This time last year, I was having wine and flowers delivered to my producer and agent in Los Angeles. This time last year, I had a sitcom deal. I was finding dollars in the street. I joked with cabdrivers. I was golden. I write a column for a teen magazine about a high school kid in Brooklyn with the same name as mine. In last summer’s teen gold rush, my column sold to Disney. I went out there in October. I got a fast car, a decent hotel on Sunset Boulevard and a pass for the Disney lot. I worked with a producer who was charming, beautiful and mostly consumed with finding a new house for her big, happy family. I sat on her red leather couch and panted at her because she was so nice and sweet (only seven years older!) and so happily married, unlike anybody I know here. We’d rehearse and then I’d pitch, make eye contact, tell the good parts real slow, and she’d laugh and laugh. It was dreamy.
To get to her, I walked by famous people in the Disney hallways-Dolly Parton! Jon Favreau! Peter Horton! I got to hold her assistant’s Yorkshire terrier. In the mornings, she tutored me while I petted the dog. She made house-viewing appointments. I watched tapes of Ally McBeal . I took notes on the show while the warm California sun glinted off the office TV. I’d say, “Oh, I see it now, how Ally furthers plot with self-deprecation, it’s brilliant!” My producer would smile, cross her legs and say to the speakerphone, “But where, where exactly in Pasadena?” I fought hard against the ugly inclination to fill a silent moment with a slurred “I love you,” which would’ve ruined everything.
She was partnered with a guy who wrote a lot of The Larry Sanders Show and had a deal at Disney that made him so rich he didn’t even have to have an office. That man was a phantom, only materializing half an hour late for meetings. I talked to him once, and he recommended that I add a scene where a guy who’s walking his Rottweiler and flirting with a woman turns and sees his dog shit out his girlfriend’s bra. I didn’t love it, but what the hell? The guy wrote the final Larry Sanders episode. I put it in my pilot.
We had a pitch meeting with the WB network. Garth Ancier showed up and looked very pleased, but he was probably thinking about the terrific deal NBC would give him three days later. I pitched hard, and I didn’t even have to hold my producer’s hand. By then I knew TV. In New York, instead of watching Charlie Rose , or not bothering with TV and reading, since I was supposed to be a novelist (see Miracle Man , William Morrow Company, 1999), I watched Friends . With deal memo in hand (deal memo equals lottery ticket) I obsessively counted lines and laughs per minute, swearing to myself that I liked Friends , I’d always liked it. I started to get it: You need to say it fast and funny, and can you please remember that we’ve got a plot to deal with here, and plot is more important than laughs? But if it’s not funny, you’re dead.
My girlfriend, who was helping me with the whole thing, got a little tired of it, especially the part about my producer. I started to check the Nielsen ratings in Daily Variety like I was already on the air. Screw novels. Sitcoms were my new bag!
In conference calls with Disney and the WB, we’d discuss whether the mean character in the pilot who was supposed to be an asshole was too much of an asshole. I wanted to suggest to the executive that he could write that part and model it on himself. But I knew I wasn’t the first guy in New York who got off the phone at 10 at night with a bunch of people in Burbank and slipped into the peculiar self-hatred that comes with knowing you might not like it, but you sure asked for it. Like every idiot with a sitcom deal before me, I decided to fight, to make my show my own!
I submitted my first scene description for Disney to take to the WB. I wanted to open with my two teen lovers breaking up: The boy character was freaking out since he might be pressuring the girl character into sex without realizing it. He had to learn something from the inside out. Which makes for a lousy, unfunny sitcom pilot.
My producer told me I didn’t know my character (who is partly me) very well at all.
I looked at the dollar figures on my deal memo, thought about how much I wanted to see my producer again, and I learned. I made my pilot light, fast and funny. Kids in nightclubs, kids joking about sex, kids drunk, nervous, with divorced parents, bad attitudes and lots of disposable income. I got flown out for more script meetings. Instead of me calling my agent, he called me. I settled into business-class seats and acted like I’d always have a deal. There were seconds where I thought, it might be O.K. to get used to this.
Back in New York, calls with notes came at about 5:30 their time, so I had to jump up from dinner with friends at Orange Bleu, and run outside and scribble notes in the cold. I started saying Yes, I could see how the asshole character was getting to be too much of an asshole. And then it was over. Held for midseason. Not good, not bad. Sitcom limbo. The calls stopped. I was a novelist again. I stopped watching TV almost immediately. No more laughing at Matthew Perry’s charming incredulity, no more tracking the great romance in Jesse .
So I’m writing and taking late afternoon walks around Chinatown, where I live. I return calls way too fast, and generally behave like a writer who doesn’t have a day job.
This summer, I called my producer and my agent a couple of times to see if they wanted to give me more money and deals. Their assistants were happy to hear from me, especially when I asked after their acting careers, but I didn’t get called back. And why would those people call, really? The teen explosion has cooled quite a bit, so calls to me don’t equal money. I understand. I don’t hate them for it.
I like some of what TV gave me. I have a Writers Guild of America card that gets me into movies for free through the winter, and it’s plus one, so I can take friends. There’s only one problem. Before Hollywood called, I didn’t dislike TV. I didn’t think about it much. I grew up with it, knew it better than many family members; it was always warm and it was there. I loved The Brady Bunch , The Mary Tyler Moore Show , Cheers . But now, knowing what I know about sitcom beats, if I could overlook what was a tiny bit lame before, I can’t anymore. So sure, I miss the glamour, the parties, breakfast at the W hotel with my agent. As for TV, I’ve gone back to being like most American men, in that the only show I watch is Monday Night Football . Because you can only watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire so many times, and, for me, sitcoms are dead.
Follow Ben Schrank via RSS.