Book excerpt from the Monty Python legend: a wisecracking, ambitious and horny film/TV comedian goes to a pitch meeting. 4,096 words. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Los Angeles – January 2003
My name is Stanley Hay and I’m a professional writer. I write movies, I write sitcoms, and I write gags for TV shows. You may have heard some of them. “I believe in the separation of Church and Planet.” That was mine. Caused quite a stir. I don’t mean to cause trouble. It just seems to be what I do best. I make a pretty decent living writing and rewriting, but I have always wanted to write a novel, and this year, in January 2003, I decided it was time.
It didn’t quite turn out the way I’d planned.
Steve Martin says that the problem with fiction is you’ll be happily reading a book, and all of a sudden it turns into a novel. You should hear the way he says that. “It goes all novelly.” He’s a hoot, Steve. He cracks me up. It’s the way he says things. “Alllll novelly.” But it’s true isn’t it? That is the problem with novels. They are so palpably fiction. Maybe we’re a bit sick of plots with stories and characters, the usual bull. Oh she’s going to end up in bed with him. He’s going to do it with her. They’re all going to run away and join the navy … After all we’ve been reading books for centuries and watching movies and TV for years, and we’ve sat through hundreds and thousands of tales by the time we’re adults, so we know all about plot twists, and sudden reversals of fortune, and peripeteia and all that Aristotelian shit they cram into you at college. But real life doesn’t have a plot, does it? It just kinda rambles on.
So that’s what I set out to write. A reality novel. A novel about a Hollywood writer who is writing a novel about a Hollywood writer writing a novel about Hollywood.
Wait, it’s more than that. I did that just to make you laugh. I am a gag writer. I can never resist a cheap laugh. It has cost me dearly.
I’m calling my novel The Writer’s Cut. It’s a Post Ironic title, because it’s something you’re never going to see. No one ever releases a movie that is the Writer’s cut. They’d sooner put out the Caterers’ cut or the Craft Services’ cut, or the Valet Parkers’ cut. We’re in the Post Ironic age. With Reality TV we have gone way beyond irony. Same with politics.
The Writer’s Cut is going to be very contemporary, in structure, in style and in content, with heavy sex scenes, natch, because that’s what sells today. I am going to put myself in my novel of course. That’s what people do these days. Like everyone else I want to be a star. I want to be on television and hold up the cover of my book. Why not? Some people want to climb Mount Everest, some people want to dress up as chickens and wrestle. It’s all good in the Post Ironic age.
It isn’t going to be a long book. Long books are over. Long books don’t sell. We live in the age of the sound bite. Short, sharp, bittersweet. It’s a tittle-tattle tale of life on the streets and between the sheets of Hollywood, with lots of sex and stars. Quite scandalous in fact. I’m taking one or two liberties with the truth, of course, because a writer’s life isn’t that interesting.
Got up. Wrote. Had a crap. Wrote. Went back to bed. Got up. Wrote. Had a headache. Couldn’t think of anything. Drank.
Actually a writer’s life isn’t at all interesting, though I did once get my girlfriend Tish to pose naked for me while I was writing. Why should only painters have nude models, right? I figured a writer’s model might help me write something extraordinary. So Tish slipped off all her clothes and laid her long beautiful body back on a sofa while I turned on my laptop.
I got nothing written.
I guess painters have more discipline.
I’ve always found writing a very erotic experience.
That and sex.
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Gag writer, right?
“You have a gag reflex,” Tish said to me once, and I made a rude joke about her gag reflex when she was giving me head.
“One swallow does not a summer make.”
She was very pissed off at me. Tish hates comedy. Well mine anyway. She just can’t laugh at herself. I didn’t get sex for days.
My English College Professor taught me everything I know about writing. That, and how to successfully manipulate the clitoris. Obviously she wasn’t your classic English College Professor. She was blonde and built like a Playboy model and lectured in Shakespeare and Yoga at the University of Santa Barbara. During my Senior year she taught me one or two things about writing, and a hell of a lot more about the clitoris. She gave me an A, but I think it was more for effort than for my skills at love or literature. She was very funny though and we used to share literary jokes in bed.
“What do you call intellectuals who write porn?”
“Did you hear about the dyslexic English professor?”
“Yes, she had a Yeats infection.”
“What do you call Beethoven’s 69th?”
“The Past Oral symphony.”
You can see why I drifted into comedy writing.
By the way is it just me or have you noticed just how much sex there is all around us these days? TV, advertising, movies, magazines. It’s a pornucopia. The Victoria’s Secret catalogue that comes through my door each month is virtually sexual harassment. I should probably cancel it. I don’t use that much women’s underwear. I sit in the hairdresser’s and read women’s magazines that make me blush.
How to find the perineum. (I thought that was a London Club.)
Where to put your tongue to drive him wild. (How about in your cheek?)
Anal Sex: when should you let him try the back door? (When he forgets his key?)
All this between totally pornographic ads for underwear and samples of exciting new scents. I get a boner at the hairdressers just reading all this shit. And yet we’re so used to it. Nobody turns a pubic hair.
The main thrust of my book (sadly the pun is intended) will be the sexual confessions of a Hollywood writer. It’s a thinly disguised attack on myself, penile warts and all. A male kiss-and-tell book, with a strong emphasis on innuendo, lubricious tales from the Hollywood hills, garnered from the boastful anecdotes of my friends, spruced up with highly exaggerated scenes from the years I spent bonking actresses. I aim to name as many of these famous ladies as the lawyers will permit, with strong hints as to the identity of several others. For example I can suggest I spent a weekend in bed with Jennifer, Kate, Kirsten, Cameron and Daryl without ever having to assert it directly. It’s all totally deniable gossip. And totally commercial. Pretty low, I know, but, hey, fame is the new novel.
I think it’s a killer idea.
I got it while driving to the Valley for a meeting about meeting someone about setting a meeting. They have an idea for a concept and they need a writer (me) to tell them what that idea is. That’s what we do here in Hollywood. We go to meetings and listen to people yelling. If you ask me everyone’s angry all the time in Hollywood. A mixture of repressed rage, thwarted ambition and too much caffeine. You see them in their cars, waving their arms around, screaming and shouting into their cell phones.
“Screw him. Asshole. Fuck him!”
It’s a wonder anyone gets to work alive.
Today I’m driving to a pitch meeting at Mercy Champion.
Mercy Champion own several of the nicest dressed and highest grossing comedies on television.
I have no idea what I’m pitching.
I was supposed to meet Sam at ten at The Office, which is what we call the deli in West Hollywood where we meet for breakfast to bullshit for an hour before we start writing bullshit professionally. Sam is my partner, a carrot-haired comic who looks like a woolly lollipop. His hair is shaggy like a rusty sheep. He has so much hair he could give Donald Trump a transplant and still have enough left over to knit a nasty sweater. He affects trendy horn-rimmed glasses (Tom Ford knockoffs) and is slight of build, but funny as hell. We are currently working on a highly paid rewrite of a truly awful screenplay for Mickey Mikado at Disney, which is due in, like, yesterday. Frog Me is a piece of shit about a couple of kids on campus who accidentally get turned into frogs in the science lab. They have to find a Jewish American Princess who will kiss them to turn back into … well you get the picture. It’s yuk-making crap but hey it starts shooting in ten days and it pays really well. Unfortunately, Morty calls at nine to say he has set a meeting at Mercy Champion and I had better be there or start looking for new representation.
Morty is my agent. He lives in a box at the William Morris agency. On the phone day and night. SuperJew, he calls himself. I’m pretty sure he stole that line from Lenny Bruce. He’s always on at me to work in shit com, but I want him to sell my novel.
“Your novel? Jesus H. Kerist, you’re writing a novel? What the fuck for?”
I tell him my idea for The Writer’s Cut.
Morty hates it.
“A Hollywood novel. We need another one of those like Wolfgang Puck needs another pizza. Who’s gonna read a fuckin’ book about writers? Nobody. Who gives a fuck about writers? Nobody. Let me tell you about writers. They’re a dime a dozen.”
Morty is a writers’ agent.
Post Ironic eh?
I call him Agent Orange because he ruins so many lives. Though not to his face.
I need him.
“The guy who parks my car is more use than a frigging writer. Why? I tell you why? Because nobody in this town reads. When they say they’ve read your script they’re lying. They don’t have time. They’ve read the coverage. If you’re lucky.”
Coverage is the local term for précis, short summaries of movie scripts written by people who can’t even get jobs as writers, and are paid to read the endless tsunami of scripts that flood on to the desks of movie executives. People get coverage on a treatment. A guy I know at Disney gets coverage on his e-mail.
“A novel? Don’t pull my schlong. It’s a big fucking waste of time. Develop the sitcom. That’s where the money is. Fucking books,” he says.
I tell him I think it would make a great movie and amazingly he doesn’t hang up. He grumbles a bit about how books are on their way out and how this is 2003 and there won’t even be any bookshops left in ten years. But I can tell he likes the idea of selling the movie.
“Is it finished?”
“You want to read it?”
“Hell no. Send me coverage.”
I promise he’ll have it by tomorrow.
“I’ll make a few calls." says Morty. "And the sitcom?”
I promise him I’ll be at the meeting.
“And be nice, Stanley. Mercy Champion actually like your idea. It’s in the Valley. At ten. Don’t be late.”
Morty makes it sound like the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The Valley of the Shadow of Debt is more accurate, since I have just spent five grand on repairs to my beautiful Corvette.
I forget to ask him what I am supposed to be pitching.
Mercy Brent and Dennis Champion are the self-proclaimed “Kings of Komedy.” It says so on the door of their influential bungalow on the CBS Radford lot from where they control an empire of sitcoms filled with nice people being nice to each other. Yuck. But I am scared of losing Morty. And definitely more scared of him than Sam. I’m scared of Micky Mikado too because he is a notoriously intemperate man. When he gets mad he beats his leather armchair with a riding crop. Plus his brother owns a hotel in Vegas which tells you more than enough about his family. You definitely don’t want to keep him waiting. Not if you fancy keeping your legs. He wanted the rewrite by yesterday, but I have to blow Sam off to take this meeting at Mercy Champion. I can’t afford to try and find another agent.
My partner is not pleased to hear I’m not going to make it to work today because I have to go to the dentist.
“Are you lying?” he says.
“Sam …” I say in a hurt tone, “would I lie to you?”
“Mickey Mikado wants to come over and see how we’re doing.”
“Tell him hi,” I say.
“Can’t it wait?”
“Sam, it hurts me to speak.”
“Not as much as it hurts me to listen,” says Sam. He has an acute built-in bullshit detector.
“Mickey Mikado is going to be really pissed if you’re not here,” he says. “We promised him the polish Tuesday and it’s Friday already.”
“Screw him,” I say, which is LA talk for “Please call him and apologize.”
“I’ll see if I can get them to push the deadline,” he says. “But they’re shooting this sucker in ten days.”
“Tell the actors to just make up the words.”
“That’s what they do anyway.”
This is a ritual writers joke. We use it to end phone conversations.
It’s a slow ride over Laurel Canyon. It’s only a short distance, but all the executives from the Studios in the Valley are going to meetings in Beverly Hills and all the agents from Beverly Hills are going for meetings at the Studios in the Valley, so traffic is at a standstill. I take a shortcut over Mount Olympus. It’s a beautiful day in LA. It’s early January and the Santa Anas are blowing. The light is vibrant, the atmosphere sparkling and the sky is a crystal clear cobalt. No wonder people move here.
The mountains have a light sprinkling of snow. You can only see them at this time of year when the winds blow all the car shit out past Pasadena. Climbing over Mount Olympus I can see the graph of downtown LA sparkling in the sunlight. Once over Mulholland you can see for miles, endless ridges of receding hills leading towards Santa Barbara, and it’s clearer than I’ve ever seen it. That’s what I love about LA. The weather and the dress code. I’m wearing sneakers and a tee shirt to an important pitch meeting.
It’s at this meeting on the CBS Radford lot that I have my brilliant idea. It’s nothing to do with the sitcom I’m supposed to be meeting about. It’s so brilliant and so simple that I panic for a minute that it must have been done already. But I don’t think it has. I’m practically certain it’s a genuine A1 original idea.
I get my drive-on and am waved by a uniformed guard into an impressive slot next to some seriously expensive vehicles. These shiny symbols belong to the cast of a really high paying sitcom that shoots on the lot. Some of their owners are pulling in more than a million dollars a week, and they’re given these cars for nothing. Sickening.
I can hardly wait to join them.
The people I’m meeting with have rented a small but beautiful bungalow which sits alongside an enormous concrete bunker. Everything about the bungalow screams art director, from its wooden steps, to its fresh yellow paintwork, its flapping canary curtains and its bright red geraniums in painted pots. The bunker next door calls itself Studio Ten and there is a sad poster for Survivor Two clinging to its faded exterior.
Mercy Champion are running late of course. If you’re not running late in Hollywood it means nobody wants you. This gives me a chance to catch up on the trades and ogle the secretaries. There’s a real humdinger in a tight white dress playing Free Cell on a computer. She looks bored. From time to time she looks up and tells me they’re still running late.
I don’t mind. I could stare at her all morning.
“Can I get you something?” she asks.
I can think of about a hundred and fifty things, but settle for a small Perrier.
After another thirty minutes the door opens and Ellen DeGeneres comes out. She doesn’t look at me, but she has a nice little confident smile on her face.
I can tell right away they are pleased to have had her and they are very pleased I saw her leaving. They are all incredibly cheerful. I’m getting a secondhand celebrity glow.
The interior office looks like somebody’s living room with way too much furniture. Half a dozen people are perched on the sides of couches or have scrunched together on thick leather chairs. We’re here to discuss my sitcom but we talk about Ellen for a while and how well respected she is, and how well liked. Nobody seems very keen to bring up my project.
I am what is technically called “in development”, which is like “writing” except you don’t do any actual writing. You attend meetings and listen to people who don’t write tell you what it will be like when you have written it.
“It will be hard edged, and yet with a soft touch.”
“It is going to be very funny without ever losing the sympathy of the audience.”
“It will be engaging, and modern, and yet tender under the surface, but at the same time, hilarious.” That sort of thing.
I keep smiling while their lips move. I’m not an angry guy but there is only so much I can take of “the studio are looking for a very hip, original, series” while realizing they are defining a very dumb, second-hand, show.
“We believe in Sitcom dot com,” says Mercy with all the conviction of a nun.
Ding. Of course. Now I remember. I came up with a “concept” provisionally titled Sitcom dot com about a group of young cappuccino drinking twenty year olds trying to create a sitcom on the Internet.
“It’s very new and very hip,” says Mercy.
“It’ll be positioned for the new young,” says Champion.
“Did the old young die already?” I say before I even think.
They stare at me.
“Sorry,” I say. “Joke.”
Oh. They begin to laugh immoderately. Like Woody Allen just said something. It’s embarrassing. But they need to believe I’m funny so I look suitably modest as they roll around the couches reassuring themselves I am really hilarious.
“You are so in tune with us,” says Mercy.
“So today,” says Champion.
Mercy nods enthusiastically. “Sitcom is about young people exchanging smart one-liners.”
Actually they and I know full well it’s about advertising; keeping the suckers tuned in between commercials. That’s all. Dousing them with nice girls with nice tits saying nice lines to dumb guys in tight jeans.
They show me pictures of some girls they have lined up to test for the Pilot they are anxious for me to write, the minute we have a deal. They might as well call it a Titcom. Or Thanks For The Mammaries. They assure me that all the girls, as well as being drop-dead gorgeous, are also very funny. They tell me how keen they are on this project, how much they are looking forward to working with me, how we are all going to make an incredible amount of money, and how it’s going to be “a lot of fun.” This is my cue to leave, so I rise and shake hands and thank them as sincerely as I can. I’m hoping to God someone will steal the idea before I have to write it. Not an unrealistic hope by the way, Hollywood being as leaky as a cheap tent. It’s the agents, and the lawyers. They lunch, they talk, they swap tales of concepts in development. Next thing you know some other schmuck announces it as his idea. It doesn’t matter. They only steal shit.
It’s while I’m driving off the lot that it suddenly hits me. My brilliant idea.
Ellen should be in my book.
And not just Ellen.
Lots of celebrities. Real people.
My novel is going to have stars.
After my super good really brilliant idea I’m feeling so happy I’m singing in my car. I’m driving straight home to start work on my book, the first novel with Stars.
I live in a tiny house wedged on a hill at the back of Sunset and I’m coming down Laurel Canyon singing Joni Mitchell when Sam calls. I’m feeling so pleased with myself I forget I was supposed to be at the dentist and tell him I just had a very successful pitch meeting with Mercy Champion.
He’s not happy.
“You can’t even lie well,” he says.
“I got the gig” I say. “That’s incontrovertible evidence I can lie well.”
“You told me you were in pain.”
“I was. You should have seen the receptionist.”
“This isn’t funny, Stanley. Micky Mikado is furious. He’s going ballistic. He’s threatening not to pay for the rewrite!”
That’s low. Not paying for the rewrite we haven’t done yet. I offer to bring Sam into the Mercy Champion deal but I can tell he’s not happy with that.
I can tell he’s not happy with that because he hangs up.
Unfortunate. But I have a book to write and nothing will stand in my way. Not even a nice glass of Chablis at Dominick’s, which I am very tempted to sample as a reward for a successful pitch. Dominick’s is my spiritual home. It’s a private bar opposite Cedars-Sinai, the gigantic Hospital where the stars get their scars. It’s a low structure with two rooms, the main room wooden with lots of retro booths and a bar, and across the yard a Games room where people take cocaine, solicit blowjobs and get totally hammered.
The house signature gag is: What’s the difference between Dominick’s and the Titanic? More people went down in Dominick’s …
It’s been a legendary center of bad behavior since the Forties. It was a favorite watering hole of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Only friends of friends can drink and dine at this exclusive Hollywood hideout. A lot of Rotters hang out there. That’s what they call themselves. Bad boys all. And of course they attract the sort of girls who like Bad Boys. Surely a quick drink with Giler or Tiny Naylor won’t hurt. But no, I must be disciplined. Tolstoy didn’t get where he was by popping off for a glass of Chablis instead of writing. Nothing good was ever done without discipline, so home is the hero, and on with the writing.
I’m half way along Sunset when Morty calls.
“So what did you do, blow them?”
“Mercy Champion love you. You made them hot. Did you slip Viagra in their coffee? Stanley they are so hot for you it was like phone sex.”
Did I blush? No. Hollywood is a shame-free zone.
“They want to make a deal for a pilot. And by the way, kiddo, Pangloss are interested in your book.”
“My book? You’re kidding.”
“I made a couple of calls. Pangloss are very interested. A little bird told me they’re in trouble. They have a big hole in their summer list. Some asshole writer failed to deliver and they’re desperately looking for a Beach book.”
“You know … a Beach book. The book that everyone in the Hamptons is seen reading in the summer. A vacation read. It is ready, right?”
“Absolutely. Do you want to read it?”
“Fuck no. I already told them I have Sonny Mehta desperate to buy it. But I said they could have first shot if they move quickly.”
“Richard Hume will meet you for lunch tomorrow at Le Dome. He’s in from New York for a screening. They think you’re the answer to their prayers. Better clinch this now, Stanley.”
Dear God. I’m going to be a novelist.
This book excerpt first posted here on February 18, 2016.