An escalating mystery threatens to end the increasingly difficult sitcom industry. 3,189 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
That day, I set out to find Larry David. I had seen Curb Your Enthusiasm enough to know what Larry’s house looked like but how to get there was the problem. I GPS’d “Larry’s House” but ended up at Larry The Cable Guy’s mansion. I headed down to Sunset to meet with my undercover celebrity map guy. I followed the map’s directions to an inconspicuous mansion sitting in the middle of a drive-thru cul de sac. If not for the fifty-foot hedges sculpted into the shapes of some of Larry’s top neuroses, I might have missed the house altogether. Shame and Paranoia flanked each side of the massive front doors.
On Larry’s front step was a stack of old People magazines. I picked up one and walked towards the threshold. I hoped that my magazine delivery ruse might get me through the portals and I would soon meet the man who had changed television. I swallowed hard, unsuccessfully attempting to dislodge the ever present glob of anxiety-generated saliva that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in my throat. With a deep breath that seemed to carry a toxic mixture of excitement and nervousness, I raised my hand to knock. But before my fist reached it, the door opened.
As if I had just become Curly (it could have been Shemp, but definitely not Curly Joe who ended up on Abbott and Costello’s show), I ended up knocking on Larry David’s head.
“Is something wrong with you?” he said. “What are you trying to do? Who are you?”
“People magazine delivery boy.”
“There’s no delivery boy for People. It comes through the mail.”
“Did I say delivery boy? I meant, reporter.”
“Where’s your camera? People never does a story without plenty of pictures.”
He was right. Thinking fast, I pulled out my cell.
“We record it all by iPhone now.”
I watched Larry deliver his patented squint of suspicion which soon turned into a smile of acceptance.
As I followed Larry into his home, all I could think was, what a great ass. I mean, for a man of his age. I have been a long time heterosexual and plan to stay that way, but there’s no denying: a great ass is a great ass. Of course, it was covered by pants.
Larry led me past his foyer, filled with elegantly framed copies of every residual check he ever received, into the living room.
“So, how do we do this?” asked Larry. “What do you want to know?”
Wow. Here I was ready to crawl inside his head and sponge up all the knowledge from a showbiz deity.
“I didn’t think you did interviews,” I said.
“I usually don’t. But, come on… People.”
“Um. Why do you think there’s so much crap on TV?”
Suddenly, the smile on his face turned upside down. Larry seemed buried in thought as if his answer would come from deep within his soul. The ESPN football helmet phone next to him rang and Larry picked it up without as much as a “hello.” He listened for a couple brief seconds, hung up and then, without another word, left the room.
That’s when Michael Richards entered in a tuxedo, his face caked with an exorbitant amount of charcoal make-up. He told me my interview with Larry was over.
I walked out. I wanted to write a homily ripping Larry a new asshole. But then I felt a twinge of sadness for the guy. It wasn’t Larry who was the asshole. It was me. I was loading up at his feet all my resentment from a personal lack of real success. Here I was thinking that, even though he didn’t know me at all, he was the symbol of my discontent. I should have just thanked Larry for even considering doing the interview and left it at that. I hated myself, which was nothing new. But at least, this time, I had a valid reason.
I sat in my car, replaying the conversation again and again. What did I say that could have upset Larry so much? What was the capital of New Hampshire?
I guardedly entered the house through the door Michael Richards had left open. I stumbled into the bedroom expecting a studio audience to roar in acknowledgment. I stood there a moment, half-trying not to throw up and half-salivating over the fact that I was staring at one of the biggest showbiz stories. There lay Larry David, um … his clothes.
But what about the deep red goo where his head would have been? And what was that strong smell of ketchup coming from the puddle? Did it have anything to do with the Heinz Ketchup bottle next to it?
I took a step back. There was a crimson-colored fish lying next to Larry’s slippers. Upon closer inspection, it was a herring. A red-herring.
And what about the pentacle inscribed on his stomach? Wait. It wasn’t a pentacle. Instead of a five-point star within a circle, the star had six points. A Jewish star. A Star of David.
Larry David was Jewish?
That’s when my thoughts were interrupted by the sirens. Luckily I could tell the cops what happened, at least as much as I knew. It wasn’t like I was a witness to anything. Still, it’s not like the police wouldn’t give me the benefit of the doubt. I’m a comedy writer. Comedy writers don’t make other comedians disappear. It’s the comedy clubs and TV executives and talent agents who do that.
I had to do the right thing.
So I ran as fast as I could and jumped the hedges into the yard next door. I hoped there would be no proof that I had been there. Well, other than my car and my ID inside the glove compartment.
Down a few hundred yards on Sunset Boulevard in the same Chateau Marmont bungalow where John Belushi died, Hollywood’s former biggest power broker sat on his severely-stained mattress. I’d state his name but I’m still waiting to hear from his attorney whom I can’t name due to a cease and desist from that attorney’s attorney.
The one-time mogul pulled down his worn, but expensive, Armani slacks, baggy enough to hide at least three pilfered clients. Then he placed a sharply-spiked Versace belt around his pale white but sufficiently hairy thigh, tightening the leather strip so that it cut into his thick flesh. Yet instead of writhing in what should have been intense pain, a serene smile signaling that all was right with the world, crossed his lips.
Picking up his cell phone, he hit Auto-1.
"It’s done,” he announced, a hint of his old self-confidence emerging.
"Did he have a chance to talk?" asked the commanding voice on the other end.
“The disappeared find speaking a lost art.”
"And they think we know not what we do," the voice exclaimed. "How they mock us."
"As they have mocked my innate right to threaten life and career of every pathetic two-bit actor, writer and director."
"You have done a great service,” said the voice.
“Thank you, Master.”
The ex-power broker hung up the phone, proud of his work. He stood, shaking with delight, letting the sheer joy of his accomplishments cascade over him. Finally, he spoke to himself.
“Man, I’m good.”
He stripped naked and knelt in the center of his room. Looking down, he examined the spiked Versace belt still clamped around his thigh. All true followers of The Purpose used the serrated binding to gouge the skin as reminder of The Master’s suffering.
He was once again at peace.
I stood in front of the Improv comedy club where I hoped to draw some vibe off of the room where so many stand-up greats had been groomed. But I was getting nothing. Not even a hint of a minimalist earthquake.
“Havin’ a problem?”
I turned around, white as a sheet.
“Sorry to creep up on you like that.”
Standing there was someone so close to Larry that he could have been Larry’s personal neurosis. It was Richard Lewis, famous comic, Larry’s best friend on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Larry’s fourth best friend in real life.
I gushed like a school girl in skimpy white panties.
“You find yourself in a bit of trouble, don’t you, Steve?”
“It is so cool that you know who I…”
“Hey asshole,” Lewis interrupted. “I’m late for my therapist and today is my biweekly colon-cleansing meeting, so let’s make this quick. It’s about Larry David.”
“Larry is gone, right?”
“Schmuck. That’s what they want us to believe.”
“Who’s ‘they?’ Who’s ‘us?’”
“Look, we can’t do this here. Too many people know me. Let’s go over to the Farmers Market and get some coffee.” Lewis said.
“How about a Diet Coke?”
I knew this wasn’t a pitch meeting but Lewis could afford to pick up the check.
I sat down inconspicuously. I’m a writer. It was the only way I can sit.
“Who is ‘they?’” I asked.
“Don’t you mean ‘Who are they?’”
“I never get it straight.
“If you shut up for a second, I’ll try to explain. Have you ever heard of the Priory Hegumens Legion of Extreme Mediocrity?”
“Sure. PHLEM. A so-called secret consortium set up to control the quality of worldwide commodities. It’s a myth, right?”
“Really? You think they’re a myth? Are you that thick?”
“Are you saying that there really are powerful people who control the quality of our products, and therefore our lives, for their own personal profit?”
“PHLEM does exist,” said Lewis, “although they’re just as happy that no one knows. Their hands are dirty. Dirty as a mom’s hand changing a diarrhea diaper in the dark at two in the morning.”
And that, ladies and gentleman, is why Richard Lewis is the man.
“And the proof that they have dirty hands shows up in the place they can reach more Americans than anyone?”
“A Kardashian’s vagina?”
I’ll admit, it was a hack joke. Too easy. But really, Lewis was the one who threw the softball. I just hit it out of the park, albeit a minor league park.
“Television,” Lewis said with impatience seeping from every corner of his exasperation.
“There are powerful people who control television?”
Again with the look.
“It’s a hand dealt from the bottom of deck. The Big Lie. A lie that not only affects the welfare of gullible viewers, but also the welfare of every single person working in the business. Do you understand how fucked up this is? Do you realize how far these people will go to make sure this doesn’t get out? If the public ever got wind, 90% of the networks’ executives would find themselves in the unemployment line with the writers and actors. There would be no more need for ‘development’ departments because the audiences would find out that the shows and scripts written by the original writers were far better quality than the shows after network notes were shoved down the terrified showrunners’ throats.”
“But what about the great shows? If what you say is true, how did they make it onto the air?”
“Things squeak through, especially in the early days. Everything was so new. Development people had yet to figure out just how to fuck up a show. But when they started to realize that they could get their words and ideas into a script without truly needing to have an original thought or even write a word, network executives began to put their indecent fingerprints on every decent idea a writer tried to get in.”
Lewis was angry. I hurried and ordered another Diet Coke just in case he ended our meeting abruptly. He continued.
“But when a good show with original stories and concept breakthroughs broke through to the audiences, those writers who had created them would be hurried off to cursory jobs, film or entirely out of the business.”
He took a deep sad breath.
“Carl Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, was pushed into valet parking for film premieres at Grauman’s Chinese. Same with Norman Lear. Good writers were shunned and never heard from again. That Was The Week That Was, the early ‘60s British import that broke the mold for social and political satire and featured (in alphabetical order by name) Alan Alda, Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Art Carney, David Frost, Buck Henry, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Louis Nye and Mort Sahl, was written by Robert Emmett”
“Robert Emmett? Never heard of him.”
“But I’ve seen network shows that have had clever spins. What about Saturday Night Live? Not now. You know, in the ‘70s, when it was funny.”
“Network sketch shows like SNL, MAD TV and the best of them all, SCTV, were slotted to play late on weekend nights when viewers were scant. The networks deviously used only the shows’ acronyms to promote them so no one would truly understand their ilk." Lewis was only getting started. “Now this isn’t to say that there aren’t hundreds, er, tens of those writers who believe their work isn’t hilarious.”
It still wasn’t making sense.
“Really, humor is subjective,” I said. “I’ve watched sitcoms and I’ve heard the laughter. I’m not speaking about the canned laughter. Someone must find these shows funny.”
“Those forced laughs come from staff writers and producers and are heard above the laugh tracks only as cues to the audience to give their material a chance even though they may be, and probably are, obvious, tedious and boring. In some cases, it works. Hence the phenomenal success of King Of Queens.
“When – and there are certainly whens –there was a hint of good writing, those writers were told that it would be better for them if they ceased and desisted. Those who were deemed too difficult or talented to control, were shipped off to animation or cable where those in charge expected that the incorrigibles would die or end up in a fetal position writing questions for the Game Show Network.
“Unforeseen by those in charge was what became to be known as the ‘80s Animation Revelation where writers integrated two seemingly incompatible protocols to create a wholly new system, analogous to putting pineapple on pizza: adult cartoons. That’s how we got The Simpsons, which came from the planting of Matt Groening’s gifted semen deep into Tracey Ullman’s programming uterus. Then there’s South Park, a cartoon that allowed toddlers to curse by not permitting anyone over eighteen to understand the character’s apparent mumblings. Family Guy was a program that the networks didn’t even realize was animated until the third season.”
It was almost too much to digest. Family Guy was a cartoon?
“But why would television and the powers in charge want to put out garbage? It makes no sense.”
Lewis glanced about checking for network interlopers, then leaned in.
“The walls have ears,” he said.
“We’re outside. There are no walls.”
“Television has made a concerted effort to dumb down America.”
“Wow. Television isn’t interested in benefiting humanity?”
“Power eliminates the need for reason.”
“You’re saying that there are people so powerful they don’t think they need to explain their actions, no matter how asinine, unscrupulous and horrid the means to an end?”
“We’re talking government here, right?
“I wasn’t, but you’re on the right track. Only government doesn’t actually run the government. It’s a front for those really in power.”
“Unfucking believable,” I said. “But what does all this have to do with Larry David’s disappearance?”
Lewis took a deep breath and checked again for eavesdroppers. His eyes darkened.
“Do you remember the missing twenty-two minutes from the Nixon tapes?” he asked.
“You mean eighteen minutes.”
Lewis smiled and slowly shook his head, then mouthed…
“I can only tell you that the so-called eighteen minutes missing from the tape were actually twenty-two minutes.”
Just then, searing screams erupted from the writers’ tables around us. I thought for sure someone had pitched a clip show in the first year of a series. I turned back to Lewis, but he had disappeared as if thin air had fattened itself on his existence, or some other magnificently clumsy metaphor.
“Brooks is gone!” sobbed a distraught playwright.
“Mel Brooks?” I asked.
“No, not Mel,” cried another unemployed writer.
“Albert Brooks,” I wondered, even though I was well aware his actual last name was Einstein.
“No, not Albert,” chided another dramatist.
“James Brooks is gone!” shrieked a scripted who thankfully thought to reveal the both first and surname, clearing up any further confusion as to who had disappeared.
“The famed film and television writer and creator of Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Rhoda and lest not we forget the brilliant film Broadcast News and a not so brilliant My Mother The Car episode.
“I just pitched him a new series idea,” groaned a writer. “Brooks said he was pretty sure he might consider developing it but had yet to show it to anyone else. And there was no paper trail,” wailed the petty opportunist. “No paper trail at all.”
How come my agent didn’t notify me that Brooks was taking pitches? Damn. Still, James Brooks. Gone. That was unexpected. I grabbed the first person who had brought the grave news.
“He was driving his DeLorean off the Pacific Coast Highway. And then he wasn’t,” said the red-eyed scribe. “Can you imagine that?”
No, I actually couldn’t. It was known to most everyone in the industry that Brooks never stepped into an automobile. He never ventured within fifty feet of a car, made all the more difficult by the fact that he spent his teen years as a member of A.J. Foyt’s pit crew. As years went on, Brooks would be ferried about by an actual ferry, forcing him to set up most of his projects near deep-water wharfs. This car-affiliated close encounter seemed incredibly suspicious, yet it was reported on the Internet and quickly inserted into his Wikipedia page, so it’s not like anybody could really question it.
Even more suspicious, two of Hollywood’s most successful and brilliant comedy writers had disappeared within twenty-four hours of one another.
“Are you Steve?”
Ah, I thought, someone actually recognized me from my extra’s gig on Roseanne years before.
“Why, yes. Yes, I am.”
“Please come with me.”
My fan was actually a member of the Beverly Hills Celebrity Task Force (BHCTF), the elite police corps developed especially to track down crimes against wealthy personalities. Not that celebs can’t protect themselves as much as they are really very busy with more important things, whatever those are.
“This won’t take long,” said the BHCTF officer, who was a tall leggy brunette with a body that wouldn’t quit.
“What is this about?” I asked.
“It will all be explained downtown,” said her even more gorgeous partner.
“I have no idea what happened to Brooks,” I said.
“Omigod! Mel Brooks died?!” screamed the first officer.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season