The unemployed TV writer joked about the most depraved series ever for a black kid. Uh-oh. 3,254 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Eric Ornstill was imparting phony inside tidbits about Tom Cruise during another of his tours to the homes of the stars when the name of his former agent, who’d fired him a few months earlier, lit up on his phone. Eric jerked the van to the side of the street and informed his tourists he was about to present them with a very special treat: a conversation between a habitually unemployed TV comedy writer and a bona fide Hollywood dealmaker. He tapped the speaker icon on his cracked iPhone 4 and turned to face his confused passengers.
“Denny?” Eric asked, trying to mask his incredulity.
“Network’s got a show for some kid under contract,” said the agent. “Want to meet him?”
A few hours later, Eric called Denny and reported on his meeting with the talent and the talent’s manager.
“I sat in the Yum Yum Donuts at Melrose and Highland, with an African-American woman and her son, the star of the series, a somnambulant 5-foot-8, 286-pound 12-year-old who occupied the two chairs opposite. The mother didn’t pitch me a premise, she pitched a bunch of fat jokes while her son never took his eyes off his cell phone and consumed the contents of a box of Boston creams. It was clear to me that this grotesque excuse for a parent considers it in her interest – and, yes, in her son’s interest – that the kid remains morbidly obese for at least as long as it takes to produce a hundred episodes of the piece of shit she pitched me, if he lives that long.”
“And you nodded and smiled, right?”
Eric had remembered a cautionary tale about a writer who interviewed for a job on Full House decades earlier. The showrunner had proudly told the prospective staffer, “You know, the show was once on in a hospital room and it woke a kid up from a coma.” And the writer responded, “But how many kids did it put into a coma?” The writer had been subsequently obliged to seek employment elsewhere.
“I’ve been driving tourists past Pat Sajak’s lawn,” Eric said. “Of course I nodded and smiled. Now let me ask you something – why me?”
“You belong to Black Lives Matter. Finally you get something for being a decent guy.”
“What’s wrong with an actual black person?”
“Two separate black producers told her that her show would make Amos ‘n Andy look like Roots.”
“But that won’t bother the decent white guy.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Eric. You’d be running the thing, no assholes rewriting you. It’s a huge bump, brand new network, even if the show’s a dog it gets you back in the game. Now, for all we know there are other liberal white guys she’s meeting with—” Pause. “Hold on, it’s them,” Denny said, and Eric found himself enduring an auto-tuned pop singer, undoubtedly a client of the agency, for thirty seconds, then a minute, then two minutes.
After what was at least five minutes Denny came back on the line. “Did you pitch the mother a new premise?” the agent asked.
“Of course not.”
“That’s not what Rob Davidoff at the network just told me.”
“I joked around. The woman wasn’t horrible, actually, except for the killing her son stuff.”
“So Davidoff’s making it up?”
Eric retraced his steps, finding his agent’s patient silence unnerving. Finally the writer said, “I did make a joke about the most depraved series I could think of for a black kid. Why, was she offended?”
“She wasn’t offended,” said Denny.
His mouth dry, Eric sucked down the last of his bottle of water and leaned back on the couch in the office of Rob Davidoff, head of programming for the nascent RiffRaff Network. This was a new experience, and disorienting; Eric wasn’t trying to sell the exec, the exec was trying to sell him. By simply showing up, Eric, a perpetual lackey, had sold his first original television series. Were he there to discuss any other show it would have been the triumphant moment of his career.
“We want to stand out proudly as the brand of the masses,” Davidoff said.
“They brag about their ignorance,” said the younger man whose name Eric had forgotten and whom he had dubbed The Toady.
“Fucking millions of them. They don’t want to be educated.”
“Reach for the sky,” Eric said. He was so repelled by his premise for the obese black kid that the writer was succeeding at something he’d always wanted to do in a meeting but had never had the balls for: pretending he didn’t care.
The programming head took Eric’s jape as approval of his network’s mandate. “They almost named us The LCD,” he grinned.
“‘Lowest Common Denominator’,” said his second.
“But ‘denominator’ was too big a word?” said Eric.
Both execs cackled. “Told you we had the right guy,” said Davidoff, beaming at his subordinate.
The panic Eric felt reminded him that unless he could summon the courage to call his agent before being fully seduced by money and a title, he would actually have to write and produce this show. And see his name on it and, when his three-year-old son Ryder grew up, see his son see his name on it.
“We intend,” the programming head continued, “to hook every viewer in this country who feels angry and excluded, without concern for race, creed or color. In other words, urban and rural markets.”
“African-Americans and racists,” said The Toady. “How’s that for diversity?”
Eric flashed on the scene in The Road Warrior where the character named The Toady tries to catch a boomerang and gets his fingers shorn off.
“We have shows we’re thrilled about but jack shit for urban, until now,” said Davidoff. “They’ll love this show or they’ll hate it – but they will watch. Because you, my friend” – here the exec pointed munificently toward Eric – “are a sick fucking genius.”
The execs paused to let the compliment sink in. Who’s the toady now, Eric thought. He twisted open another bottle of water and wondered what he’d wear on the dock at The Hague.
“We’re putting this on the fast track,” Rob Davidoff said. “How soon can we see a full premise?”
Eric declined to answer. “Can I ask you one question?” he said.
“Whoever heard of a morbidly obese slave?”
“Are you kidding?” said the head of programming. “That makes it funnier.”
Eric was able to handle driving tours to the stars’ homes. Make shit up about celebrities, tell jokes, show the tourists a good time. It wasn’t serious work and he knew it. But writing was what he put his soul into. Now he knew what his soul was worth: the fees for writing and producing the pilot and, potentially and most horribly, three years of episodes of a situation comedy set in the antebellum South that he was tentatively calling Fat Caesar.
Fat Caesar. And what about the exploitation of a doleful behemoth on the verge of manhood? Eric decided to proceed with developing the series and writing the pilot without meeting again with its lead actor. He knew more about the kid than he needed or wanted.
Eric had the show’s main characters within ten minutes of opening his laptop. Caesar would be a mischievous field slave, a wiseass modeled on Colonel Hogan, Hawkeye Pierce and so many other characters at the center of TV comedies. Caesar’s mother would be the master’s cook, a genius in the kitchen, outrageously subservient around the white man but a fount of homespun wisdom and sassy humor amongst her fellow slaves. The master, the owner of a small but prosperous plantation, would be a pompous knucklehead modeled on Colonel Klink, prey to manipulation and flattery by his human property. Maybe he’s the fat kid’s biological father, Caesar was light-skinned enough for it to be believable; Eric could mine jokes from the mystery and play it out the as long as he needed to. There’d be a girl Caesar’s age who served at table and whom the mother loathed for her wild proto-feminist ideas and for what she incorrectly perceived as the girl’s designs on her son. Stories would center on Caesar’s successful intrigues to subvert his white masters, his eternally abortive efforts to romance the girl and, of course, his constant attempts to cadge food.
Rob Davidoff was particularly thrilled that Eric had an original take for a premise, secretly not sold on the green and unproven Ornstill. Rob had worried the network might have to buy the rights to 12 Years A Slave.
Pamela, the actor’s real-life mother and an Executive Producer on the sitcom like Eric, loved it all but insisted on just one change: the addition of a role for her younger son, Kianthony. Eric saw that the kid in the photo was skinny so, in the tradition of Laurel & Hardy/Abbott & Costello/Gleason & Carney, he’d be a natural comic sidekick for his fat brother even if neither could act.
As Eric began the first draft of his pilot, he recalled something from a Jewish History class in college. Didn’t Sabbatai Svi, hailed in the 17th Century as the Mystical Messiah, convert to Islam and maintain that his apostasy was part of a “messianic scheme” — that he had to descend into the deepest darkness in order to be able to later ascend into a light ever so much brighter than the sun? Wasn’t Eric, in creating the vilest TV show his imagination could summon, similarly positioning himself to use the immense leverage he’d gain from creating a hit series to later come up with a show that would inspire Americans and bring out the best in them, thereby achieving for himself a glorious redemption?
Eric nearly wept onto his keyboard when he understood he was indulging in an unprecedented level of horseshit. He was shaming himself and befouling the culture, pure and simple.
The script came quickly and easily. The network was exultant and had only minor notes. Eric was acing this test. He would be able to pay the fearsome medical bills for his incapacitated wife and sick child. Eric couldn’t sleep. Because he had enjoyed writing the pilot script of a sitcom based in an American slave labor camp more than anything else he’d ever written in his life.
The day of the table read approached. A cast of desperate unknowns had been hired, and a staff of the terminally out-of-work. Eric would also need help with revisions, a necessity at this stage for any TV comedy. He fasted for a day before calling his friend and former colleague James Parnell, a once-ascendant writer/producer who’d been rendered unemployable by psycho-pharmaceutical challenges.
“So,” James told Eric, “you need a black former crackhead to give you cover when the NAACP, the SCLC, SNCC, CORE and the Anti-Defamation League come down on your ass because you’re doing a sitcom about slaves picking cotton?”
“There are house Negroes, too.”
“Oh, house Negroes, you talked me into it.”
Eric did talk James into it by 1) encouraging him to use a pseudonym. (“So I’ll be an anonymous disgrace to my race.”), 2) dangling the possibility of a Co-Executive Producer credit with commensurate salary if the show were to advance to series, and 3) making a personal appeal that James found disturbing in its quality of acute self-abasement.
All gathered in a large drab rehearsal hall with white walls and a concrete floor. Staff and cast, hopeful for five years of employment despite what most accepted to be a moral outrage of a show, filled plates with breakfast foods and sipped hot coffee. Scripts with bright red covers were positioned like placemats around a long rectangular table. All chairs were empty save the two occupied by the lead actor, his head bowed forward, immersed in his electronic device and a bagel with cream cheese.
Eric, standing with an untouched plate of fruit, regarded the kid. James, in sunglasses and a prosthetic nose, sucked down his third cup of coffee. “I’m gonna talk to him,” Eric said to James, and idled nervously toward his lead actor and sat down.
“Morning, Daq,” said Eric, Daq being short for D’Aquarrius. He gestured toward the kid’s device and asked, “What’re you playing?”
“It’s a Kindle,” Daq said without looking up. His voiced hadn’t changed yet and its high pitch mocked the enormous mass of his body. The notion that the combination was funny intruded on Eric’s surprise that the boy was reading a book.
“What book?” Eric asked.
“Folks, let’s gather, please!” interrupted the director, a gambling addict who’d recently lost everything on a sure thing at the race track. Eric patted Daq on the back and shuffled toward the other side of the table, facing the kid. Daq still hadn’t looked up. The cast took their seats, flanking their lead actor. James, Pamela and the network suits sat across from them with the showrunner.
Rob Davidoff stood, introduced himself, and spoke of his network’s confidence that Fat Caesar would become their signature series and, with the laughter it would generate, help unite a divided nation. Pamela got a laugh by telling the group, “We’re doing this for black pride – and green money.” The director asked Eric if he wanted to say anything. Eric smiled and thanked everyone for coming and, in advance, for their hard work.
“Okay!” said the director, then read aloud from his script. “‘Fat Caesar, Episode 101, Brown Sugar. Act 1, Scene A. Exterior, a Cotton Field, Day. We’re in 1793 Mississippi, where Eli Whitney’s recent invention of the cotton gin has greatly increased the demand for slave labor. And the first federal slave law was just passed, requiring the return of slaves who had escaped and crossed state lines. In other words, the heat is on.’”
The director’s reading of the last line earned a few hopeful chuckles. He continued.
“‘ISAAC sweats profusely as he strains to pick handfuls of cotton and throw them into a sack. PAN to CAESAR, sitting nearby, who licks his fingers then lies back on the ground contentedly.’”
Daq’s little brother Kianthony, as Isaac, picked up the dialogue.
“‘Caesar, how come I do all the work and you get all the food?’”
Daq read, “’You should be thankin’ me, Isaac. For the good book sayeth: ‘Blessed are the hungry, for they shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”
A nice laugh from the table.
“’And lookin’ at your skinny butt,’” said Daq, “’I’d say you already halfway there.’”
Big laughs from cast and staff.
Eric and James eyed each other, both taken aback. They both knew that the average kid actor, especially in sitcoms, was adequate at best, able to deliver jokes and indicate emotions without moving the viewer to feel them themselves. After hearing the first few exchanges of Fat Caesar dialogue, they also knew that D’Aquarrius Brown was special, having the rare ability not only to make jokes funnier but to imbue them with emotional authenticity, with what Eric thought of, warily, as soul.
Daq broke character. “I thought I could do it but I can’t!” he cried. “I can’t do it, Ma! I can’t play a funny slave!”
The kid barely held back tears.
“We’ve been through this, D’Aquarrius,” said Pamela from across the table. “You’ll be whuppin’ the master’s butt every single show.”
“That’s not the point!”
Were he 150 pounds lighter, Daq would have leapt from his chair and raced out of the hall. As it was, he laboriously strained at the knees and pushed off the table with his hands until he was on his feet, then lumbered as quickly as he could to the door and ran out.
Eric noted that Daq’s movement, even under the circumstances, was not unfunny. The showruner stood to follow but Pamela was already halfway there. “I’ll deal with this,” she said, and went out the door.
“Take a break,” the director told the group. “But stay in the hall.”
Some sat, some milled. Concerned conversations ensued. James went for a fourth cup of coffee and Eric meandered toward Daq’s empty seats. The kid’s unfinished bagel waited near the Kindle.
Eric picked up the Kindle and scanned the screen. “‘Why is the American Black man so complacent about being trampled upon,” he read silently. “Why doesn’t the American Black man fight to be a human being?”
“What’s he reading?” asked James.
Eric placed the device back down and regarded James’s glasses and fake nose. “If you’re trying to look like black Groucho,” Eric said, “add a fucking mustache.” James waited. “Autobiography Of Malcolm X.”
The door opened and D’Aquarrius walked in, followed by his mother. No sign of tears. Daq declared. “I’m good, let’s GO.” The Fat Caesar cast and staff watched him amble to his seats and sit back down.
“From the top, folks!” the director announced.
James wanted to help but Eric insisted on making the first pass at the rewrite by himself. He told his assistant he was not to be disturbed. He shut his door, turned off his cell phone and sat at his desk. He was changing the premise. Caesar, the wiseass, would be played by Kianthony. Daq’s character was now Abraham, a good-natured jelly-bellied innocent in the Gomer Pyle mode, doing his best to get along with both slave and master. Or was he?
In the last act Eric revealed Abraham’s naïve bearing to be a brilliant ruse. The kid had been playing a role, ingratiating himself with his white masters until his owner, trusting him, sent him on his first errand to town. The young slave instead disappears into the nearby woods to take his chances with the fugitive slave laws by heading north to freedom and out of the series. Back on the plantation, Kianthony’s Caesar continues to subvert his white masters and precociously and comically romance the serving girl. Eric changed the title to Little Caesar and told his assistant to electronically distribute the new draft and print out hard copies for tomorrow’s rehearsal.
Deeply satisfied, Eric treated himself to a Kit Kat, a king size for a change. He was freeing a kid who needed to be freed. And with Daq’s father out of the picture, maybe Eric could find a way to mentor Him, discuss his reading with him, give him a different perspective on the civil rights movement. Jews and blacks had their differences, but they also had a long tradition of working together for worthy causes.
An hour later, Eric was lying on his couch discussing the benefits of cocaine addiction with James when a call came in from the network. Rob Davidoff told Eric he was sympathetic to his concern for D’Aquarrius but unless Eric himself wanted to pay off the two-year $400,000 contract of a 12-year-old with actual talent, tomorrow they’d be rehearsing the pilot episode of Fat, not Little, Caesar. By the way, Rob thought the read went great and was even more certain the pilot would be the new network’s foundational show for years to come.
Eric called his agent, who told him that yes, the TV writer did have another option. He could go back to showing people Pat Sajak’s lawn.
“I can’t believe I am so fucking naïve,” Eric said to James. The showrunner instructed his assistant to do a mass recall on the Little Caesar script and stand by for revisions on the Fat Caesar pilot. At least now, Eric figured, he’d have regular opportunities to mentor D’Aquarrius.