“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire
I’m just a poor Southern boy from rural Northeast Ohio. I didn’t expect a life of luxury, fine jewels or a neighborhood packed to the brim with Hasidic Jews, haggling over who gets to walk the Rabbi’s dog this weekend. But that’s the life I have in Hollywood, California. From my modest beginnings as a part-time cartoonist and comedian, I’ve surmounted every challenge that society has thrown my way, including but not limited to (1) Moving in with a crazy pill-popping would-be doctor, (2) Getting a restraining order on said would-be doctor’s daddy for trying to physically assault me with a ninja kubotan, (3) Having my wallet handed back to me by a mugger outside my favorite bar, because the wallet wasn’t nice enough for the mugger’s personal tastes.
In spite of these social abnormalities, I’ve lived a fairly good life. Los Angeles conditions you to expect the weird and inhumane on a daily basis. I’ll never forget the first time my then-girlfriend and I drove by a flaming parked car on LaBrea Avenue. I slowed down to get a better vantage point of the imminent explosion, while she yawned with a ho-hum expression. “Isn’t this insane?” I asked her, hoping for confirmation of the madness sprawling in front of us. “Meh, it’s just Hollyweird,” she replied.
A lot of fresh young bucks and buckettes come bouncing out of the Midwest these days, begging me for advice about how to “make it” in show-biz. I tell them the same thing I tell everybody: “Pack up your things, and get the hell off my turf.” CLICK-CLICK. The sound of a rifle loading always scares people off, especially Midwestern people. They remember the sound of their daddy’s rifle when they brought home their prom date for the first time, and someone’s hand accidentally grazed someone’s bosom during an awkward adolescent corsage-pinning ceremony.
But I digress (as will be the standard upon which this and future columns are based). The point is that tons of dreamy-eyed starlets and would-be fluffers journey out to the “Best Coast” in search of fame, fortune and all that good stuff. I try to warn them that it’s harder to come by than people might initially realize, and that Hollywood does not play by the same set of rules as the rest of the nation, or the rest of the universe for that matter. Hollywood is so strange and secluded and set in its ways that I wouldn’t be surprised to open the LA Times one morning and discover that, buried away, somewhere after all the industry news about how Taylor Lautner’s luminous six-pack abs safely guided an airplane’s descent to earth during a musky LA thunderstorm, there was a tiny article next to all the ads for the Lap Band, or the Tummy Tucker, or one of the other products that rips out your colon so you can be as thin as Kristen Stewart, an article that explained that all of Newton’s Laws of Physics had disbanded to try to work on their solo careers, and that inertia was no longer a property of mass because it is currently headlining at the Beverly Hilton as a part-time Menudo cover band.
This is all wholly plausible, and the inertia thing would definitely explain people’s driving habits on the freeway. But I digress (Yes! It’s happening!)- this column isn’t meant to frighten you or discourage you from your dream of packing up your belongings so that you can sell them all for crack money on the Venice Beach boardwalk just like your heroes in I Love You, Man. No, no. If anything, I want to encourage you to do that, and not just because I’m looking for a cheap Blu-Ray player. It takes a special sort of monkey to follow their dreams into the Dante’s Inferno-esque abyss of Hollywood madness, and I happen to be that sort. I’m hoping that you are too, or you’re at least the sort of perverted voyeur who gets off on the Schadenfreude and misfortune of others. If so, you and this column are the new Brangelina.
To give you a better sense of the odds you’re up against when you enter Los Angeles, I’d like to relate to you my favorite story from my first year in the city. It encompasses all of the things you’d expect from a classic LA tale: mindless movie executives, me selling out my beliefs, a C-List Celebrity Encounter, and a buxom would-be starlet trying to make it in Hollywood because she never finished college. It was hard to feel anything but excited and then devastated at the time, but now I can look back on this minor adventure with a smile, and the same sort of stupid saying that everyone who is broke and despondent in Los Angeles repeats to stay sane: That time, I almost got it.
My first job outside of college was an internship with a small-time movie production company. They worked for one of the bigger names, but they themselves were nothing but a cadre of B-movie producers masquerading as the real deal. For safety’s sake, let’s refer to them as Firelight Films. Now the production team at Firelight Films had a penchant for playing house. While they themselves never actually produced any film or television of value, that fact never stopped them from attending the hottest Hollywood parties that the Playboy Mansion had to offer or telling me about these parties in great detail without the slightest inclination of inviting me. As a lowly intern, my primary task was to read screenplays for them and provide them with “coverage,” a fancy Hollywood term for ‘one page book report.’ I had the distinct honor of reading many fine efforts by would-be screenwriters, like Sea Trial, a two-hour morality play about the four least likable characters in literary history getting stuck on a boat together, or Fate, the story of a time-traveling firefighter who discovers that he is in love with a dead woman. (SPOILERS: It turns out that everyone, including the firefighter, is dead in the end, and that the hotel where the movie takes place is a metaphor for heaven. This is an easy way for the writer to explain that he was really coked up while he was writing it.) Somehow, and God help me if I know how, Fate was worse than Frequency, and reading Sea Trial made watching Muppet Treasure Island on repeat with a loaded revolver in my mouth seem like a fine alternative.
The real story (since there were obviously none in the screenplay bin) was the romance behind the scenes at Firelight Films. Hank, the man in charge, was dating Chrissie, his live-in personal assistant. Hank was a ballsy bad-ass, the kind they don’t make anymore, and Chrissie was a charismatic and intelligent young woman whose ambition was only hindered by the fact that she was trying to serve the company as an Associate Producer while simultaneously looking up the definition for ‘Associate Producer’ in Google. Their love affair was torrid and captivating; He, a middle-aged former stuntman divorcee, and she, a small-town girl from Kansas. It made for great people watching, especially since they were completely out-in-the-open about the romance, almost to a sickening degree. One time I walked into the office to deliver some script coverage and found Chrissie sitting on Hank’s lap, playing Patty-Cake. “Little Girl, Little Girl, Don’t Fall DOWN!” and when Hank said DOWN, he would pretend to tip Chrissie off of his lap and then catch her at the last minute. “I don’t know that nursery rhyme,” said Chrissie. “Must be before your time,” said Hank.
In spite of the awkward age differences and mid-life crises abounding around the office, the true subject of disbelief was Sam Spec, the manager and agent to the stars. He represented all sorts of famous people that somehow never found time to visit the office or validate his claims. He was a hard-assed shaven-headed Hollywood punk, hell-bent on making money, doing coke, and banging whichever female came his way. Many of my mornings were spent hearing Hank and Chrissie recounting upon where or whom Sam had vomited the previous evening, how he’d escaped the authorities, or why their linen closet did not double as a toilet.
Sam Spec was a charismatic man as well, and despite his dependency habits he was a mover and a shaker. He got things done in the business. So one day, after about six months of crappy script coverage and unpaid slave labor, Sam and Hank approached me with an offer. They say they’ve got a major celebrity coming in the office next week and they want me to brainstorm ideas for television shows that will revitalize his career. This all sounded well and good (a little too good for a rookie intern at a third-rate movie company) but I still didn’t know whom the celebrity was. “Have you heard of Andy Dick?” they asked.
Yeah, I’d heard of Andy Dick. He was the person that most comedians claimed was responsible for the deaths of Saturday Night Live alums Phil Hartman and Chris Farley due to his freewheeling coke habit. More accurately he was a talented comedian who took every opportunity to destroy his relationship with the outside world or any strong turns his career had taken in the past decade. The man was a known train wreck, a loose cannon, and much like Will Smith, a reported bisexual. After I heard an internet rumor that comedian Jon Lovitz had punched Andy Dick in the face earlier that year at a comedy show, I tended to side with Lovitz on such matters, assuming Andy Dick was a plague on the comedy community, perhaps the world. Nothing could have prepared me for a face-to-face encounter with the smarmy son-of-a-bitch, but here I was staring opportunity in the face, unsure of whether to place my personal beliefs ahead of my career potential.
“I’ll do it,” I said, and I had never been more excited in my whole life. I didn’t even care that it was for Andy Dick. The opportunity to potentially invent a television show that could be on the air next season was so staggering that I put my personal issues (read: ethics and values) aside and set to work immediately. I spent the entire weekend brainstorming shows and coming up with ideas for pitches. In Hollywood pitching a show or a movie is a delicate art, and I had absolutely zero experience. So I fell back on the power of invention and my background in improv comedy and hoped that I could survive simply by winging it.
And you know what? It worked. Kind of.
On Monday, Sam Spec, Andy Dick and I sat down in a conference room at the major movie company that housed Firelight Films, and we started talking comedy. As an aspiring comedian, this seemed like a dream come true. Andy was very funny and charming, and was appreciative that I had read his recent screenplay (a whopping 76 page masterpiece, well under the 100 page average for scripts). Andy made jokes about his career and social missteps, taking the time to put his leg up on the table so we could see the alcohol-monitoring ankle-bracelet that the federal government had provided for him. Most disturbingly, Andy brought his son to the meeting too, trying to pass him off as his 12 year old personal assistant. Sam made a joke about the kid not taking notes during the meeting, but it seemed like no one got it. Andy wanted a show that would put him back in the public spotlight again, only this time not behind bars. I pitched him an idea for a cartoon show using his voice and persona. He loved it, and wouldn’t even let me finish pitching the idea before agreeing to it. I was star-struck by the fact that a known comedian liked my idea for a television show, so I took a mental backseat for the rest of the meeting while Sam and Andy brainstormed crappy reality show ideas. At the end of the meeting Andy Dick gave me his personal phone number and a gay little shoulder grab to let me know that I should call him. I ignored the pseudo-sexual tension and said to myself with pride (possibly the only human being to ever have this reaction): “Oh My God! I have ANDY DICK’S phone number!”
I immediately started calling my friends and family to let them know that I’d “made it.” It didn’t take long for the dreams to fizzle as quickly as the gurgling static at the end of any of those terrible moronic conversations. I was “green” as they say in Hollywood, so new to the enterprise of professional entertainment that I barely knew a bad deal from a good one. And this, my friends, was a bad deal.
It didn’t seem so bad at first; the next morning Sam Spec introduced me to the showrunner (i.e. the guy in charge) for That 70’s Show. Impressed and awkward, I belched a hello and stared at him long enough for him to decide that he hated me and that he should immediately vacate the office. Sam put me on the line with a producer at FOX and told me to pitch my cartoon show idea to her. She liked it, but already had a show in development. Strike two. My best hope was a development deal with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, a line-up of animated shows known for their risqué (read: stoner) humor. Sam Spec called his friends at Cartoon Network, and here’s where things got sticky.
You know all those stupid stories you read about in the tabloids? Like the one where a Wendy’s restaurant had to close down because Kirstie Alley ate all the employees? Well, it turns out they’re all true, and I had to learn that the hard way.
“Bad news,” said Sam, crushing my dreams immediately. “It turns out that my boys at Cartoon Network are big Jon Lovitz fans.”
“So? What does that mean,” I asked innocently.
“Jon and Andy got into a big fight earlier this year, and the Cartoon Network boys are siding with him. They feel that doing a show with Andy would be a betrayal. Sorry.”
And that was the end of my pitch. Because of the same stupid celebrity in-fighting that should have signaled me to avoid this pitch like the plague to begin with, I was out of a job. I couldn’t believe that the microscopic Hollywood news that I’d enjoyed with a satiric grin while sitting in my sweet Midwestern home was the same news that was currently ruining my career. But I’m not the kind of person who gives up easily. If anyone was going to ruin my career, it was going to be me.
One month later, I called Andy Dick on his private number. I had just finished my first screenplay, entitled LARP of Darkness, a teen-action-comedy about Live Action Role-Playing that you will never ever see on film, and I was looking for advice from an established comedian. I called Andy to see if he would meet me for lunch, and he agreed. The next afternoon I received an e-mail from Sam Spec berating me for going behind his back and contacting one of his clients without Sam’s permission. Andy was furious. He didn’t remember who I was and was insulted that I had been given his number. It was almost like Andy Dick was an unreliable liar who crushes people’s dreams in his hedonistic drug-blasted wake. Almost. Sam was furious with me, because my phone call ended up destroying his deal with Andy. In the long term, it turned out to be a good thing, because our achievements in a post-Andy Dick world have been better than anything we could have ever achieved with the Dick on our side.
Sam Spec and I are friends again now, and we still see each other occasionally for a drink when I have the urge to spend time with someone who repeatedly tries to convince me to start a coke addiction. Hank and Chrissie are still out there making b-movies about Zombies in Alabama. I’m still writing, working on new pitches and moving on with my life. And it’s a good life, despite the Los Angeles insanity.
But my advice to you is this, and it’s the same that Conan O’Brien championed in an interview on Late Night back before his career was in shambles. Don’t give up. You have no idea how many opportunities are out there, and none of them, I repeat: none of them, is a make-it-or-break-it deal unless you let it be. I’ve had plenty of better deals and pitches since then, and sooner or later one of them is going to- surprise, surprise– actually get a television show made. If it falls into your lap too easily, chances are that it’s a bad deal. But if it’s something you’ve worked for your whole life, don’t give it up just because some Dick gets in the way. Let’s be honest, you’re better off Dick-less.
 Dante’s Inferno is a popular Playstation video game. And nothing else.