A television producer I had a pitch meeting with once said to me: “Tell me your life in one sentence. THAT’S your show.”
I tried. It was a run-on.
“I’m a half-Jewish, half German-Catholic comedian, married to a black psychologist who looks Indian, I live in an old Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn now full of young hipsters, and everybody thinks I’m Puerto Rican, except for Puerto Ricans, who think I’m a cop.”
He thought for a second and then said: “Nah. Been done.”
Then he ate a kale chip to signal the end of the meeting.
Maybe it was like my old man, the artist, used to say about why “suits” can’t understand “creatives”:
“They hear, but they don’t listen.”
While I never had my own sitcom, I did consistently book dramatic roles; dangerous foreigners, cops on the take, witnesses who “didn’t see nothin’,” and brooding cons named “Loco” who said things like: “You got a problem, Puto? I fix problems.”
The only sitcom I actually made it onto was a small role 15 years ago on Cosby , which haunts me to this day.
It shot in New York, with the “Cos” and formidable guest stars Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein. I’d be playing an undercover cop; well-trodden territory for me.
My wife told her family, who were sort of real-life Huxtables, and there was the slightest murmur of approval from her gynecologist father, “Doc,” who never properly digested my profession. My mother-in-law, however, who kept my framed headshot in the sun-room of her beach-house, next to the throw pillows with lemon piping, was thrilled.
This Cosby show was a newer incarnation, with mostly different cast members, filmed out in Queens, at Kaufman Astoria studios.
I only had one actual line; “Jack, we gotta go…” which I was to say to Robert Klein. It was decent pay for three days work; first day rehearsal, second day shoot, third day the episode was done in front of a live audience.
I showed up the first day at my appointed call time 10:45 a.m.
Only my call time wasn’t 10:45.
Unbeknownst to me, my bi-polar manager was off his meds and had told me a completely wrong time, before going on a spree of physically confronting everyone who’d slighted him over the years, and ending up in central booking.
When I signed in with security, I was informed that I was an hour and 45 minutes late, and a very tense lady with a clipboard appeared. She labored over my name.
“Is it D.J. Penny or B.J. Penny?!”
“It’s actually D.C. Benny”
“Yah, well, C.D., you are very late and Dr. Cosby is NOT HAPPY. Let’s go. When you meet him, only refer to him as Dr. Cosby. Not Mister, not Bill. Doctor, understand?”
“I’m really sor…”
“Let’s go, Penny.”
I figured it wasn’t a good time for a game of dyslexic-who’s-on-first. I could be a C.D. Lenny. Sounded like someone who sold bootleg music on the A-train.
We walked briskly through the bowels of the studio, past old sets, clusters of lighting fixtures, offices, posters, and then I began to smell cigar smoke.
Soon it was on top of us.
There, surrounded by cast and crew, stood the larger-than-life Cos, lit cigar in mouth, script in hand, chatting with Robert Klein and Madeline Kahn.
Clipboard cleared her throat politely and in a newly, non-abrasive voice, deferentially addressed the Cos.
“Dr. Cosby. I have C.D. Lenny on set.”
Cosby slowly blew out a cumulus cloud of smoke, which floated toward the illuminated “No Smoking” sign.
“BOY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF TIME!! IT IS NOT TO BE WASTED, ESPECIALLY MY TIME! AN HOUR AND FORTY-FIVE MINUTES?! WERE YOU IN A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, THUS UNABLE TO VIEW YOUR WATCH?! SHOW BUSINESS. THINK ABOUT THESE TWO IMPORTANT WORDS. IF YOU DON’T SHOW UP ON TIME, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO BE AN ACTOR NO ONE HAS EVER HEARD OF. WHY? BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS BEING IN SHOW BUSINESS! CASE IN POINT: HAS ANYONE HERE HEARD OF C.D. LENNY?! ”
“I THOUGHT NOT.”
“DOCTOR COSBY!” he snapped and threw his cigar against the floor. Clipboard grunted audibly. A PA ran to the smoldering stub, extinguished it with a stomp and removed the flattened carcass like a spent tennis ball during Wimbledon.
“GET THIS BOY A SCRIPT,” Cos said, utterly disgusted. “STAND OVER THERE AND WALK IN ON CUE,” he directed me.
I did as I was told.
We rehearsed for the next couple hours, and I avoided eye contact with anyone and everyone.
When we finally wrapped, one of the lighting guys came up to me after the coast was clear and told me that Cos was especially hard on young minorities, so not to take it personally.
After being publicly humiliated; I had let down a whole ethnic group I didn’t even belong to.
The next day, determined to make a good impression, I showed up an hour early, and stood ready in my dressing room. Even though I knew my line backward and forward, I kept looking at it on the miniature-sized script they had given me the day before.
Clipboard stuck her head in the dressing room and told me that I would be summoned to set via the intercom system, sometime in the next hour or two. I paced the room and rehearsed my line over and over.
An hour went by. Two. Three. I heard different announcements over the intercom.
“Donny from Kraft services, call the front desk.”
“Ms. Kahn; ready for you in make up.”
“Dr. C, report to set.”
I laughed to myself. Someone was getting a little fast and loose with the Cos’ title, calling him “Dr. C”. Maybe they would catch the brunt of his wrath today.
There were a few more announcements, then again, “Dr. C, report to set.” The voice sounded irritated.
Yeah that was really smart, calling The Cos “Dr. C” so everyone could hear, AND doing it with an attitude. Someone was getting chewed out today.
There was a loud knock on my door. I opened it and Clipboard was standing there fuming.
“Dr. C, are you not listening to the intercom? They’ve called you to the set three times already!”
“You called me…”
“Dr. C. Your name!”
Overnight, I had evolved from a bootleg merchant to a diet cola.
“My name isn’t Dr. C. It’s D.C.”
She closed her eyes tightly and sighed.
“We’ll just go with Mr. Lenny. To the set.”
When I got to the set, The Cos was talking to Mr. Klein and Ms. Kahn. When he saw me, he announced with theatrical flair: “THE STAR OF THE SHOW HAS ARRIVED! WE CAN COMMENCE FILMING NOW! A ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR THE INCOMPARABLE C.D. LENNY!”
Everyone applauded. I thought hard of sunny places, lollipops, and horsies.
We got into our positions. I introduced myself to Robert Klein, who surprisingly remembered when I had opened for him, a few years back. He told Madeline Kahn I was funny and she smiled.
I felt a bit better.
Soon, the camera was rolling and on my cue, I walked in and delivered the line.
Immediately, Cosby yelled “Cut!” and glowered at me.
“BOY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE A MOCKERY OF ME?!”
“I don’t understand, Mr., er, Dr. Cosby. What did I do?”
“WHAT DID YOU DO?! YOU SAID THE WRONG LINE! YOU HAVE ONE LINE AND ONE LINE ONLY, SO HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?!”
Everyone looked at each other for an answer but there was none.
“But…but…the line is here on my script….”
I handed it to him. He thrust it back at me.
“YOU CAN READ, CORRECT? SEE THAT NUMBER IN THE CORNER? IT’S CALLED A DATE! THAT DATE IS YESTERDAY! EVERY DAY THERE ARE REVISIONS AND EVERY DAY THERE IS A NEW SCRIPT REFLECTING THESE REVISIONS AND EVERY DAY IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO READ THIS NEW SCRIPT AND LEARN YOUR REVISED LINES!”
I was handed a new script. I opened to the page in question. Where my one line once stood, there were now two; “Jack, we gotta go. Car’s waiting outside.”
I didn’t know what to say; I hadn’t realized there was a new script, although I recalled seeing one on my dressing room table while I was pacing around, practicing my line.
“DO YOU NEED ANOTHER DAY TO MEMORIZE THIS OR MAY WE PROCEED?!”
We shot the scene, which thankfully seemed to go ok, and I slunk back towards my dressing room.
That night, I dreamt I was standing in front of full-length mirror naked. Instead of my reflection, there stood D.B. Sweeney.
The next day, from my dressing room, I watched a church group Cos had bussed in de-board in the parking lot. It was mostly composed of older black ladies from Atlanta and some locals.
I prayed Cos wouldn’t embarrass me in front of them.
A newly mangled version of my name came over the intercom and I headed down to the stage. We were to have a quick rehearsal while the church ladies were given a tour of the building.
Backstage, a very nervous man with a cardigan tossed irreverently around his neck, ordered me to stand in a spot while we did some basic blocking and ran lines.
The audience was re-seated.
The show started, I did my scene and even got some laughs, I know not how.
We finished, went back stage and the church ladies applauded vigorously.
The cardigan guy hissed at me:
“Go back out there for curtain call. Hurry! Hurry!“
“Where?!” I whispered.
He pointed a buffed nail toward where the curtains met in the middle of the stage.
As I walked through, my head connected with something hard, which turned out to be Robert Klein’s face. He was just coming backstage.
“Aaah!” he grunted and cupped his hand over right eye, squinted shut.
I had just Evander Holyfielded a comedy legend.
“Get away from me, kid! Jesus!”
“Everyone back out there and take a bow!” hissed the cardigan guy.
I stood between Klein and Kahn. She held my hand; he refused to.
I felt broken.
As we exited, I heard someone calling my name…the right one.
I looked down and there was Shirley S., a comedian from my open mic days.
“Shirley! What are you doing here?”
“I’m a friend of Dr. Cosby’s, so I come to all the live tapings. Wow, I can’t believe here I am watching and you come out!”
“Yeah, crazy right? So where have you been all these years?”
“There was this… stalker situation. I needed a break, so I just stopped doing comedy. It was too much.”
“Stalking? Sounds rough.”
“You get through it, you know? God is good. How was working with Dr. Cosby?”
“Uggh. I messed up and Cosby really didn’t like me.”
“What?! Oh that’s just crazy! Let me introduce you, and once he knows you’re with me, it’ll all be cool. He LOVES me.”
“Uh, I dunno…”
But by then she was pulling toward his office.
When we got there, he was in his chair, reading over some papers on his desk.
Shirley walked straight in.
“Hi, Dr. Cosby! How are you? I was in the neighborhood so I dropped by to see the show; amazing as usual, and I see my old friend D.C. Benny!”
Cosby looked up slowly, removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes, before responding to her in a measured tone:
“DIDN’T I TELL YOU NEVER TO SET FOOT ON THESE PREMISES AGAIN? WAS I NOT CLEAR ABOUT THAT THE LAST TIME YOU HAD TO BE PHYSICALLY REMOVED FROM THE BUILDING? I WANT YOU TO LEAVE MY OFFICE, RIGHT NOW, AND I DO NOT EVER WANT TO SEE YOU OR THIS MAN AGAIN. EVER”
“NOW,” Cos said and pointed toward the door.
I finally understood Shirley’s disappearance from comedy. She wasn’t the stalkee, but instead the person crouched in a patch of shadowed bushes like the voices told her to.
“Psssh. I dunno why his old ass trippin’ like that!” she snorted as I left her, him, and the Kaufman-Astoria studios behind me in a dusty cloud of shame.
The next week, I focused on torturing myself, mentally replaying the events, so when my childhood friend John called me to tell me he was in town I was relieved to have someone to blow off steam with.
The following Saturday, John, myself, and a few of the old crew, were sitting in the back of a stretch limo they had rented, boozing, party-hopping, laughing, and acting like we were 14 again.
At around two am, we had one more party to go to. I vaguely remember landing somewhere on the Upper West Side in front of a huge brownstone.
We tumbled out en masse and clambered up the steps.
The houselights were off.
“You sure this is the right place?”
John nodded before ringing the bell. No one answered so he rang it again, and a light went on upstairs.
“I dunno, man” I said, “looks like they’re asleep.”
“Naaaah, they up” he slurred and rang the bell again.
A groggy young woman opened the door.
“Heeeeeey,” said John, “where the partaaaay at?!!”
“It was over two hours ago,” the girl said. She resembled someone I knew but I couldn’t place the face.
“Ooooooh, my bad” said John. In the background I heard a voice yell:
“WHO IS RINGING MY DOORBELL AT 3 IN THE MORNING?!”
Then I knew who the girl looked like.
Probably because she was his daughter, this was his house and now he was coming downstairs in his pajamas.
“Dude looks like Cliff Huxtable!” said John. “Wait! Dude IS Cliff Huxtable!!!”
Cos just stared through us all.
“REMOVE YOURSELVES FROM HERE, INSTANTLY” Then: “DO I KNOW YOU, BOY?”
“Absolutely not,” I answered.
The episode aired a week later. My in-laws saw it and it gave a bit of validation to my claim of being a professional comedian. My mother-in-law told all her friends.
A couple days later, my mother-in-law called me, very excited.
“I spoke with my friend about your comedy. She happens to be involved with the restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington. And you know who loves Ben’s Chili Bowl?”
“Bill Cosby! He has it flown to New York on a regular basis”
“He just ordered a shipment yesterday, so I brought her your headshot from the sun room at the beach house! She put it on top of the shipment, right over the chili. That way he can’t miss it. Now he’ll be reminded of you and how talented you are! Be ready, just in case he calls, hear?”
I heard but I just couldn’t listen.
D.C. Benny is a comedian and writer who lives in Brooklyn and was most recently a top eight finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. His video “White Boy Rips It At The Apollo” has been viewed over 7 million times.