For those of you reading this who perhaps fancy a career as a Hollywood scribe, here’s a cautionary tale for you to heed. It comes courtesy of GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson, who apparently worked as an assistant to two of the hackiest of hacky sitcom writers in Hollywood early in his career, two guys he doesn’t name but instead refers to as “L” and “M.”
This is the era of extravagant development deals. Columbia, home toMarried…with Children and Who’s the Boss?, is signing up writers left and right—playwrights, performance artists, mildly successful sitcom staffers—to sit around all day and dream up premises for TV series. When the writers come up with what they think is a brilliant concept, they pitch the Columbia development executives, and if the execs like it, the studio pitches the idea to the networks. If the networks bite, the writers become producers of the series, and everyone gets rich.
What, you might ask, have my bosses done to deserve their deal? They worked on a show calledThe New Leave It to Beaver. Oh, you don’t remember that one? It was a groundbreaking series—for Jerry Mathers. Born on the Disney Channel in 1985 as Still the Beaver. Died on TBS the Year of Our Lord, nineteen hundred and eighty-nine. My bosses act as if the Beaver reboot were the modern comedy equivalent of Monty Python, as if everyone in Hollywood were hyper-aware of the brilliant Eddie Haskell subplots they wrote. The way they move through the hallways at Columbia, the way they verily strut into pitch meetings, you can tell they’re still drinking in the mediocre success of The New Leave It to Beaver.
By the nepotistic rules of Hollywood, L— was born for this work. The son of a successful screenwriter, blessed with Pacific privilege and an endless supply of chinos, he looks like a California prep with a prankster edge. His hands-in-pockets, coin-jangling energy signals that he has no interest in you unless you’ve written a Cheers episode or might provide him with immediate joke fodder. He speaks loudly, even if he is two feet away from you, to cover the distance he reckons all humans should be kept at. When he talks to his wife on the phone, they speak in Dutch, their secret lingua franca. At first, you think it’s a joke, but it isn’t. (It sounds like: “But honey, you can’t mean glröffen roofen rayvma?!? Sklar!”)
M—, on the other hand, is schlumpy, with thick curly hair and Coke-bottle glasses that exaggerate every tic and blink. There’s something about him that people feel sympathy for—a loneliness he can’t see—even though he’s mean and may not deserve it. He speaks of having a world of “two-hour friends,” people he can only stand for 120 minutes: a movie, a dinner, drinks. He’s driven by some animus I imagine to be self-loathing but that, when whipped through the carnival of his ego, miraculously turns into a swaggering confidence. He finishes every joke, every putdown, with an audible nasal grunt, a noise that I suspect is silent to him but that, to the rest of us, sounds like a small cry for therapy.
M— and L— seem mismatched as a comic team. They’re both type A personalities, with no foil, no straight man. Like the worst kind of Funny Guys, they are always, oppressively, “on.” Every time they see you, they do not merely crack a joke; they molest you with comedy. Their assaults are rapid-fire, cringe-inducing, often offensive. (“Nice jacket, Jim. What, did you buy it from a sand nigger in Morocco?” Grunt.) Surely, they must think, this is the way to become noticed as a formidable comic force—to launch one’s hilarity from across the room. No one is immune to it. When they walk into a pitch meeting with the Columbia execs, L— invariably begins the meeting with an antic gag, tripping, Dick Van Dyke-like, over a hassock, or a pair of crossed feet, nearly somersaulting across the room, then rubbing his knees and grimacing in theatrical pain. You can see the same pain flickering in the eyes of the execs.
Oh but wait, it only gets worse from there…
The worst is after lunch, when they come into the reception room to get their messages, and all my fellow assistants are there. That’s when they break out in frenetic improv right in front of my desk.
L: Lunch was great! Steak in a…what was it? Saliva sauce?
M: No, I think it was, uh, toe jam.
L: Yeah, toe-jam sauce! Delicious!
M: Oh, and Jim, we forgot to tell you: You’re fired! Heh heh…
Go read the whole thing when you have time. It’ll make you feel better about the worst job you’ve ever had, that’s for sure.