The Straight Man : He peaked with a lucrative career as a TV writer. He hit bottom with a needle in his arm. And then he returned from the dead. Jerry Stahl takes us on a tour of his crash-and-burn life in ‘Permanent Midnight.’


It’s been more than a year since Jerry Stahl last forced heroin into his veins. But the former $5,000-a-week television writer, who once put words in the mouths of Hope, Michael and the rest of the yuppie crew from “thirtysomething,” still sees Los Angeles through a junkie’s eyes.

The reminders are everywhere. Every day, when Stahl goes to Echo Park to pick up his 6-year-old daughter at school, he passes a corner where he used to buy drugs. Not far away, in Silver Lake, is a cash machine where he once withdrew money from someone else’s account to feed his habit.

Laurel Canyon? That’s where he switched, briefly, from heroin to cocaine and sabotaged his dream job--a chance to work with director David Lynch--by simply not finishing a “Twin Peaks” script he’d promised to write.


Even here, at Canter’s delicatessen, where he sits eating an avocado sandwich and talking about his new memoir about addiction and survival, Stahl is not far from the past. Where today a health-conscious Stahl shuns a slice of orange “cheese food” that somehow ended up on his plate, yesterday he knelt in the deli’s bathroom, cooked up a chunk of “Mexican tar” in a few droplets of water and injected the mind-bending mess into a vein.

“(I’d) get high in the car or a gas station bathroom. Or, if I was feeling peckish, the bathroom of Ship’s, a Denny’s, Canter’s or any of Hollywood’s other equally sterling 24-hour venues,” Stahl, 41, writes in “Permanent Midnight,” his devastating tale of hitting bottom with a needle in his arm. “To this day, should anyone require it, I could give the ultimate toilet tour of Hollywood.”

The line is vintage Stahl--raw and unexpectedly funny. Throughout his wrenching book, humor crops up in several places where at first it does not seem to belong. On the face of it, for example, it may not seem comical that Stahl once shot so much cocaine and heroin (a mixture known as a “speedball”) that he hallucinated that the furry puppet star of the sitcom “Alf” was clawing at his locked door.

But Stahl has a knack for finding hilarity in what is otherwise simply awful. The publicity folks at Warner Books describe his 371-page autobiography as “ ‘Naked Lunch’ meets ‘Postcards From the Edge,’ with a good-sized dollop of self-loathing from ‘Portnoy’s Complaint.’ ” Tobias Wolff, author of the best-selling memoir “This Boy’s Life,” compares Stahl’s book to Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes.”

“The scathing honesty that he turns on himself is sometimes really heartbreaking. But I think it’s funniest when it’s darkest. It’s like the only way he can save himself is by laughing,” Wolff says. “Jerry’s book is a literary achievement. . . . This isn’t utilitarian prose. I haven’t heard this voice before.”

One thing is sure: The story Stahl tells is so painful in places that readers will be grateful for his sharp sarcasm, his ironic wit and his well-honed sense of the weird. Without them, certainly, Stahl would likely have given up long ago--and his readers would be tempted to do the same.


Instead, in addition to chronicling his travels to hell and back, Stahl serves up an edgy portrait of the television industry. From his first story meeting, at which he says Jack Klugman spat pea soup on Stahl’s shirt and screamed a lot, to his stint writing for “Moonlighting”--where he found himself surrounded by “guys who looked like they ordered their hair out of a Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue”--Stahl spares almost no one.

“Creativity is the opposite of TV,” he asserts. “Creativity means sounding like yourself. TV means sounding like whoever wrote the pilot.”

In Hollywood, he says, “people in offices (make) people who don’t have offices bark like dogs.” Producers don’t hire you because you’re any good as much as they hire you “because someone else did.”

And the talent? Stahl admits that before he wrote for “Moonlighting,” he couldn’t look at Bruce Willis “without groping for Alka-Seltzer. That whole wink-at-the-camera, look-at-me-I’m-cute thing.”

Cybill Shepherd gets off easy. Contrary to her prima donna reputation, Stahl writes, Willis’ co-star (now the star of her own series, “Cybill”) can be self-deprecating and genuinely funny. But noting her 1987 marriage to her chiropractor, Stahl chides Shepherd for being one of those “show biz people (who) are always marrying the most practical employee they have.”

Given all this, it may be difficult to believe that no one fares worse in Stahl’s story than the author himself. But it’s true.


This is a man who once took his infant daughter into a dark, filthy Pico-Union heroin den in the middle of the night. This is a man who plundered his then-wife’s bank account, stole prescription painkillers out of friends’ medicine cabinets, and continued injecting poison even after doctors said it might mean the amputation of both his arms.

“When you are the kind of person who uses people and lies, nobody around you gets elevated. The worst thing that can be said about a lot of people is that they knew me,” Stahl says flatly, without self-pity. “You can either spend your life trying to act like it didn’t happen. Or you can lay it all out and the people who are left speaking to you are your friends.”


Stahl’s decision to “lay it all out”--to trace a 20-year history of self-abuse so destructive that doctors predict his liver won’t survive this century--caused him to take a hard look backward. The book takes readers to the place Stahl learned to get stoned on a daily basis, a tony Pennsylvania prep school where this son of a Pittsburgh public servant mingled, uncomfortably, with “the sons of the ruling class.”

It also alludes, though fleetingly, to Stahl’s early success as a writer of serious fiction (he won the prestigious Pushcart Prize at 23). He graduated from Columbia University in New York City, where he did some writing for the Village Voice.

But instead of apprenticing there or at one of the many mainstream magazines headquartered in the city, his first real writing jobs were at nudie magazines--he manned what he calls the “fake letters desk” at Penthouse, and went on to write “girl copy” (the blurbs of type that accompany photo layouts) at Hustler.

Then Stahl married into the industry that would eventually have him scribbling for the biggest television shows of the 1980s. Living in Los Angeles, where he was writing a monthly column for Los Angeles magazine, he met a British woman who worked as a script reader for a producer who made TV movies. The woman’s green card was about to expire; she offered to pay Stahl $3,000 to get hitched.


This was how things happened to Stahl. Opportunities presented themselves and he took them. Drugs? He took them too. Codeine, sleeping pills, Dilaudid, marijuana, cocaine and especially heroin--as much of it as he could afford.

Soon, he says, he had passed the point where “you’re no longer doing it for the high--you’re doing it to keep from getting sick.”

The more money he made--and thanks to his wife’s connections and his own pithy prose, he was soon making loads as a TV scribe--the more he spent on drugs. When his salary hit $5,000 a week, he spent $6,000 a week on smack. Instead of impairing his success, heroin seemed a part of it: Stahl believed he couldn’t work without it.

Stahl is quick to note that his addiction was not the norm among television writers. “You don’t get it if you think I am in some way emblematic,” he says. Drugs were part of his life long before Hollywood was. And no matter how he tried to kick the habit, in methadone clinics or at Cedars-Sinai’s chemical dependence wing, he never lasted very long.

“I’ve been through rehabs and halfway houses, and it’s all great. But I’m a real slow learner,” he says, recalling that he didn’t take his first real step on the long climb to sobriety until the 1992 riots.

It would be nice to say that the societal upheaval that followed not guilty verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial shocked Stahl into re-examining his life. The truth was simpler, and less noble: Stahl ran out of heroin just as the rioting began, and the mayhem effectively prevented him from getting any more.


The story, at the end of Stahl’s book, is told with his trademark blend of horror and humor: a broken, penniless Stahl, living without plumbing in the garage of a vacationing friend, shoots his last lump of heroin and then heads to a convenience store to buy a drink of water. Something is wrong: A car has crashed through the front door. But Stahl, stoned and disoriented, trudges forward to grab a Perrier--unaware that he is joining in the worst looting in modern history.

The riots finally get his attention, Stahl writes, by shutting down the bus lines. Dependent on public transportation, he realizes that he cannot get to his connection. And over the next two days, as the city burns, so does he.

“If you can imagine being boiled in oil and freezing at the same time,” Stahl says, describing how the body feels when it is denied its habit. “If you wear a shirt, your skin hurts. Your hair hurts. And there is no position you can take that will give you relief.”


Today, having long ago spent his book advance, Stahl scrapes out a living with free-lance writing. Under the name Betsy Dexter, he is writing a series of gimmicky books that tell the story of the year you were born. He lives in a $450-a-month studio apartment in Silver Lake, spends six afternoons a week with his daughter and stays clean, one day at a time.

It’s a long way from Hollywood. But for now, it’s OK.

“Losers usually don’t get to write their memoirs,” he says, taking a last bite of his avocado sandwich. “It’s not like I’m cured. The day I think I’m cured is the day I wake up a human pin cushion. The great good fortune of being an ex-drug addict is that to make it through a day is an undeniable triumph.”

Stahl excuses himself, heading to that same Canter’s men’s room where he once did himself so much harm. He returns smiling, pleased by the perverse humor of what he’s just seen. It seems Canter’s has installed deodorizers in the toilets. He’d have to be blind not to see the symbolism, he says, staring up at him from the porcelain: little pink deodorant cakes inscribed with a message scripted precisely for him.


“Say No to Drugs,” they say. Say no, indeed.