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Sunday, September 5, 2010
Another lucky winner...
I did my very first sit-com on Stage 32 at Paramount, a haunted stage, rumor has it, due to the cemetery right next door where so many of Hollywood's most famous celebrities are buried. I really couldn't have asked for a better initiation to the world of multi-camera shows. The two executive producers (both multiple Emmy winners) and the gaffer were old friends from my long-distant college days, and I'd known the DP since my very first unpaid job as a production assistant in Hollywood. On top of that, our cast was loaded with some serious talent, giving us ample reason to believe the show might enjoy a long and profitable run. But in Hollywood, as elsewhere, what looks great on paper doesn't always translate to the real world, and NBC pulled the plug as we worked the kinks out of the twelfth episode shortly before a cold and gloomy Christmas. Instead of the "back nine" and the promise of a season two, all we got in our collective stockings was a lump of coal.
Maybe those ghosts did us in after all.*
But that was at the bitter end -- five months earlier, we'd started the show full of hope and enthusiasm in the blazing heat of August. Three weeks of rigging, lighting, rehearsals, re-writes, re-lighting, and blocking finally brought us to our first show night before an audience of 250 people. Early in the day, our set PA came around carrying a big plastic jar with a slot cut in the top and a felt pen attached to a string. The idea was to write your name on a one dollar bill, drop it in, and at the end of the show, one of our actors would draw the lucky winner's bill. The pot that night totaled somewhere between fifty and sixty dollars.
Thus was my introduction to “Dollar Day.”
It was a cheap thrill at the end of a long week’s work, and a little harmless fun that helped build crew morale. Everybody wanted to win, of course – hey, fifty bucks is fifty bucks – but if my bill didn’t get drawn (and in that, I’ve been remarkably consistent over the years), maybe another member of the set lighting crew would win. Failing that, I pulled for a winner who made even less money than we did – one of the PA’s, maybe, or a writer’s assistant. For a juicer or grip, fifty to sixty bucks is a nice little kiss at the end of the week, but to a pitifully-paid production assistant, it's like winning a weekend in Las Vegas.
The worst outcome was for one of the writers to win. Although their work is absolutely vital to any show (without good scripts to shoot, the rest of us are sitting home waiting for the next unemployment check), they’re not part of the below-the-line crew. While the rest of us sweat and grunt and suffer on set to realize their vision, they do their work – and very hard work it is – in their own private air-conditioned cloister. While the writers can invade our space on stage anytime they want, we would never be allowed in a working Writer’s Room, so whenever a writer won the pot, it felt like a carpetbagger had swooped in to grab that fistful of dollars.**
Beyond such not-so-subtle class distinctions, my real objection to a writer winning Dollar Day is that they don’t need the money. Granted, it’s extremely difficult to land a writer’s gig on any TV show, and even very talented writers can go years between shows, but when they do land a chair in the Writer's Room, they are very well paid. A sit-com writer can make more -- often considerably more -- in one week than a grip or juicer will earn in a solid month of working on the same show.
I have no problem with such an income disparity. We all do what we do, and reap the commensurate rewards. Besides, competent juicers and grips are available by the dozen, while good writers aren’t -- but when it comes to Dollar Day, I just hate seeing the rich get richer.
The next few sit-coms I did continued the tradition of Dollar Day, but on one of my later shows, the easy-going dynamic evolved into something very different. Around episode eight, we noticed that the first A.D. had already won three Dollar Days – and all things being equal, the odds against such a winning streak are astronomical. Either he was the Luckiest Man on Earth, or else things weren’t quite so equal after all. When I mentioned this to our 2nd A.D. one day, she laughed.
“Of course he wins -- he salts the pot.”
“Salts the pot?”
“He puts in five or six bills every time,” she explained. “It’s no wonder he wins.”
“Ah,” I replied, the scales falling from my dew-encrusted eyes.
To me – a kid who grew up milking goats on the farm and was raised to believe in the white picket fence, chicken-in-every-pot, one-man-one-vote America where merit trumps pedigree and we always do what’s right just because it’s right (read: a hopeless rube) -- this was a clear violation of the spirit of Dollar Day, and yet another example of the self-serving greed that sours so many human endeavors. As it turns out, such practices tend to be the rule rather than the exception. I heard of one camera crew on another show that combined forces with the same strategy. The dolly grip, camera operator, and focus-puller would each put several bills into the jar, then split their winnings after the drawing. As they began winning week after week, the rest of the crew lost interest in playing, and the “Dollar Day” tradition died on that show.
It seems like there’s always one guy – or group – whose greed ruins it for everybody else. Once you peel back the thin veneer of civilization, human nature can be an ugly beast indeed.
On this later show, the stakes for “Dollar Day” went up when it became “Five Dollar Day,” whereupon the pots came in anywhere from $150 to $250. Although this dramatically heightened interest in the post-show drawing, it did nothing to discourage the pot-salters. Quite the opposite, in fact. Since any real shot at winning required investing fifteen or twenty dollars, pretty much everybody ended up salting the pot. Given that the PA's already had a hard time getting by on their anemic wages, this had the effect of driving them out of the game altogether.
Call me a socialist if it makes you feel better, but I prefer such rituals to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Raising the ante on "Dollar Day" served only to divide the crew, not unite it. To me, that was wrong. If the PA's couldn't even play, then what was the point?
One night the executive producer – fortified by several Red Bulls-and vodka – pulled a wad of twenties from his wallet and stuffed them into the pot as the audience filed out. The lucky winner was one of my fellow juicers, who, who took the jar into our set lighting room and counted out a cool $400 to fuel his weekend.
But this being America, where More is Always Better, it was only a matter of time before “Twenty Dollar Day” rolled around. On that show, it happened on our final episode of the season. The E.P. began celebrating early, and as the drawing drew near, was thoroughly sloshed. He surprised everybody by adding several fifty dollar bills to the jar. And then -- just to make things more interesting -- he announced that he would pay whoever came closest to guessing the exact dollar amount in that fat plastic jar the same figure.
With that, the frenzy was on.
The 2nd AD sat down to organize a list, recording names and their respective guestimates, after which it was decided to split the secondary pot between the two closest guesses. The process took a while, and in that time the atmosphere on stage became highly charged. Suddenly it felt like we were in Las Vegas.
I stood back from the crowd, taking in the scene.
“Why don’t you enter?” one of the boom operators asked. “All you’ve gotta do is write down your guess.”
I smiled and shook my head, then watched him follow his own advice in joining the scrum. I couldn’t really explain then why I didn't join in, nor can I to this day. After all, there was nothing to lose and several hundred dollars to gain. A happy, rich, and very drunk producer was about to shower fistfuls of cash upon his hard working crew. Why not stand in the path of that green tsunami and take a chance at getting some for myself?
Mostly, I just didn’t like what I was seeing. A crew that had worked hard all season, pulling together and enduring the ups and downs that come with being on any show -- and in the process, becoming a unit -- was suddenly splintering as a rapidly metastasizing frenzy of greed grabbed everyone by the throat. There was something crazy and unsettling about this orgy of me-first, get-mine excitement, a turbocharged “Dollar Day” going into hyper-drive. Once again I was reminded of Day of the Locust, only there was nothing remotely theoretical, intellectual, or literary about the mob scene unfolding on that sound stage.
Something about it was profoundly disturbing.
The drawing commenced, with the big pot going to one of the office staff – somebody I didn’t know – after which the long count commenced. Once it crossed the thousand dollar mark, the list was down to a handful of names. As each new bill was counted, shoulders slumped on another disappointed loser, but most of the crew hung around to see who would win the secondary pot. When the last bill was finally smoothed out, counted, and added to the pile, the total came to something over $1300 – considerably more than my take-home pay for that week.
One of the two winners splitting that second pot was the very same boom man who had urged me to join the fray. I shook his hand and congratulated him on his easy six hundred and fifty bucks, but although he was flushed and excited, he didn’t seem particularly happy.
“This is crazy,” he said, shaking his head, genuinely confused by the situation. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
“That doesn't matter” I shrugged. “Just enjoy it.”
He walked off into the night, still shaking his head.
Oddly enough, I haven't seen a "Dollar Day" since that night, not even on my current show. That's too bad, in a way, but perhaps the dynamics of every form of gambling are such that there's no way to keep things reigned in. There always seems to be somebody determined to raise the stakes, and thus turn a group effort at having a little fun into something very different.
Maybe everything we do, from Hollywood to Wall Street, carries within the seeds of its own destruction.
I really don't know, but it makes me wonder.
* Or maybe not. The same "haunted" stage was home to the original "Star Trek" television series, which seemed to do pretty well despite the presence of any wandering spirits.
** Not that there’s any good reason for a member of the on-set crew to enter the Writer’s Room...