How old were you when you attended your first funeral?
What are you addicted to?
What do you have to lose?
(Years Three/Four of Robb’s Illustrious Career)
My third/fourth year in the business I worked for this show-runner who was a real piece of work. He was the most hated figure I’ve ever worked for. He made The Weasel look like a normal, well-adjusted human being. From the writers room to the production office to the stage, everybody hated him.
This guy was a harsh dictator. I’ve never seen anybody better at shutting down creativity in a room. Writers pitching jokes or brainstorming ideas would be cut off and dismissed mid-sentence, mid-pitch. Nice. The in-joke in the writers room was that if he was looking for an integer between 2 and 4 and you pitched 3, you would get shot down.
Strangely, this guy was also helpless. He couldn’t do anything by himself. He had no personal assistant, so we were ALL his personal assistant. I was personally called by the guy on a weekend and compelled to help him out with something personal. Let me repeat, I was NOT his personal assistant. My son was an infant at the time, but apparently the guy didn’t think I had anything more important to do on a Sunday morning than get in the car and go help him out. The in-joke in the production office was that you might get a call from the guy in the toilet demanding that you come help him with the paperwork.
One day Mr. Sunday Morning said his computer monitor “flickered.” Read the rest of this entry »
How long do you think you could go without communicating with other people?
(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?
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.
It was 2006 or 2007. I was leaving work, pulling my car onto Flower Street, when you zipped by right in front of me on your bike. I had to brake to miss you. I could have sworn it was you. But what would you be doing – at our age – zipping a bike through downtown L.A.? 3,000 miles and 20 years away from home? We made eye contact and you disappeared behind parked cars. I know it was you – you gave me that look. It was 1987 you, the last time I saw you. But it was you.
Are you even still alive? Google won’t tell me.
Last night I had this dream. My two sons (age 9 and age 4) and I had broken into your house. And you were pulling into your driveway and we were desperately trying to get out before you could get inside. But we couldn’t find our way out. You were putting your key in the door and we had to hide from you and get out before you could discover us. You try doing this with the 4-year old whose idea of playing hide and seek is yelling out where he is as soon as you stop counting so you can find him. Terrified of never being found again.
Somehow we made it out and walked past on the sidewalk just as you went inside. But you knew. You knew. You glanced backward and gave me that look again. That look like you knew something I didn’t.
My dad was in the military when I grew up so we moved around. Not nearly as much as some do, but I changed schools a few times. Different states. It’s rough when you’re a kid, but one huge thing I learned was how to come into a new situation and figure it out immediately. Intuitively. The politics, the dynamics of the relationships, all that. Every time we moved my parents told me not to be sad about the friends I left behind, but instead to just go to school and make new ones. I got practice at this – I got good at it. Figuring out who to be friends with and who not to. But there was one thing I never learned.
When my dad would come home from work and tell us we were moving again, we would be devastated. We would cry, we’ll never see our friends again, all that. But you learn to put that aside because it hurts too much. You learn to figure out the place you’re moving to, not to dwell on the one you just left. You learn to forget your old friends. But I never learned how to say goodbye – it hurt too much. Terrified of never being found again. So I never have.
So I never did.
Are you still alive? I saw you. Are you a ghost? I see ghosts. Different states. I see dead people. I saw you. Sometimes it feels like I can’t see alive people anymore.