The Zen of Showbiz
After some years as a writer-director in show business, you develop certain rules that help move you forward in your career.
At first, the rules are simple: Put brads only through the top and bottom holes of a script.
As you progress up the ladder, the rules become more complex: Everyone wants a writer to have a voice. Until he uses it.
Even farther up the ladder, the rules approach a kind of show business Zen, such as my most recent: Be yourself, because they’ll fire you anyway.
The first time I was fired for being myself was in my senior class play. I was cast as Old Man Warner in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” My take on the character was brilliant and fresh. However, Sister Beverly--the director--had a different interpretation. She told me to talk more like an old man. I said I didn’t think he should sound like that. The next day, I was an extra in the crowd scene, watching Bobby O’Boyle do Sister Beverly’s interpretation of an old man. And by the way, you haven’t met a tough director until you’ve worked with a nun director.
The second time I was fired for being myself was when I was hired as the show runner in charge of a failing sitcom. I got the position because of my passion and fresh ideas. Everything was fine until the first table read of a script full of passion and fresh ideas. The then-head of the network (who has since been fired) pulled me aside and told me he thought the script was “a wash.” I was, at that time, naive enough to believe that we were having an artistic discussion. So I responded: “I’ve got to tell you--insert name of fired network president here--I think you’re wrong.”
Said the president to the show runner: “Well, I hope you’re right, because if you aren’t, I’ll bury this show and you.”
Who knows whether I was right. The fact is: I was myself. And he buried me. After that, I learned my lesson: You don’t tell people what you really think. You either tell them what they want to hear, or you nod and let them believe what they want to believe. As I did at parties before I came out of the closet.
As a person, I am emotional. As a professional, I have spent many a show business moment trying to be someone else’s idea of a writer-director in Hollywood, the guy who moves, detached and unemotional, through studio meetings and notes sessions. In other words: Less me.
Which brings me to the next time I was fired.
The project was a “girl-themed” television pilot before they were in the zeitgeist (in other words, B.S.--before “Sex and the City”). The network head didn’t get it and, as far as I could tell, didn’t want it. I would secretly cry to my agent, “They don’t get it--they keep trying to make it something else.”
To which he would reply: “Just nod and cooperate.”
Over six weeks of production, I bit my tongue and nodded and cooperated and repressed my urge to blurt out the passionate and fatal: “I’ve got to tell you--insert name of another network president here--I think you’re wrong.”
A few artistic battles, but mostly compromises, later, the big news came: The girl-themed pilot was picked up--but I was fired. After months of searching for a reason, my agent finally got someone at the network to admit that the president thought I was talented but just didn’t like me.
I wanted to scream: “Do over--he doesn’t even know me. He knows the ‘me’ that I was told to be by my agent” (whom I have since fired).
And here I am today, another rung up the ladder, where I allow myself to be myself. And it seems to be working for me and for show business--most days. So be . . . yourself, because they will fire you anyway. It’s one of the most profound things I’ve learned in my 38 years on the planet.
Oh--I just remembered another showbiz rule: Lie about your age.