurt."
"I said you did a pretty good job."
Showtime was in two hours. After a brief rundown of who was responsible for what in the next hundred minutes or so, Amy walked with Andy back to his dressing room. Andy ducked under the first of the six beams in the narrow passageway.
"I’m lying through my teeth," he said, "The back third of that monologue needs to be completely reworked."
He ducked under the second beam, and then the third. They stopped and moved to the side to allow some of the crew to pass. Union rules mandated a break every four hours, no matter what, and this was the last break before the show began. The studio would reek of weed by showtime. That, combined with the frigid indoor temperature, would contribute to a fluidity and an immediacy that no other late night show possessed.
"Tell Kurt the truth, don’t lie to him," said Amy, "He deserves more than that."
"My job isn’t to hold someone’s hand," said Andy, surprising even himself with the level of bitterness that emanated from that sentence.
"Jesus fucking Christ, Andy. You’re not a martyr."
"Not yet, anyway."
Andy turned and immediately hit his head on the fourth beam with a dull thud.
Andy’s opened his eyes and heard a ding as the elevator stopped at the seventh floor, the doors opened and half a dozen people got on. They recognized him, and nodded, and one of them, a younger woman, smiled and turned to the guy next to him. “Hey, is that Andy Perry?” she said, and the guy nodded curtly and glanced at him and then back at her and she turned around. Andy likened this byproduct of fame to the way people drive whenever they drive next to a police car. Nobody ever acts normal, everybody tries to act like a heightened fried-chicken commercial version of themselves. He watched the numbers of the floors go down as they all rode together, and prayed silently for a faulty elevator cable.
"I love your show," said the woman as they exited the elevator.
She was attractive in a young Cameron Diaz sort of way and there was a gleam in her eye that suggested, given other circumstances, she would much rather be going out with Andy tonight. But he simply smiled with the fervor of weak tea and heard the word, "Thanks," fall out of his mouth and then to the floor where it died unceremoniously and with a sparsely attended funeral. Monosynaptic responses like these, he felt, were slowly eroding him. Pretty soon, he’d be like the animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disney World, just greeting people and directing guests to the gift shop. Thanks for meeting me. Be sure to buy the t-shirt.
It was loud outside, too loud for a Monday night, and as he pushed the door open he felt his stomach lurch again. He watched his driver run around the car to open the rear right-hand-side passenger door. As he ducked to enter the black town car, he hoped he could get some sleep during the 40-minute ride to Montclair. And to his great pleasure, he was asleep by the time the car reached the first traffic light.
Mitch looked at the notecards on the wall. He had no reference point to what any of them meant. "Dog President" was an idea for a bit that would run between the first segment and the first guest, a five-minute break. A dog that is also the President. That looked interesting, Mitch thought. It was rare for him to get excited this early in the day. He usually only got excited after the guy at the deli counter on 36th handed him his sandwich.
He scratched his side and turned around and Amy was facing him. She was wearing those glasses that the baristas wear, those ones that short-haired anchorwomen on the TV news wore.
"Hey, Amy," he said, "Did you see the Dog President one? That your idea?"
"No," said Amy. "Do you know where Andy is?"
Mitch itched his side again. Maybe this was psychosomatic, he thought, an itch triggered by people asking him where Andy is. "I have no idea. Probably at a sushi restaurant. Try Tokyo Sushi on 9th. If he’s not there, he’s in the hole-in-the-wall Latin American place on West 37th. It’s a freight entrance. The restaurant is in the back. It’s really good shit."
"Why’s he there?"
"I guess he likes watching people work. I talked to him about it. He has his own reasons. Feels insecure about his job. Classic guy stuff. I almost, get it."
"It’d be nice if he liked watching the people here work," said Amy.
"Honestly, he’s been acting a little off lately," replied Mitch. "It’s coming up on an anniversary for him." Mitch continued, taking a deep breath. "More and more erratic."
"Anniversary of what?" said Amy.
"Esquire magazine. September 2008. Look it up." Mitch had been, until that point, giving Amy pretty good eye contact.
But it was at this point Mitch shut down entirely. He looked back at the board.
"What’s in there?" asked Amy.
"Just Andy being Andy."
"How long have you worked with him?"
"Long enough to know not to bother him when he’s like this. Maybe you can find him and ask him yourself."
Amy bit her lower lip in frustration.
"OK," she said, nodding, "You know, Mitch, you can talk to me like I’m a friend."
"I know," said Mitch. "But I don’t have a lot of chick friends."
"It’s OK. I’m an adult. I get it,” Amy said. “People in our business are different. Some of us grew up listening to Bob Newhart records and watching All In The Family, and some of us didn’t. I grew up on NPR in the Volvo in Connecticut. You’re you, and you’re not me.”
Mitch was happy again.
"Did I ramble?" said Amy, "It’s been a weird morning. Odd vibe. I’m living life like I’m in letterbox format, you know?"
"It’s 11 am. Did you have some coffee?"
“Not yet," said Amy. "Been trying to wrangle the squad and everyone is doing their own special thing. Tony isn’t doing any work because he keeps switching back to the monologue word document every time I walk into the room. Eric is off talking to his agent or doing something on social media that doesn’t matter. Kurt is, well, being Kurt. Bettany is supposedly ‘researching’ but I can’t find her physically, just on iChat. Anyone born after 1988 is untrustworthy."
"Tell you what," said Mitch. "Go get coffee. I’ll herd the team into the writers room in the meantime. I’m good for that; my job here is basically a jumped-up sheepdog role, anyway. And go find Andy.”
"Don’t mention it," he said, "Now tell me about the Dog President. Which Juilliard Scholar in there thought that one up?"
In a nondescript freight entrance along West 37th Street, with no discernible sign of a restaurant within it, was El Sabroso. The seating consisted of little more than a formica card table with five plastic lawn chairs and four bar stools in front of a counter. Behind the counter was Jaime, who spoke little English and made Colombian food for the neighborhood. He made a large batch of oxtail every morning and a vat of rice and another of beans, and he always sold out by the end of the lunch rush. Jaime had been doing this for 15 years. He had been sending money back to his family for much of that time, and he had built the home of his dreams in Queens where every night the dogs with tails wagging came for they knew he was the guy who smelled like incredibly good food.
Sitting at the counter, closest to the television, was Andy Perry. The same black town car that had driven him home had picked him up the next day and taken him here instead of the office. This was one of the few spots in Midtown where he knew no one would bother him even if he was recognized. He watched the city go by from his vantage point. Today, there was just him and the guy cooking. Andy nursed a seltzer water and popped a homemade spicy peanut into his mouth. He’d been watching Jaime prepare chicken for the better part of half an hour now. There was no network giving notes. There was no audience. Just Jaime and what he did with his hands, and people either ate it or left it. And in Jaime’s case, people ate everything he made.
There was something honorable about that, Andy thought. And he felt deep down that he could learn from the man cooking who did not need an audience for his craft. So that he could perfect it.
Andy gave Jaime a thumbs up, and took a sip of soda water and watched the TV. It was some sort of Hispanic game show. Everyone looked quite happy. Andy wondered if he would enjoy it more or less if he understood what they were saying. Andy watched their mouths move and thought about what was funny, rather, what was universally funny.
The audience wants to sympathize with the performer, Andy thought, recalling the dozens upon dozens of times he’d bombed on the road in the early 1990s. His mind wandered back to the dubiously stained driver’s seat of his 1990 Chevy Caprice. The other half of his brain was still trying unsuccessfully to wrestle the impossible task of understanding universal humor. Maybe loss is the funniest joke of all.
"Andy," said a woman’s voice somewhere to his right. He turned and saw a familiar face standing in the doorway, the sleeves on her hoodie rolled up to her elbows and her hair in a makeshift bun.
"Mitch told me you’d be here." She walked up to the counter and sat down next to Andy. The chef offered her a bowl of peanuts. She waved them away.
"Fuck. You got me." Andy shrugged widely and attempted a smile, but it was quickly seen through.
"What’s going on, Andy," said Amy. "You’re not at work."
"You guys are doing all right," said Andy, his voice quiet, as if he were talking to the bottle of seltzer water, "You should really try these nuts. Jaime makes them himself. Jaime?"
Jaime placed a bowl of nuts in front of Amy and nodded with pride.
Amy tried one. "Fuck. These are good. Graçias."
"What’s going on?" Amy said again. "Talk to me."
"You said it yourself that you’re not a therapist," said Andy. He turned and faced her.
She thought his eyes looked the way pools look from airplanes. "I’m not a sponge," she said. "Mitch said something about Esquire Magazine in 2008."
"Oh yeah. That," said Andy, his voice at the end of a canyon.
"Care to tell me what it’s about?"
"I used to drink. A lot. And I did an interview completely black-out drunk. I spilled my guts to a journalist. I shouldn’t have trusted him. I said some shit I mightily regretted. That one article led to me not drinking."
"What kind of stuff did you say?" asked Amy. "I’m curious."
"That my mom blew her brains out. Are you still curious now?"
"Is that the anniversary Mitch was talking to me about?"
"Yeah," said Andy.
"You’re very good at talking to people. One of the best."
"None of it is real," said Andy, motioning to the noise outside the freight entrance. "It’s not tangible."
"And chicken is tangible?" asked Amy.
"You’re terrible at verbal tennis," said Andy. "Keep up with me. Yes, chicken is tangible." He sighed deeply, fixing his eyes nowhere in particular but seemingly at Jaime’s feet. "I’m not even sure who I’m performing for — me or the audience."
"What do you mean?"
"If you change the audience, you change the performance. That’s a crucial part of show business, and. without sounding too cheesy, Amy, the business of show. You build an audience over your career. and you bridge from audience to audience. You find out what kind of performer you are by finding your voice. Then you attract an audience. But if you don’t challenge yourself enough, an audience becomes a crutch. You know what they like and they like what you deliver. And then you end up resenting them, because you’re stuck with them. That’s a surefire way to complete and colossal failure. I’m not thrilled with my decision- making in the past. I’m glad the network never went all Conan on me and pulled the plug before I found who I am. But five years in, I never challenged myself, never fought back with them, never found my voice. I’m that fucking guy I hated when I started this. You wanna know why? I was handed this thing, this machine, before I was ready. I never found out who I really was. And that’s insane, Amy, if you think about it."
Amy had never seen Andy like this. He was rarely this open with her or anyone at the office. She realized that Andy was extremely compartmentalized, that there was most definitely an office Andy as much as there was an onstage Andy. She was seeing an Andy entirely alien to her. He was now just looking at her, waiting for her to make her move. She looked at his Mets hat on the counter next to his bowl of nuts. It was beat up and faded in stark contrast to Andy’s expensive custom suit. She looked into his eyes and saw the same deep swimming pools starting to tear up. She had to pick her next words.
"Do you think the Mets can make another World Series run this year?" she asked.
Andy laughed. "Yeah," he said, "they really could."
Andy looked out towards the freight entrance. It was just about the end of most people’s lunch hour, and a steady stream of people crisscrossed each other as they made their way back to work. For a brief second, the two streams stopped just long enough for Andy to catch a glimpse of a man shining shoes across the street. The man’s eyes were crowded by laugh lines, his fingers black with polish. He was chatting away to the guy next to him.
Andy felt a warm rush, as if he’d just spotted a familiar friend in a crowded room. The image was indelible, and Andy began to ponder.
Jaime took a pan out of the oven. "Wing? Very crispy," Jaime said to Amy. He held up a pair of tongs which were holding two chicken wings dripping with juice. "Is very good. Hot."
Andy, grabbed one wing from the tongs, and Amy did the same with the other.
"I’m sorry for unloading on you," Andy told her. "That was uncalled for."
"It’s fine," said Amy. "You’re human, after all."
"I think I have an idea. For the show."
"You wanna tell the writers room about it? We’ve been in the shitter since Atencio and Speigelman left."
"I’ve noticed," said Andy, "But when you only get handed half the steering wheel, you learn how to make a good left turn."
"Not your best, but I’ll take it," said Amy.
She bit into the wing. It was unlike any other bite of chicken she had experienced before. The skin was crispy but the inside was still moist and tender. It tasted like home. Not her home, but a home. It had only taken one bite to win her over.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season