I don’t like learning lessons. Mostly because the lessons are seldom, “You see, it doesn’t matter what you eat,” or “Turns out, girls love guys with fat asses.” I met a fellow writer friend for coffee this morning and we were talking about hiring season. It’s always a weird conversation where you talk around things like where you interviewed, and how it went and what shows you liked and what shows you hated for fear that the other person just got a job on one of the shows you liked or hated. My friend, who is a much more spiritual guy than I, said he was once taking a walk through his neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon with his wife and he asked himself, “Mark, what do you want?” Then he said to himself, “I want to create a hit show that is a critical darling.” I didn’t ask what his wife was doing while he was having this conversation, but that’s really his business, not mine. He then told me he asked himself, “And what would you be doing right now if you had a hit show that was a critical darling?” And he answered, “I’d be walking with my wife through our neighborhood.” Of course, my first reaction was, “Sure, but you’d be wearing a much nicer jacket.” But not so deep down I got his point: he already has what he needs. I had similar thoughts through my 100 days off during the Writer’s Guild Strike where I started to teeter on depression because of my lack of income. I then thought to myself, “What would you give to have yourself be healthy?” And then I thought– thought, not said, I mean, who the hell says it to themselves– “and what would you give to be married to a beautiful woman and have two beautiful kids.” And then I thought, “Well, I gave up several million dollars by leaving the show “Friends” early–” and then I interrupted my thought to think, “that’s not what I meant: what would you give to have a happy marriage and two healthy if sometimes annoying kids?” “I would give everything.” And then I realized, I still had a great wife and two healthy kids, and I didn’t have to give up everything, so I’m way ahead of the game. I still cried myself to sleep that night, but still, I had learned my lesson.
I knew I would be getting a follow-up phone call today from my agents, but I decided I wasn’t going to wait around all day worrying. My wife and I decided to do something that a married couple only fantasizes about doing during the day when the kids are at school– see a movie at 10:30 in the morning. For some writers, seeing a movie is work because they find themselves critiquing dialogue and trying to figure out what scene is coming next, and where the act break is and how the writer of the movie has established characters and on what page the inciting incident happens and… blow my head off please. I’m at the movies to escape, pure and simple. And occasionally to guess what’s going to happen, but that’s it. My wife and I had been talking all hiatus about seeing movies during the day while I was off and this was the first one– 95 days in. It was going to be good to relax and enjoy a good comedy. Of course, the first two previews were for movies written by people I’ve worked with. Many people ask me why I don’t write movies. The simple answer is, it’s hard to write 120 pages of something–as I look at my 300 page journal– something with mass appeal— okay, better. The other answer can best be answered by a conversation I had with my Senior Agent a few years ago at lunch during a particularly difficult time for sitcom writers. Agent: “So what are you going to do?” Me: “What do you mean what am I going to do?” A: “For a job. I mean, the sitcom market is awful.” M: “What? You’re my agent. What are you going to do?!” A:”Well, I’m actually not doing much agenting anymore.” M: “Then why are we at lunch?” A: “I thought it would be nice.” M:”It’s really depressing me.” A: “Don’t be depressed. It’ll be fine. You can diversify.” M:”I was thinking maybe I could write a movie.” A: (Snort laugh) “The movie business is the only thing worse than the tv business right now.” M: “Are you paying for lunch?” A: “Of course. I had a great year.” Anyway, as I mentioned, I love my agent, but sometimes his hard truth hits a little too hard. The people who wrote the movies that are coming to a theater near you shortly did not get discouraged when their agent told them the feature business was dead, so good for them.
The movie started and I snuggled into my seat, needing a good laugh. Just then, my cellphone lit up: it was my agent. For the first time since I’ve owned my iPhone it told me when someone was actually calling, not four minutes afterwards. I clicked, “Ignore” and showed my wife how dedicated to her and our shared experience I was. The phone then rang again, I looked at my wife who said, “go ahead” and I ran out into the lobby to answer it. It was both my Senior Agent and Junior Agent on the phone, which is the equivalent of having two doctors call you at the same time: they ain’t calling to say, “One, two, three: PERFECT HEALTH!” What they were calling to say was that the show that I got an offer on was not able to meet my asking price. I got indignant, forgetting my rule about behaving in a way I’d want my kids to emulate– or the popcorn vendor in this scenario– and told my agents that that was unacceptable and they would have to counter. The studio’s response, in an irony only recognized by me, was the same response I gave my friend when he asked me to come in and pitch stories: “You can shove it.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing, they had some legalese in there but the gist was the same. My agents told me to relax– did they not realize who they were on the phone with?– and they would wait and see how things unfolded. I asked if it would be a good idea for me to call my friend, who was the show-runner to advocate for me and they said, “Yes, at a certain time, but this is not that time.” I said okay and hung up the phone then immediately called my friend thinking that one second later was the certain time my agents were talking about. I left a long rambling message to my friend, the kind that you would erase if the phone said, “If you are unsatisfied with your message, please press 9”, but after four and a half minutes, the computer operator just said, “You have exceeded the time limit. goodbye.” and sealed my neurotic rambling forever.
My agent called back a short while later with some news: another show was now showing interest in me. While I really liked that show, too, I didn’t really know the show runner. “Great. What do I do?” “Just be patient.” “Patient. Got it.” I then hung up the phone and sent my friend an email. After a few hours where I was steaming over the indignation of being “overpaid” instead of “way overpaid” I finally got in touch with my friend and told him how upset I was. He then told me how hard he had been working to get the studio to offer even what they offered. He told me he went out on a limb to advocate for me and that if I really really really pushed him I might be able to get more, but it would come at his expense and the expense of the show. It was something only a friend would do. So I did something that a friend would do and backed off. I told him I had to talk to my “people” which was really my wife. I told her about my conversation and how I would be earning less this year than last–still more than the guy who killed bin Laden, but still, it’s not a good trend in a town that loves trends. I also told her how it didn’t make sense to me on a spiritual level because I know that things happen for a reason and I know that I spend my money wisely, giving a lot of it away to charity and my kids’ school and replacing things that the dogs chew up. And she said that maybe this meaning of this job isn’t to make the most money, maybe this job is about working with a friend and being on a team– she said “meaning” instead of “lesson” because she knows I hate lessons. Last year I made more money because I was the boss- but that’s not my job this year. This year my job is to be a team player, which is sometimes harder for me because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like to be the boss, and also because I always throw myself completely into everything I do. “So I should take the job?” “I’m not going to tell you what to do.” “Should I wait and see–” “Take the damn job!”
So I did. And I will be working with a good friend who truly wants to see me do well, and I will have the opportunity to make a friend look good– which is not an instinct cultivated in Hollywood, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned it’s not to let Hollywood dictate what’s right and wrong. The deal should close tomorrow. Above all, I am grateful to have a job. Working with friends. On a funny show that I will do my damnedest to make funnier. And the hours will be long and I will be surrounded by food, so I hope what they say is true: “It doesn’t matter what you eat,” and “Girls like guys with big asses.”
I woke up this morning so grateful that it was Saturday and I wouldn’t have to talk to my agents or check my email or go on-line to see which shows got picked up and which got cancelled. As I lay in bed, finally relaxed after a long stressful week, my clock radio clicked on, reminding me that it was only Tuesday. I quickly grabbed my iPhone that was next to my bed and went on-line to see which shows got picked up and which got cancelled and whether or not either of my agents responded to the last furious email I sent before I went to bed. All my late night emails to my agent follow the same format: “[Sincere thanks for your hard work]. [Self-righteous rant venting frustrations]. [Lofty goals]. [Passionate case to aim higher which is subtly deprecating]. [Apology for subtle deprecation]. [Sincere thanks for hard work]. [Closing that implies I want them to do more].” Thankfully, my agents are not as emotional as I am, especially my Senior Agent, so the emails do no harm and are hopefully not forwarded around the office. I usually receive a phone call later in the day responding to the gist of the email, but since I thought today was Saturday, I was relieved to not get that call. When I found out it was Tuesday, I left a message for my agents to call me. That is my morning cup of anxiety that fuels me for the day.
Tuesday, as we know by now, is the day that my wife and I take a class on spirituality together. It is a much better way to start the day then by, say, checking my email then leaving a message for my agent. In fact, this class is supposed to provide a counter-balance to that. A chance to put in perspective what I do for a living, in favor of finding what’s truly important. I once had a friend tell me that the only thing we can control in a given situation is how we react in that situation. And we want to react in a way we can be proud to tell our kids about. Now, since my kids have seen my entire spectrum of paternal emotions from mild-frustration to severe frustration, I usually don’t have a lot of success in exercising those object lessons in the context of parenting. However, I have had a couple of instances in work where I was really proud of how I reacted. The one that most comes to mind is the last pilot I (almost) shot, which was an autobiographical show about a man who is deep (deep) down a good person, but often comes off as a jerk. It was called Mr. Nice Guy and it was completely miscast with an actor who had no internal sense of anxiety. Ironically, I thought that by firing him I would get him to react in a frustrated way, but he even took that news in stride. In hindsight, it was an opportunity for me to have a big break as a show creator, but the day before we were set to shoot the head of the network called me in to a secret room above the stage. I asked the person who was sent down to summon me, a low-level exec named Richard if I could bring a friend with me to hear what I thought the notes on the runthrough would be, but Richard said, “No, this meeting is just you”, in much the same way that Tom Hagen told Tessio that Michael Corleone would not be driving with him to the meeting with Barzini. It was at that moment that I knew I was being set up for a plug-pulling. “Can you get me off the hook, Richard? For old times’ sake?” “Can’t do it Jeffy.” I remember walking into that room, the sound of my footsteps echoing on the painting cement, and seeing the entire network sitting on one side of the table, with a space for me on the other side. The head of the network told me he was pulling the plug on the show– the main actor didn’t work and it was killing the material. I told him he was right, I had sensed it myself and tried writing around it, but ultimately this was the write call. It wasn’t personal, it was business. I thanked everyone in the room for their support and they thanked me for being a mensch. I said I had one request, please try to bury this story, I really don’t want to see the headline in tomorrow’s trade publications reading, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. The head of publicity told me she was way ahead of me. As I remember the story, on my way out I was handed a copy of the next day’s Variety which read, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, but in the real version I had to wait until the next day to see that headline.
Today’s lesson was in the same vein. It was that the only thing we can control is our ability to make ourselves better people. This desire for self-improvement was what separates us from other animals. Now, I have friends and family that believe that animals and humans should be treated the same, but guess what? That’s stupid. Animals are not the same as people. People are more important. Don’t think so? Then I’d like to see how one of my hardcore vegan friends would react if they got on a flight and the pilot was a cat or an owl. Here’s further proof that animals are not the same as people: I have been walking my dogs now for over three months and they have taken a total of zero pees and zero poops on the hike. I have taken at least a dozen leaks on the hike. Today was the most glaring lack of bathroom going: my Boxer sniffed around, her anatomy clearly ready to poop, and actually started to squat before being distracted, then straightened up and carried on and walked another mile and a half, hopped back into the car and went home (I drove because dogs can’t drive). Contrast that to me who yesterday had to go so badly that I ran into Whole Foods, straight to the bathroom, and did my best impression of Mr. Bean trying to lay down a toilet seat cover– every time I turned around the automatic flusher would go off, sucking paper seat cover after seat cover into the toilet. Without going into detail, I finally achieved my goal (which involved me having to stay out of the electric eye of the toilet like Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible” which wasn’t pretty but was an ingenuity not seen in the animal kingdom). Anyway, where was I? Yes, what separates from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to improve ourselves. And as part of that, our ability to distill what is in our control, and what is not.
I had lunch today with an old friend, Tom, a business acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in way too long. I had jumped at the chance to meet him for lunch just to put a business lunch on my iCalendar, which I knew would be repeated by this faulty technology at least 2700 times making it seem like I was booked up for the year. And while the lunch was supposed to be business, the conversation quickly turned to life: being married, fear of not being able to provide for our family, getting older, staying relevant. He then confessed to me that he was suffering from anxiety and followed it with a question that proves that Tom doesn’t know me as much as I would think, “Do you ever get anxious?” Over the course of the lunch he asked me several times to try to make the face I made when he asked me that question. Of course I get anxious: Anxium ergo Sum: I fret therefore I am. During our lunch my phone rang and I saw on the caller ID it was my agent. I didn’t even think– I just clicked Ignore– wanting to connect with a friend, making a choice to stay in a moment that was really important. I left lunch and went back to my car to make the dreaded call, hearing in my head my agent giving me bad news about my potential deal. But as usual, my agent surprised me. He didn’t have any news and didn’t expect to have any news for at least another day. Instead we talked briefly about the job market, what I was looking for, what he as an agent was going to try to do and what I should do, which for the time being, was nothing. For me, nothing is the hardest thing for me to do, but it’s often the most important. We both hung up the phone knowing that we could only control so much of what was going to happen, but with me trying to focus on how to react to whatever the outcome is.
At the end of the day, after hiking my constipated dogs, I got home, exhausted and headed into my house– where I am under no illusion that I control anything. My kids greeted me at the door with the “Daddy!” that I have been training them to do since they were in utero, and I watched them do their homework, proud of the little human beings they were becoming. When it was time for bed, I took my son upstairs and lay with him despite his protestations that he wanted Mommy and instead of arguing with him or trying to control him, I let him wear himself out, trying to teach him the subtle lesson that you don’t always get what you want and me the subtle lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. I am due to find out more about my job offer tomorrow– if it’s in line with what I was hoping for– or if it’s not. Either way, it’s out of my hands. What I do know is that I’m going to try to react in a way that I can brag to my kids about– hopefully not in our new one bedroom apartment under the freeway. And I’m going to use my last six days– and hopefully the thousands after that– to strive to be a better person. Because as a human being, that’s all I got.
Last week while my wife was driving the kids to school a woman stopped traffic by trying to make a left turn from the center lane. My wife, in a rare lapse of composure, complained out loud about what a bad driver this woman was. If it were me, by the way, my not-so-rare lapse of composure would have been followed by telling explaining to the kids why they’re not allowed to say the words in school that daddy just said in the car. But back to my wife– she was late, because it was Monday through Friday, so she was especially frustrated by being delayed further by some %&*$#@*!ing @#&hole who can’t drive, when my son piped up from the back seat, “It’s okay, Mommy, everything happens for the good.” It was something he had learned in school, and something my wife has repeated to me countless times: every time a flight is delayed, or there’s traffic or some %&*$#@*!ing @#&hole decides to take 35 items in the express lane and pay with a check. I’m actually surprised that my wife needed to hear that from my son because she had a first-hand experience with this notion on another trip to school when someone was blocking her from making a turn, so my wife had to take another way, only to pass, seconds later, a giant tree that had just fallen on a car, crushing it. Now, why that was for the good of the person whose car got crushed is not for me to decide. But in the big picture, I believe that there’s no way to be a happy person– or at least a non-depressed person– without internalizing that message somehow. Otherwise, everything is random and it makes no sense why bad things seem to happen to good people and why people are killing each other around the world and why there are horrible natural disasters and why I can’t seem to get a show on tv. I would say that subjugating myself to that belief is the single biggest challenge I face. And getting a show on the air.
Today was the first day in around two weeks that I did not have any meetings booked. Mostly because I seemed to have met everyone in town, but also because it was the day of our school’s fundraising golf tournament. I was on the fundraising committee, I think, because there is a belief that if you are in the entertainment industry that you are somehow either connected or important. And because I donated the equivalent of a mortgage payment to play in the tournament. That got me two rounds of golf plus a cardboard sign at one of the holes with my name on it. “Hi, Jeff, it’s Robyn, we were wondering what to put on your sign this year?” “It doesn’t matter to me.” “Okay, then can we just put Jeff Astrof, Producer, The New Adventures of Old Christine?” “No. That’s changed.” “What would you like to be called now?” “No, my name is still Jeff Astrof, but I no longer work on The New Adventures of Old Christine, it got cancelled”. “Oh, that’s too bad, I liked that show.” “It’s okay, I had a new show, called Bleep My Dad Says”. “Oh, okay, so I’ll put Jeff Astrof, Producer, Bleep My Dad Says”. “No, that show got cancelled, too.” “Oh, then…” “Just put Jeff Astrof” “Oh. I’m sorry.” And that was the tone of my day. Not that I didn’t take advantage of it: since it was a fund-raiser, there were people coming around selling things like Mulligans and raffle prizes, that benefit the school. “Can I interest you in a Mulligan Package for $150?” “No, thank you.” “Are you sure, it goes to the school.” “I don’t think so–” “Don’t you want kids to be able to–” “MY SHOW GOT CANCELLED TODAY, OKAY?!” It’s a language everyone understands in LA. Conversation over.
I was hoping that golf would serve as a way to relax and an opportunity to hang out with a friend of mine, who happened to be the guy who created the show that got cancelled, but didn’t play that card as often as I did. Two things ruined that: 1) my friend had to leave a few holes in to go on a meeting on another show and 2) I hate golf. To me, there is nothing relaxing about golf. It’s the kind of thing I would like to be good at, but it requires so much time and energy and money that it doesn’t seem like it will ever pay for itself. I remember a long time ago, back when I had a development deal (ie: I got paid to do nothing– I told you it was a long time ago) I happened upon a friend of mine at a golf course while on vacation. We decided to play together and he asked me if I was any good. Back then I had the time and the money and my 15 year old clubs were brand new, so I was actually pretty not-awful at golf. I asked him if he was good. He said no. I told him I was pretty good– I averaged a 95. He told me he averaged an 82. I then asked him how often he played. He said, “almost never. You?” “I play all the time. Once a week.” He responded, “I also play once a week.” You see what I mean? What the hell? It’s a stupid game and the only thing that makes it worse when you’re a bad golfer is when you’re paired with two other people who are worse golfers. Even for golf, which on its best day isn’t the best thing you can do with 4 hours, this day was awful– bad shot after bad shot– firing $3.00 golfballs into ravines at a rate of two per hole adding to the cost of this ridiculously expensive day. Hearing the joke, “you know what? I think I’m going to take my Mulligan now” Every. Single. Time. someone took a mulligan which happened to be after Every. Single. Shot. The day was interminable: I constantly looked down at the scorecard to see when our day would be mercifully over, only to find that we had 12 holes to go. It was like flying back from Israel where you watch Avatar and The King’s Speech and read two chapters of your book and you look up at the map and see that you’re over Romania and you want to jump out of the plane. How is this golf game for the good?!
The only distraction I had from the distraction that was supposed to be my day of golf was constantly refreshing my iPhone to see if there was any news about a job for me. I was finally rewarded with a cryptic email from a friend who had his show picked up that indicated that he was either going to make me an offer to work with him, or he was being especially cruel. A moment later, I got a call from my agent confirming that my friend was not cruel. I told the two other guys in my now threesome that I had to take this call from my agent– thus solidifying me as a douchebag in their minds– and asked if they could play the next twenty minutes (one hole) without me. At this point I believe they had run out of balls and were using pine cones, so I’m not sure they even heard me.
When I started this journal, a friend of mine said he enjoyed it because it was very raw and candid. I told him that was what I was going for. The downside, of course, is that people know your business. Today, upon checking in I had a dozen people say to me things like, “Day 93, huh?” “You have 7 days to lose those 20 pounds, eh?” “You make me feel better about myself as a father!” and “Can I date your wife when she leaves you?” While I have to be honest in this journal, I also owe it to myself and my family to be discrete about certain things. Because of that I will not be able to talk about– at least for now– the conversation that I had with my agent. Needless to say, there are a lot of great things about the offer I received, first and foremost being it is an offer on a show that I like with characters I feel I can relate to and write for. It would also mean working with a dear friend of mind with whom I haven’t worked for year. But there are also a couple of obstacles to work out. My agent tells me to be patient, but he hasn’t seen me try to fish my nine iron out of the lake. As you can surmise by now, I’m the kind of guy who likes to get things done quickly: I got married in the second venue we looked at, to the first girl I dated after I broke up with my Crazy Ex–. But I need to remember that these obstacles that are there are there for a reason: they are just women make a left turn from the center lane. And if I truly believe that everything’s for the good– and I do– then things are going to work out just fine.
The good news about Sunday is that you know that there’s no way you’re going to hear anything bad about your job. The bad news is, that is completely incorrect: at noon I got a text that the show I had been working on was rumored to have been cancelled. By 12:35 it was no longer a rumor. By 1:00 the only thing that was left was the crying. By 1:15 nothing was left. On a normal day, this would have been the big news, but today there were other things at play. Here’s how the day started.
Knowing that I would not be burdened by any work news, today was the day I picked to assault the garage. At 9:25 a.m. my good friend Melinda, the woman who had introduced me to my first car and my first girlfriend out here (aka: The Worst Car I Ever Had and My Crazy Ex–) showed up at my door to make good on those past introductions. And boy did she ever. She brought along her friend Jose, and together with my wife and me started going through the garage with reckless abandon. I told her to be brutal– if we didn’t use it we would throw it out or donate it. Sasha’s play kitchen? Gone. Caleb’s Car Seat? See ya. The worm composter cum-worm oven? Adios. My mountain bike that I got 19 years ago because The Worst Car Ever didn’t work– now hold on a second. Melinda asked if I used it. “Yes.” “It doesn’t have tires.” “I’m going to put them on.” “Where do you use it?” “On the mountain.” “Which mountain?” “Uh… that’s right: Witch Mountain.” The mountain bike stayed. But virtually everything else went. We filled a giant pickup truck with kids toys and clothes– except for the really cute baby clothes which Shawni got to keep in exchange for my mountain bike, and left a dumpster overflowing with detritus from 11 years of refusing to throw anything out.
The best thing about the cleaning was that it was addictive– once the garage started to get clean, the frenzy spread to the basement where party favors, old telephones, diplomas, window dressings, one of our boilers– all became casualties. The only occasional stumbling block was when one of the kids saw that we were throwing something of theirs out. “Hey, why are you throwing out my stumbling blocks!” my daughter would cry, and we would retrieve them from Jose’s truck. But overall, it was a magical morning. It turns out, that our garage has hidden compartments, and shelves and even a floor! Things we had never seen before. It was hard to believe that this was the same garage that two years ago an exterminator refused to go into even though we had black widow spiders. I was once at an amusement part where an obese couple waited an hour and a half on line for the loop-de-loop roller coaster, just to be told that they were too fat to ride. At the time I remember thinking, “Okay, that’s gotta be the sign to them that it’s time to mix in a salad.” For us, when an exterminator finds your garage too disgusting, that should have been the sign. But it wasn’t. It was me having 100 days off that finally motivated me to do something about it. It was 11:59 a.m. and the world looked great.
I didn’t get chills when I got the text that my show wasn’t coming back– not like the phone calls I had received on six previous pilots of mine that didn’t make the cut. Maybe it was because I was already purging things from my life, that this show was just another thing that would be chucked in the dumpster. Or maybe, like my wife said, it was the official closing of one door so that another one could open. When I started writing this journal, I had hoped it would time out like a nice story– the first act introducing our hero and his obstacles: cleaning my garage, getting into shape, finding a job; the second act adding some twists– not being good at being a stay at home dad, realizing he had work to do as a parent, throw in a trip to eat up some pages; and the third act would be where everything came together, hopefully for a happy ending. Well, we’re nearing the end of the third act and one of the obstacles– or characters–the garage, has been put in its place. We are still awaiting the conquest of the last obstacle– finding a job, and hopefully it will play out like any good action movie, where our hero slays it in the second to last scene, hopefully with a good pun. As for getting in shape, that is the character that shows up at the end, still very much alive setting up for a sequel.
The one thing I know right now is that I don’t know what I’ll be doing this coming year. When I started this journal, a writer friend warned me against it, saying, “What are you going to do when your unemployment lasts more than 100 days?” It was reminiscent of my friends and family asking me, “What are you going to do when you don’t make it as a writer?”, 20 years ago when I decided to quit my job and move to LA. Back then it didn’t dawn on me that I wouldn’t make it as a writer. I’m not so naive right now, especially in this economy and this environment where another friend likened being a sitcom writer to being a lamplighter, but I wrote 100 days off because I have faith that that will be when this story ends. In 19 years as a tv writer, I have only known in 4 or 5 of them what I’d be doing the next season, and this will just be another of those gut-churning times. Now, of course, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, and there’s another third act twist that happened today: my wife got offered her first job since having Sasha. I hope that door is not the door that opened and I’m destined to be Mr. Mom, because that’s a book that I know doesn’t end well for me or the kids. But in the meantime I remain a man of faith. Faith that this week will bring me a job offer from an amazing show that I can help to make a huge hit and that will allow me to not have to write another journal for many more years. And while right now I don’t know what that show is, there’s one thing I do know: I HAVE A CLEAN GARAGE!
It has been a Friday night tradition for my wife and me for as long as I can remember– I can only remember back around two weeks, but I think the tradition extends to when we were married– that we tell each other what we love about each other for that week. The tradition expanded to include our children once we had them. I always start with the kids first, struggling hard to remember all the good things I was thinking about them leading up to Friday dinner, that evaporated instantly when I yell at them something where the subtext is clearly, “You’re ruining everything!” Ultimately, for my daughter I usually wind up highlighting some social achievement, while she dances nervously, not wanting to be the center of attention. For my son, I usually wind up talking about some act of kindness he did while he does something to try to get a laugh, resulting in me again saying something with the subtext “You’re ruining everything!” The most fun part for me is still getting to tell my wife what I love about her in front of our kids– something I never had the opportunity to see my parents do. I usually have several things to tell her, while when it’s my wife’s turn she usually vamps by saying, “Honey. Where to start? Hmm. Honey!” before landing on how helpful I was in dropping off the dry cleaning or picking up dinner. But then she’ll add how sincerely proud she is of me, really for whatever I’ve been trying to do that week– like going on meetings to get a job. The subtext of what I always love about her– which was text last night– was that she always makes me feel like what I’m doing is important. It could be seen as sad that my biggest achievement in the eyes of the woman who took me for better or for worse was that I took a pile of dirty clothes to get cleaned, but in a way, it’s actually more impressive that she loves me for that as much as, say, for getting a job that allows us to dry clean clothes after every wearing.
After dinner, which as usual contains some big laughs, usually courtesy of my son who does an earnest impression of something or someone, or reacts with extreme drama to a droplet of water that touched him– we’ve chosen to deal with his own level of crazy by laughing at it– I tell Shawni to let me put the dishes away then she and I can hang out. By my opting to do the dishes, of course, it means Shawni puts the kids to bed. This always works out better for me because I never yell at the dishes and they never tell me they like it when mommy does them better. I then skip upstairs, hoping to have some good quality time with my wife without the distraction of our iPhones to find… that my kids are awake in my bed but my wife is not. Ordinarily, I would be extremely frustrated by this, but earlier in the day I had read a copy of a children’s book titled, “Go the F— to Sleep”. It is the perfect story of a father trying to get his kid to sleep with all the bargaining, crying, pleading– on the part of the father– only to be frustrated and wind up going to sleep before the kid. The book was funny because it was true– and it made me feel like not such a freak. On nights like this, I usually crawl into my daughter’s bed amidst the literally 100 Barbies that she had laid out for some sort of party, or cry for help.
Growing up Jewish, I never had the experience of waking up early to see what Santa brought me, so the closest I can come to understanding that feeling of expectation is running downstairs to see if the mousetrap got its prey when we have mice. This morning, since we didn’t have mice, I scurried downstairs to see if the fax machine had delivered any news about my career. While I don’t answer the phones on Saturday, if my agent wants to fax me information about my career, there’s nothing I can do to stop him. Is it kosher? Probably technically, but if what I’m trying to do is have a day away from the office, it’s not the best idea. This morning, it didn’t matter, though: the world of Hollywood as it pertains to me stopped at sundown. Either that or people were buzzing about town, doing business, making deals, so busy that they forget to fax me to tell me what’s going on while I’m explaining to my son why he can’t die of lead poisoning because he put one of his plastic soldiers in his mouth. For better or for worse, I am isolated today from the world of Hollywood, not knowing if a job has passed me by or if there’s a great one waiting for me.
I– and even my wife– sometimes worry that I don’t spend enough time outside of work with entertainment people. The people I associate with on Saturdays are for the most part not “in the industry”: they do unimportant things like oncology, or surgery or law or building low income housing. They don’t know about the upfronts or staffing season mid-season pick-ups. Knowing them doesn’t help me get a job. The friends we had over for lunch today are a British couple whose kids go to school with our kids. He’s an aircraft leasing lawyer and she is a stay-at-home mom. They are dear, sweet, people and as many times as I’ve tried explaining to them why I can’t just “write and shoot my own show” or tell Warner Brothers that I “demand a raise” it doesn’t seem to stick. So the conversation changes to our kids and our school and our last vacation and our summer plans and slowly but surely I’m not listening for the fax machine. We laughed together, shared our fears together, and finally, me and the other husband took a nap together on the couch.
When the sun finally set, and with no more dishes to do, I read my daughter a story as she went to sleep, while my wife tried desperately to get my son the F to sleep. I then ran to go on-line to check the assortment of work-related emails that would bombard me, only to find a couple of new Facebook friend requests and Mrs. Maria Johnson of Hong Kong who is dying and wants to leave me “ten millions of dollars US$” because she got my name from the internet. It turns out, I was right, nothing in Hollywood did happen while I was unplugged. I’ll never know if my choice to check myself out on Friday nights and Saturdays costs me work. What I do know is that it doesn’t seem to matter for my wife, or my kids, or our British friends, or Mrs. Maria Johnson, who for some reason love me for who I am. And that will have to be good enough for me.
There is a dumpster in front of my house right now. While its intended purpose will be fulfilled on Sunday when I administer an all-out assault on my garage, it served the auxiliary purpose of reminding me of my mood. Today was another exhausting day of meetings, scheduled physically as far apart as two meetings can be scheduled and still be called “Hollywood” meetings. I told my wife that I feel like a traveling salesman, and the product that I’m selling is me. This morning I ran into a friend of mine– the kind of friend who says things like, “do you think that shirt looks good on you?” and “are you struggling with your weight again?”– who looked at my scraggly salt and pepper beard and said, “So… no meetings?” I told him that I had a lot of meetings, actually. He responded, “Oh. Do you think that beard looks good on you?” The truth is, no, I don’t. I think it makes me look 5-10 years older than I am– or than I think I look. Or maybe it just makes me look as old as I am. In any case, I am not a true “salesman” type in that I am not trying to make anything prettier than it is– I believe that my work and my personality should sell themselves. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve made a career out of “what you see is what you get” hoping that you like what you see.
The big problem would be, of course, if I’m wrong. The other day I played a practical joke on my agent that I will talk about now even though it has not been fully realized. My Junior Agent, who is extremely dedicated and enthusiastic has been working tirelessly on my behalf. His reward from me has been a continued stream of emails imploring him to work harder. Anyway, after just about every meeting I have, my agent calls me and tells me that they loved me and that I’m in the mix and that I killed it, etc., etc.– stuff that they teach you to say when you become an agent. After a meeting the other day, which seemed to go pretty well, I asked the person I was meeting with if when my agent calls, she would tell him that I was an arrogant jerk and that if I expected to get work, he better sit me down and talk with me. I did this to see how that news would be filtered through my agent who is nothing but nice and supportive of me, but mostly because I thought it would be something we could laugh about when the tension broke– I would tell him almost immediately. I waited all day to hear from him about the meeting. Then the next day. Then the next until I finally thought, “Huh. Why isn’t he telling me? Is he trying to protect my feelings from one bad meeting out of a dozen great ones?” And that thought was followed by the more paranoid thought, “What if he had been getting that exact call after each one of my meetings so this call wasn’t a big deal? What if the joke was on me?”
As it turns out, my agent never made contact with this person– or his assistant is just protecting my feelings. But the truth is, these are the feelings of insecurity that start to seep in when you’re looking to fill one of only a dozen or so jobs out there. And like Tom Petty so famously said, “the waiting is the hardest part”, especially someone who has a high idling motor. I ran into a bookstore this morning between meetings and saw a book that said, “Becoming more Patient”. I immediately picked it up until I read the subtitle, “A 30 day guide to becoming more relaxed”. Who the hell has 30 days to waste on becoming more patient? My wife, of course, has all the patience in the world. She told me again that she’s not worried because she knows that whatever happens will be for the best, and all I have to do is control the things I can and let everything else run its course. I told that same thing to a writer friend the other morning who said that it really helped him. I then asked him to tell it to me so it could help me. That’s not to say that my wife telling me these wonderful calming things doesn’t help, it’s just that she’s expected to be comforting, that’s her job. Sometimes you have to hear these things from an unlikely source. And just like that, my Senior Agent called.
I once had a suspicious freckle removed by a dermatologist, Dr. Fried, who told me he’s sure it’s nothing to worry about. In fact, he told me the only way he would call me back is in the unlikely event that the lab said it was something to worry about. Two weeks later my cell phone rang with the caller ID “Dr. Fried”, it might as well have been a skull and crossbones. I heard him say “Wahhh waahhhh wahhhh Melanoma wahhh wahhh wahhh”. Ultimately, the freckle was fine, which I found out by removing a six inch brick of skin around my rib cage. Anyway, the feeling that I had when I saw Dr. Fried’s name on my caller ID is the same feeling I have when my Senior Agent called. It seems to be his job to come out of semi-retirement to give me bad news– as I mention, he is a partner at the agency of Doom & Gloom. So tonight, when I saw his name on my caller ID, my freckle scar burned like Harry Potter and I picked up the phone and tremulously said, “heeelllllo?” Whereas I am religious, my Senior Agent is very much not– I think you have to divest yourself of your soul to be a partner in an agency. But sometimes he can say the exact right thing that can calm my own spinning soul.
He said he was just calling to check in and ask me how I was doing. (Phew, no career cancer.) I told him I was exhausted, about how I was a traveling salesman, about how hard it is to wait to hear news, etc. He told me he understood: I have a family to support, I like to work, it seems unfair, etc. He then said that everyone has a path, and that seemingly every year, for whatever reason, mine seems to be rocky at first but it always seems to work out. He then told me to hang in there and spend time with my family and then he had to “jump”, how agents get off the phone. And for some reason, this actually made me feel much better. Maybe it was the surprising nature of the source, but in any case, there was no reason to spend 30 FREAKING DAYS trying to calm myself down.
The sun will be setting in about an hour which means that Hollywood will have to go on without me for the next 25 hours. It also means that I will see my Senior Agent’s caller ID on my phone in about 61 minutes, knowing that there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. But as for now, the one thing I can control is logging out and spending time with my family and making that the most important thing in my life. At least for the next day.
Post Script: Junior Agent finally called about the meeting where I was an arrogant jerk– he said that the executive thought that “My tone was not consistent with their network’s brand.” I told him it was all a joke. He said he was in on the joke; turns out the executive was not as mean, er, funny as I was and couldn’t go through with it. He then told me that the meeting went great, they loved me, I’m in the mix and I killed it. And right now, the thing I can control is choosing to believe it.
The act of looking for a job has become my job. The hours are long, and so far the pay is zero. And it is actually more exhausting than the actual job I will ultimately (hopefully!) get. The irony, of course, is that I have pushed my agent non-stop to get me as many meetings as possible. And then when he gets me a meeting, I send him an email either saying, “Try harder” or “That is a good meeting. Now let’s get a great meeting.” My agent claims that my “funny” emails are motivating him to work even harder. I think it is no coincidence that he is making sure my meetings are booked as physically far from each other as possible. Speaking of funny emails, I sent a good one this morning to a friend of mine who is running a show that has a lot of buzz right now and is likely to get picked up. He asked me if I would be interested in working on it if it got picked up. I told him I’d love to come in and watch the DVD of the pilot and he said when I come in, it would be great if I could bring in some story pitches. Keeping in mind that I have worked with this friend before and have proven myself over the years, I thought the proper hilarious response would be to send him an email essentially recommending that he “shove it”– in words slightly more flowery than that. After I sent the email, I came home and told Shawni who’s face got really small. “What’s the matter?” “I think that was really mean.” “Of course it wasn’t mean, it was funny.” “I don’t understand why it’s funny.” “Because it’s so mean.” “I think it’s going to hurt his feelings.”
A– Was Shawni right– was the email offensive to a friend who was trying to reach out and give me the best possible chance at getting a job on his show and resulted in that friend having his feelings hurt?
B– Was Jeff right– the email was taken strictly as a joke because the friend knows that Jeff is famous for his outrageous email responses and the friend was more likely than ever to hire him?
A– 99.7% B– 0.3% Margin of error +/- .3%.
Well, for all you pessimists, I will tell you that the correct answer, of course, was A. In fact, not only did the email not get my point across, but it arrived as he was rushing his wife to the hospital with severe abdominal pains. It has long been a desire of mine to create an email service that when I hit “Send” immediately sends the email to Shawni who can either change it completely or delete it. Should I get another 100 days off, that will be the focus of my time.
After a series of apologetic emails to my friend, I seemed to have smoothed things over– and will go in to meet him tomorrow with several ideas for his show which, if this were a movie, he would tell me to “shove them”. But first it was off to meet with two friends whom I had recommended as writers on the show Friends after I left and who stayed with the show through its entirety– not bailing in the nick of time like I did after Season Two– and who now have two pilots that are up for contention. There are pros and cons to taking a meeting with people you already know. The pros are obvious: you have a certain comfort level with them and shared history. The cons are equally obvious: they have seen you drunk and naked in Hawaii. The worst part of any meeting, whether or not you know the person you’re meeting– is sitting in the waiting room outside the office hearing the muffled conversation happening in the meeting before you. Worse still, is when you hear nothing but raucous laughter coming from the other room. And the absolute worst is when the door opens and out walks other people you know, who also know the guy you’re meeting with, but who was never drunk and naked in front of him in Hawaii.
Was that the case today for me?
POLL RESULTS: Of course it was.
But it didn’t really matter, I had what I considered a good meeting with my friends, even though the acoustics of the room that seemed to provide the echoing laughter in the meeting before, must have changed when I got there. From that meeting it was off to another meeting on the exact opposite side of town. This time with someone I did not know. As I entered the office I noticed an eerie silence with boxes being packed up. It turns out, shortly before I got there this production company had learned that one of their shows just got cancelled. It was hardly fodder for a good comedy meeting. It wasn’t the worst set up I’ve ever had for a meeting; that honor belongs to my partner and my very first movie pitch. We were brought in by an old army buddy of my partner’s father who had made a billion dollars producing the seven (!) Police Academy movies, to pitch our take on a cruise ship comedy. We were waiting and waiting for the head of the studio, who finally arrived twenty minutes late with an ashen look on his face. As he slowly sat down in his chair he said somberly, almost trance-like, “I just got robbed at gun point. The robber stuck the barrel of the gun in my face and threatened to kill me. It happened in front of my house. All I can see is the barrel of the gun.” As he looked off with his thousand yard stare we began our pitch, “Okay. So picture ‘Stripes’ but on a cruise!” That movie never got made.
So, this meeting wasn’t that bad, but it suffered from the cumulative effects of all of the other meetings I had had up until this point. I told them honestly that this was the funniest pilot I had read, but when they asked which draft I was referring to, I could only muster something like, “The one with the guy. In the office.” I then had to backtrack on so many subjects– a hazard of not knowing my audience in advance– that I almost got dizzy. Producer: “How do you handle network notes?” Me: “Look, I’ve been writing for almost 20 years, I know whether or not there’s a problem without having to hear it from an executive.” P: “I think network notes are an important part of the process.” M: “Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. As much as you think you know, it’s comforting to have the network there to give you their thoughts.” P: “I just hate when they pitch their stuff.” M: “It’s the worst.” P: “Unless it’s a good fix.” M: “Then it’s the best.” That conversation went on for about ten minutes, followed by ones very similar to it, until I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought, except that it was exactly one step behind what the producer thought. Thankfully, we found common ground when it was discovered that we used to go to the same bar on Long Island and growing up and both used our fake ID’s to get in. M: “Hey, I wonder if we were ever there at the same time?” P: “I don’t know. Hey, were you ever there when that drunk guy got naked?” M: “Er… um, no. I should go.”
I drove home from the meeting completely spent, my eyes burning with smog and fatigue. I instinctively checked my email from my agent. “How was the meeting?” “Do better”, I wrote back. But I’m not sure if I was writing it to him or to me. Three more meetings set up for tomorrow. I can’t wait until I start work so I can relax.