“The Thing About Lunch” or “The Worst I Ever Had”

May 21, 2009

(Year One of Robb’s Illustrious Career)

Let’s get one thing straight. Television production is about one thing and one thing only: lunch.

It was my first job in the business. I was working on a real TV show, on a broadcast network, with my name in the credits. I was psyched.

I would soon be crushed. It was the worst job I’ve ever had.

At the bottom of the bottom, I had many duties: phones, drive-ons, filing, getting the latest script pages to the writers, director, and executive producer. But I soon learned that none of these mattered.

What mattered was lunch. My real job was to take care of lunch.

“Lunch” sounds so simple, so uncomplicated. It isn’t. First off, there’s more than one. There’s the office lunch, which is lunch for the writers, producers, and P.A.s. But then there’s the catered lunch for the art department. There’s the stage lunch. There’s the taping lunch. And on very special weeks, the screening lunch.

Don’t get me started on the editing breakfast.

There’s the old line in Hollywood: “What I really want to do is direct.” Well, what I actually got to do was catering.

TV production revolves around lunch. Why? Two words: powerlessness and control. The largest group in the production office is the writers. Writers are moody creative types who are crushingly self-critical and are convinced they are powerless (I’m not pointing fingers here – I’m one myself). The problem is that they’re, well,… actually correct about this. In the big world of production, writers control nothing. NOTHING. And if there’s one thing that makes perceived powerlessness worse, it’s real, actual powerlessness. But where was I? Oh yeah: writers control NOTHING. Oh wait – there is one thing I forgot to mention that they actually DO get to control: lunch. So when they get in to work and get knee-deep into a series of impossible problems they have to solve but cannot control, where do you think they vent their frustrations and lash out in a desperate attempt to overcome their powerlessness?

Lunch.

The thing about lunch is that it happens every day.

Worst job I ever had.

Now, I see you rolling your eyes. I mean, jeez Robb, it’s only lunch. How bad can it be? It doesn’t sound serious, you say. But lunch is very serious. I saw P.A.s fired for picking up lunch and bringing writer/producers back the wrong salad dressing. This was not unusual.

Plus the show-runner, the head writer, the guy who got to most control lunch, was a monster who made my life a living hell. Okay, that’s too harsh. The Kevin Spacey character in Swimming With Sharks – that guy is a monster. This show-runner, he was more of… well, a spineless weasel. A passive-aggressive spineless weasel. With arbitrary dietary requirements.

Before you jump on that last sentence, let me be clear: this guy did NOT have food allergies. Or health concerns. Or food tolerance issues, or anything like that. Nothing health-related. So when I say “arbitrary” dietary requirements, I mean arbitrary. He didn’t eat meat, except when he did. He ate protein only, except when he didn’t. He would let someone else pick the restaurant we would order from, then yell and scream when the menu had “nothing he could eat.”

And when I say “yell and scream,” I mean real, actual yelling and screaming. This was not unusual.

Yes, I went to grad school for this.

By mid-season I finally gave up. Or got smart, depending on how you look at it. Whenever I’d have to coordinate a big lunch, like a screening lunch or a cast reading lunch or a pre-taping snack/lunch thing, I would just go directly to The Weasel and ask him what he wanted. Yes, this would reward his behavior and be unfair to everyone else, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to prevent the drama and the yelling and screaming. And the firing. Especially the firing. This new system would be foolproof, wouldn’t you think? Wouldn’t you?

Are you kidding?

I went to his office one evening, pitching him three of his favorite restaurants for the next day’s screening lunch. He picked a restaurant and I already had a few options figured out, entrees and sides I knew he usually ordered. All that was left was for him to pick. Once he did I made sure to VERY CAREFULLY give him the recap of what he picked, what I would order, the complete spread all 25 of us would be eating from. I was determined – there would be no surprises the next day, no yelling or screaming. Or firing. The Weasel rolled his eyes – my anality was SO annoying – and condescendingly said yes, all this would be fine. I mean, jeez Robb, it’s only lunch.

When lunch came the next day there was yelling and screaming. He came THIS CLOSE to firing me. There was nothing he could eat. Nothing. This really happened. In front of the entire crew. This was less than 24 hours after he himself chose all the food.

I later learned from a producer that The Weasel had gone on a no-carb diet an hour or two after our little meeting. After our little meeting where he had chosen platters of pasta and breaded chicken. My job was saved when a P.A. agreed to run across the street and get The Weasel a 100% plain grilled chicken breast – no butter or seasonings of any kind (The Weasel complained that it was dry). This was not unusual.

The thing about lunch is that it happens every day. Every. Single. Day.

I had that job for almost two years. That’s a lot of lunches. I had that job until the president of the production company finally read my script and promoted me. The new job was awesome. It wasn’t a writing job, but it was a lot closer. And some other unlucky bastard had to take care of lunch.

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Great Documentary

May 15, 2009

Add this to your Netflix queue: Dreams on Spec. If you’re reading this blog, you need to see it.

A documentary filmmaker follows three aspiring Hollywood screenwriters through the ups and downs of breaking into the biz. Their struggles with writing, the “how long can I do this with my life?” dilemma, the depression/euphoria/prima donna cycle, all that. Plus commentary from successful writers (James L. Brooks, Steven de Souza, Ed Solomon,…) who went through all this and made it. If you’re a Hollywood hopeful, you’ll recognize every minute of it. If you have a family member or friend trying to break in, you’ll realize that it’s not just them – every word they’re telling you is true. Or if you’re just curious and want 90 minutes of immersion into the life of a struggling screenwriter, you’ll get it. It really gets in all the way like I have not seen before. Good stuff.

Check it out. Then come back and comment about it. Great discussion from this one.

(Thanks Christine for the tip!)


Random Question #46

May 13, 2009

When was the last time you surprised yourself?