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Sunday, September 20, 2009
Last Person Leaving Stage Turn Out Lights
Woke up this morning, what did I see
A big black cloud hanging over me
I switched on the radio and nearly dropped dead
The news was so bad that I fell out of bed...
“Wish I Could Fly Like Superman,” by The Kinks
It’s a long hot drive back from the home planet, past the Dach-cow of the Harris Ranch -- close the windows and hold your nose -- and endless fields of once-green corn turning yellow in the tired sunlight of late summer. A car’s tires spin in a blur at 75 mph, with every second drawing me closer to the Doomed City of the Future, there to resume work on my comfortable little cable-rate sit-com. After a month in the cool coastal north, the oppressive heat of inland California takes some getting used to, but at least the horrendous fires that torched so many SoCal hillsides and suburbs were finally out or under control. Fully prepared for the onset of winter, I was ready to put my shoulder to the sit-com wheel for another ten to twelve episodes right up to the Christmas holidays.
The show has been airing every Tuesday night and getting decent numbers – nothing spectacular, but good for a new show – and as a bonus, the songs performed by our two young stars during the episodes were reportedly selling like hotcakes on ITunes. Our live studio audiences were extremely vocal in their enthusiasm on shoot nights, leading everyone to feel good about this one -- including the one actual “name” in our cast. During one of the later blocking days, he turned to us with a grin and said “I think we’re in for a five year run, boys.”
This was music to my ears. After three long years without a show -- hunting and pecking as a dayplayer/rigger trying to cobble together enough work to survive – it was about time. My roll of the dice last spring led me on a physically punishing trek through two difficult pilots, then the ordeal of getting this show up and running (which is like doing another pilot, essentially), but all that effort was finally paying off. Riding a five year wave wouldn’t quite take me all the way into the sunny beach of retirement, but it would supply most of the hours I need to secure post-retirement health coverage, and bolster an anemic pension plan.
To those of you in your twenties (still hoping to forge an Industry career of one sort or another) this doubtless sounds like more tiresome gray-haired mewling of the sort you really don’t want to hear -- but to me, it's reality looming right over the horizon. If you're lucky enough to live another thirty years (which sounds like an eternity now, but will slip away a lot quicker than you can imagine), you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
I'll be dead by then and unable to say "I told you so," but such are the inevitable realities of life.
Look at it this way: it’s the quality-of-life difference between being able to hobble down to the local Denny’s for the tasty Tuna Melt Special on Wednesday nights (and to flirt with that cute 40-something waitress), or being stuck at home listening to talk radio while gumming down a few spoonfuls of Costco dog food on day-old bread.
For many reasons (not the least of which is having a steady gig for a change), this little show had turned into something of a Godsend. Sure, I’d rather be on a network show paying full union scale, but those are few and far between nowadays. In a world where you take what you can get -- and where I've heard chilling stories of veteran juicers being forced to take eight to ten dollar an hour "New Media" jobs just to keep their family health coverage -- this show was lively, fun, and relatively easy on my aging back. It was also enabling me to bounce back from a truly dismal 2008, an annus horribilis if I've ever seen one. I usually return to LA wishing I could turn right around and head back north, but this time I was looking forward to getting back to work.
Maybe that’s what angered the Gods of Hollywood. Remember, in every war movie Hollywood has ever produced, the guy who seems a little too happy -- who dares laugh a little too loud because he doesn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the moment -- is always the one who gets killed two scenes later.
So the phone rang Monday morning with my gaffer on the other end -- but the news was not at all what I expected: rather than head back to the studio to shoot episode 11, we’d be wrapping the stage.
The show had been canceled.
I was stunned. The network had paid to hold the stage and all that expensive equipment for a full month (unprecedented in my experience) only to pull the plug in the end. The audience-viewer numbers had been decent for a brand new show – at least as good as ”100 Questions”, another show on the same channel – but the official word was that they “wanted more teen drama and less comedy.” That could mean a lot of things, I suppose, but maybe the suits upstairs decided they can sell more Crimson Hooker lipstick, trainer Wonder Bras, and skin-tight, low-cut $250/pair designer jeans to twelve year old girls watching steamy teen dramas rather than a family comedy.
“Follow the money,” Deep Throat said -- and in that case, tell me again how these cynical bastards have the nerve to bill their network as "family friendly?”
I don't know -- maybe everything on television aimed at sub-21 year old viewers simply must be a vampire show or who’s-sleeping-with-whom-now drama these days. Maybe those stuffed-shirt suits and their Ouija Board focus groups actually know what they’re doing, and kids really don’t want to laugh anymore. All I know is that everyone I’ve talked to since the news hit has been shocked at this turn of events. Whatever math the geniuses upstairs at ABC/Disney are using just doesn’t add up down here on earth.
It could be something else, of course -- some kind of high-powered, blood-on-the-rosewood-desk type of vengeance played out in the upper echelons of the network suites. All I know is that for three and a half months, I had a good job that was supposed to go another three months at least, and had the potential of sustaining a five year run. But now, with the three day wrap over and done, I’ve got nothing, just like the rest of our cast and crew. Whatever their reasons, the Gods of Hollywood turned their cosmic thumbs down, and that's all folks.
There's not much comfort in finding that nobody else at the studio – many of whom have been toiling in the bowels of Television a lot longer than I have – saw this coming either. Like the sucker-punch that leaves you on your knees and gasping for breath, it caught us all by surprise.
Compounding the damage is that this was a cable show. Operating in a non-traditional (read: non-network) time frame has a price, and for the crew of this show, that means being suddenly out of a job at a time when all the new and returning shows for the Fall season are up and going – and fully crewed-up. With no real jobs to be had, we’ll all be working the phones trying to line up enough day-playing gigs until pilot season rolls around next spring.
And then -- if we’re lucky -- maybe we’ll get to roll the dice again, and hope for the best. That’s just the way it is in Hollywood, where a dozen shows die for every one that lives. With this show dead and gone, instead of heading back to work on Monday morning, I’ll be on the phone to Unemployment and going back on the dole.
It was fun while it lasted, but didn’t last nearly long enough -- which just goes to show there's a reason they call Hollywood Blvd "The boulevard of broken dreams."
Same as it ever was...