Sunday, October 01, 2006

Agent [ey-junt] n. : someone who will lie to you as part of their natural respiration process and would happily stab you and fuck the wound while sweet-talking a more important client on their cell phone.

Like it or not, and speaking as one in the overwhelming majority of people making up the latter camp, agents are a fact of life, like pedophilia and inoperable cancer. It’s true that one could walk into The Ivy at lunchtime spraying ammo and be hard-pressed to miss an even-dozen of these scheming bags of wet catshit shaped vaguely like men. And certainly, in the short term, this is one of the most compelling arguments yet devised for walking into The Ivy at lunch spraying ammo.

But when one then stands in The Ivy afterward, ankle-deep in whatever pus-like fluid these creatures leak when mortally wounded, it is inescapable that nothing really has been gained; by dusk, new creatures will have moved into their hovels, as sinister and repugnant and determinedly evil as those they replaced. It is a Sisyphean struggle against the dark and indomitable forces in what Blake would certainly refer to as ‘dark Satanic mills’ lining Wilshire between Robertson and Little Santa Monica.

If you are heavily armed and in the neighborhood of The Ivy, however, it is not what anyone could call an altogether wasted lunchtime.

Our Story Begins:

I had sold two pilots in the previous three development seasons, and so hopes were high as we prepared for the upcoming one. My manager at the time called and told me there were some agents he wanted me to meet. I wasn’t completely satisfied with my agent at the time, but I figured he was about as good as it gets. Not so, said my manager.


I went to meet the agents: Steve and Eydie. Although their agency--Genocide--had recently been acquired by Parasite, they were still in the old offices. Commonly, agencies designate an office with an impressive view or décor in which agents pitch prospective clients, rather than their own smaller and less scenic offices. This gives them the dual opportunities to start being dishonest early, and to show that they have learned at least something in however many years they have been operating as an adjunct to show business.

I was led into a corner office with my bottle of water and took a seat. I never open the water or eat the food inside an agency. That there was something different about this agency became inescapable when the blinds were drawn remotely, the lights dimmed, and what were apparently velvet curtains covering the far wall began to part. Is that a stage?

An unseen announcer whose voice I recognized as that of the assistant who had escorted me in said: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Parasite agency is proud to present Steve and Eydie!"
Two figures strode out, waving and blowing kisses to the audience they apparently imagined around me.

"Hello, everybody! I’m Steve!" one said, out of a smile like someone had stuffed his mouth full of bathroom tiles. He wore a powder blue tuxedo with lapels immediately evocative of hang gliding. Into one of them was a large fake rose. He wore a ruffled shirt and a velvet bow-tie roughly the size one would find on the hood of a Lexus intended as a Christmas gift.
"And I’m Eydie!" his partner blurted like it was a secret too good to keep, wrapped in yards and yards of sequins and topped by an extensive feather boa matching the gaudy green stone set in a broach.
"It’s great to host you here at the Genocide lounge!" Steve beamed irrationally.
"I’ll say!" seconded Eydie. Neither of them had yet made eye contact with me. I looked around uncomfortably.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is our honor and privilege to have someone very special in the audience tonight. Please put your hands together for Mr. Bachem Macuno! Let’s hear it!"
Eydie urged me on so insistently that I was soon uneasily clapping for myself. Steve continued: "Bachem is a really out-of-sight writer.
"He’s dynamite!" Eydie interjected.
"When I read his samples, I was like, wow." Why was he snapping his fingers arhythmically? "What did I say when I told you about this guy?"
"You said he was out-of-sight."
"He’s dynamite," she conceded yet again.
"You are darn tootin.’ And you know what else I said? I said ‘why isn’t this guy rich and successful?’"
"Because someone’s current representation isn’t doing their job," Eydie stage-whispered mock-confidentially.
"She said it, folks, I didn’t!" Steve laughed in comic disavowal. "But seriously, the agency you’re at, they’re great; they don’t know how to build careers. It’s not something they’re able to do. But us: for example, I’ve got a writer, Sophie Baron, and let me tell you, she’s out-of-sight…"
"Dynamite," Eydie added dutifully.
"Talk about building a career," Steve continued, " I just sold her TV movie ‘I’m Not Leaving Without My Uterus’ to the Estrogen Channel. So I know a little something about building careers. Anyway, enough with the stage banter, let’s sing a song!"
"I thought you’d never ask!" chortled Eydie. I have to admit, that he would ask never occurred to me either.
"Here’s a tune from C. Carson Parks, one of our favorite composers. He’s out-of-sight," Said Steve.
"He’s dynamite." Edie confirmed.
"He’s dead," I thought to myself as the music came on and the opening notes of ‘Somethin’ Stupid’ were heard:

I know I stand in line until you think you have the time to spend the evening with me…

Only they weren’t singing it to each other. If you thought father and daughter Sinatras singing this song of amorous yearning to each other topped the bizarreness potential of the tune, you likely never considered how having it sung to you by two talent agents in a dim makeshift lounge at three in the afternoon feels.

I practice every day to find some clever lines to say to make the meaning come true…

As they stepped from the stage and approached me, the glass over the ‘Discomfort’ gauge on my mental dashboard shattered.

The time is right, your perfume fills my head, the stars get red and, oh, the night's so blue..

They were on either side of me. Steve smelled like he passed out by the drainage pipe that releases waste from the Old Spice factory. Eydie’s breath carried the unmistakable effluvia of benzodiazepines.

And then I go and spoil it all by saying somethin’ stupid like I love you.

Their faces were a foot apart, and my head was between them. I was too terrified to look at either of them directly. I needed very badly to pee. They continued to harmonize into my ears.

I love you… I love you.

"So?" my then-manager asked, "What did you think?"
"I still have a really healthy gag reflex," I bright-sided into the phone.
"They loved you," he informed me. A quick consultation of the agent-speak code book would translate ‘they loved you’ into ‘they acknowledged you exist.’ "They’re really excited about repping you."
"How could you tell? Did they do a medley?"
"Look, we’re heading into development season. I’m going to call and tell them you are their newest client."
"Out-of-sight," I sighed. "Dynamite."

Development season is when the networks hear ideas for new shows, and it’s a very busy time of year, as the most powerful television executives and the most creative minds set about formulating new shades of brown. This is nothing against TV executives—I have yet to meet a dumb one—or the people creating shows, all of whom are generally more creative than the medium will allow. It’s a product of the audiences, who statistically speaking must be of average intelligence but unfortunately tend to most reliably indulge borderline-moronic taste; which is why you can take whatever show can dare to be likened to ‘cerebral’ and put it up against C-list celebrities doing anything, and your clever show will be left bleeding from the anus, ratings-wise. The truth is, people don’t want to watch Wodehouse after a hard day’s work. But they will tune in unfailingly to watch Lisa Rinna clean her bathroom, especially if you allow them to call in and vote on what cleanser she should use.

So, if you, dear reader, were put in a position of anticipating the viewership of a…well, I don’t want to say functionally retarded audience, but I think you by now grasp my meaning, you too would make choices that would be very easy to criticize, not taking the factor outlined above into account. You too would require the writers who came to you to be creatively out-of-the-box while chain-sawing off their legs and nailing the stumps to the exact center of the box. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt their chances to have a zhlubby working-class guy with an improbably hot wife starring, as long as we’re being honest.

Hey, I’m no better. I’ve worked on shows that were the comedy equivalent of abortion mills and cringed to see my family name in the credits, all the while living in suspended terror that they would decide not to pick up my option.

Another example: I am at this moment in possession of a pilot that is the best thing I’ve ever written, funnier by half than 90% of the sitcoms left on TV, but mine has only a small chance of finding a TV executive free enough from the grip of ovine groupthink to write the check and buy it. "Oh Christ, it’s funny," they’ll say. "I can see 10 years of this show."
"But it’s a (trapdoor word); we would never do that here. Unless…"
"Unless what?"
"Unless you can write it about a fat guy and his improbably hot wife…"
Sometimes, it’s enough to make you want to paint the wall behind them red. With a shotgun.

So. Anyway.

We had a pretty busy development season pitching schedule, to Steve’s credit. The problem was my show concept. My ideas are usually along the lines of Siamese twin sisters where one is a nun and the other’s a crack whore, so extra effort went into making the show I was pitching as benign as possible, and I really ‘benigned’ the nuts right off of it—not that this wasn’t at least in part at the urging of my representation, but it was my choice to sit there and present a show I didn’t really feel much personal affection for or belief in. The lesson is, you can’t go in with the attitude that says ‘this is the kind of shit you probably buy. Give me a check.’ Everyone has their pride, at least when they can afford it, and folks could certainly afford it in this instance.

Early in development season, I finished a screenplay. I had never written one before, and didn’t really know what to think until Steve and Eydie told me their opinion.
"It’s not out-of-sight."
"It’s not dynamite."
And they declined to show it to any of the motion picture lit agents over at Parasite. I sort of figured they must be right, and put the script away. It didn’t really bother me, because writing for television’s really all that ever interested me and I wrote it to kill time anyway. That Steve and Eydie elected to smother it in its crib was probably for the best.

As development season was clearly slipping away, I went ahead and wrote the pilot I had been halfheartedly pitching, because I knew I could make it funny. This isn’t to sound immodest, it’s just something I’m comfortable stating the truth of, like the fact that I’m tall and disarmingly handsome. I’m not saying I have a grotesquely massive penis or anything, because that’s not actually true.

I mean, is it massive? Christ yes. It scares Pit Bulls. But grotesquely massive? No. That would be overstating it.

So I wrote the pilot and turned it in, and got an enthusiastic call from Steve in January.
"Baby, that pilot was out-of-sight. I think we can get this into the networks."
"Yeah. Now what I want you to do…"
What he wanted me to do was play a game agencies and management companies like to call ‘Service Our More Important Clients.’ There was a Parasite client who was semi-prominent owing to the fixed nature of his tongue’s relationship to another, more prominent actor’s asshole. He seemed unlikely to carry a show even by the zhlubby standard of the guys among whom the improbably hot TV wives are currently divvied up, but I was being told to change some of the fundamentals of my protag so as to serve what could be generously referred to as said actor’s ‘range.’ Now, already I feel like what I’ve got is pretty strong. I still believe if you take the three or four best jokes, they’re better than the three or four best jokes of shows that were actually shot and ordered by networks. I know that this isn’t the standard by which a show is or even should be judged. For instance, a show needs two people dancing around fucking for as long as possible so there can be a ‘very special episode’ when they inevitably do. It keeps things interesting until Lisa Rinna starts scrubbing her shower tiles, I guess.

So I retrofit the pilot for the new improbable lead I’ve been assured the networks are desperate to find a vehicle for, and then I get the call from Steve:
"Well, baby…It’s quarter to three; there’s no one in the place, ‘cept you and me..."
"What’s going on with my pilot, Steve?"
"It’s too late, I can’t get anyone to read anything. The orders have been made."
I taste a bitter powder in my mouth and realize I am grinding my molars at the thought he had me start on this rewrite less than a week before.
"Alright. I’m going to start working on a spec for staffing season."
"Out-of-sight," he said perfunctorily.

Spec scripts in television are sort of calling cards to get jobs on shows with. You really have to show off, which is great. It’s not enough to write an average episode of a given show; you have to write an exceptional episode, and considering that even the average episodes are written by a table full of professional comedy writers, you fucking better show off. There are enough unread ‘Two and a Half Men’-stabs to buttress most of the cliffs along PCH with, so good luck.

I originally wanted to do a script where the cast of ‘Scrubs’ faced a closure and had to move over to the hospital setting of ‘ER,’ just so we could see what kind of fantasy sequences JD drifts into to escape when he’s confronted with a multiple gunshot wound patient on PCP, &c. I finally decided to do a ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ though, because everybody was doing them and I felt like I could lap the field on it.

When I finished, I was confident that it was pretty funny stuff, and was anxious to go out with it. Steve and Eydie could not have been of a more divergent opinion.
"This was absolutely not out-of-sight."
"This was whatever the opposite of dynamite is."
Clearly, they thought this spec was so bad it made them sorry they ever learned to read. I think a lot of this reaction had to do with the fact that I used actual executives names throughout and even had one involved in an unfortunate encounter with Larry’s bottle of piss. These are, after all, people with whom they have relationships, however abstract and expedient my use of them was. They have undoubtedly and probably categorically sent out weaker specs, but there was no way they were going to let anyone see this one.

OK, I’m still determined to make something happen in the approaching staffing season—when all the shows that got ordered hire the writers that are going to put their shows together. I decide I’m going to call attention to myself, and I think I know how: I take a bunch of those ‘Love Is…" comics and put new captions on them, changing the sensibility pretty markedly. Check them out. My idea was to create a desk calendar with a different comic on every page for every day, exhorting them to meet with and hire me. I was going to do it at my own expense, the only thing I needed them to do was send it to show runners. I printed up a booklet of a few dozen of the comics and dropped it off for them to see.
I called a couple days later, after not hearing anything. I asked Steve’s assistant if he saw the comics.
"I did," said the assistant. "They were cute."
They fucking were not cute. Whatever they were, whether they make you laugh or not, they’re not cute. The original comics themselves are cute, so any alteration of them that I have done is necessarily something other than cute. OK, whatever, so I get Steve on the phone.
"Hey kid," Steve says.
"So what did you think of the comics?"
They were..cute."
Great, you didn’t even read the fucking things and you’re recycling your assistant’s estimation of them.

So weeks pass and I’m waiting to hear if there is some chance they’ll reconsider burying the Curb, or if they’ll let me know where I can send the desk calendars at my own expense, when I get a call from Steve and Eydie.
"You know," Steve begain, "that we think you’re out-of-sight."
"Dynamite," Eydie confirmed.
"But we’re going over the client list and trying to figure out who’s a fit and who isn’t, and we really think maybe another agency might be better for you."
"It’s just one of those things," Eydie explained.
"That’s right, just one of those things," Steve agreed. Then they both went into song.

Just one of those crazy flings, one of those bells that now and then rings, it was just one of those things.

I hung up.
It was the eve of staffing season; there was no way any other agency would take me on now. I felt the floor swinging under my feet. Maybe this is how people get the news that their career is over. At that moment, it sure felt like it. I’m in my thirties. I’ve got a 2 year old and my wife is pregnant with our second. I have absolutely no backup plan. By monstrous coincidence, on this evening we have invited over a neighbor who does ultrasounds in various doctors’ offices, and when I come out after the call, right there on his laptop screen is the baby I have no idea how I’m going to provide for. I try and figure out how I’m going to tell my wife that I just got dropped by these reptilian fucks, who by this point have happily forgotten my name.

And you know, that’s just the way it goes. Agents suck limp syphilitic cock; deal with it. My managers dropped me not long after. They didn’t even have the class to tell me, but I eventually figured it out for myself. The money from the previous deal melted the way money does, and I had to take what passed for my skill set to the workplace. I got a job temping at E! Monday through Friday and a job as the night watchman at a treatment facility on the weekends, pulling a weekly two eight-hour shifts on Fridays. The hours got to be too much away from home, especially when the baby came, so at my wife’s insistence I quit the night watchman job.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, E! fired me.

Not to whine too much, I mean every day, people are finding out they’re not loved anymore or that they’ll never move their legs again or that the headache they’ve been having is much, much worse than they thought. People have to make funeral arrangements for their kids. Every single day. So it’s not like worse things haven’t happened to better people than me. My family is healthy. I was born in America. I won the lottery right there. I should shut the fuck up.

So when you enter your long, dark night of the soul, the next time you question what you're doing and the prospects of achieving success doing it; when the urging of your loved ones to rethink your objectives has lost all subtlety; when you begin to think the successes you've had up to the point you've arrived at were anomalies or, worse yet, cruel misdirection by sinister forces leading you into the disaster your professional life has become; when the crucial balance between belief and doubt is disastrously upended and you begin wondering what you were deludedly thinking in the first place; when you can't eat, can't sleep, and the best efforts of pharmaceutical science can do nothing to mitigate your depression; when all these things happen, just remember my little story.

Because here’s how the story ends: remember the movie script I mentioned that Steve and Eydie said sucked? I got a new manager, he went out with it on a Thursday morning, and by 9pm that night it sold for a half-million up-front dollars in a deal potentially worth 1.8 million.

And no agent commissioned it.