Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Rich Get Richer

“It’s Chinatown, Jake...”
“Chinatown” 1974

Note: You might want to read last week's post first -- otherwise, the following might make even less sense than usual...

Early in June, the set lighting Best Boy from the pilot of “Gary Unmarried” phoned to tell me the show had been picked up for CBS’s Fall lineup. I’d already read the good news in the trades, but his call was a welcome confirmation that I would indeed have a job on the crew. In late July, the construction gang began assembling the sets on stage, and two weeks later, the set lighting crew started hanging lights. Now, in mid-August, production on the first of twelve new episodes -– and probably many more -- is well underway.

But as the Gods of Hollywood giveth, so do they taketh away – which is why the crew that worked so hard to make the pilot (including this juicer) will once again be on the outside looking in. Yet another Hollywood promise evaporates into the smoggy haze above LA.

Why am I not surprised...

Disappointed? Sure, but I had a lingering suspicion something might go sour with this deal. Call it intuition or just a hunch, but everything seemed to fall into place a little too neatly – and although good things do occasionally materialize without much visible effort (and truth be told, the pilot dropped right into my lap out of the big blue sky), this was not one of those times.

What happened? We got hosed, that’s what, and if the manner in which this hosing occurred is a rather convoluted tale, it’s also a useful lesson in the facts of life here in Hollywood – and yet another graduate-level tutorial from the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.

First, some seemingly irrelevant background information, then what I actually know, followed by an intriguing (if unverifiable) rumor.

The cancellation of “Back to You” at Fox a couple of months ago was a blow to all of us who work – or used to work, and want to work again -- in sit-coms. Starring Kelsey Grammer (still glowing from his eleven year run on “Frazier”), “Back to You” was widely viewed as the White Buffalo of the sit-com world: a very tangible symbol of hope and renewal. This wishful thinking sprang from a basic Industry truism: all it takes to start a stampede in this desperately restless town is one Really Big Hit. If “Back to You” became a monster smash, the networks might see the light, burn off their reality-show garbage over the summer months, then rush en masse to fill the Fall lineup with multi-camera sit-coms. This would provide work for us all – not the easy life of picking hundred dollar bills from the heavily-laden branches of the Money Tree -- but decent, humane, non-abusive work at union scale. Such was the gauzy, sepia-tinted dream, anyway: a return to the fat-and-happy glory days of sit-coms. Adding fuel to the hopeful fire was a wide-ranging media blitz accompanying the launch of “Back to You,” painting this new show in the shimmering rainbow hues of the Next Big Thing. I turned on NPR one afternoon – the public radio network known for its measured, thoughtful coverage of national and world events – and was amazed to hear a twenty minute piece on “Back to You”, including long interviews with Grammer and legendary director/executive producer Jim Burrows.

The buzz was hot before the first episode even aired, but buzz alone can’t make a hit. In a season hobbled by the WGA strike, “Back to You” never quite managed to hit its stride, and was eventually overwhelmed by the dark shadow of failure. That such a high-profile show would flop isn’t in itself so unusual (shows drop from our television screens with metronomic regularity), but the real shock was that it happened to a Jim Burrows show. In the shaky world of television -- a hothouse of ass-covering, over-caffeinated insecurity -- Burrows is as close to a Sure Thing as ever walked the star-spangled sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that deep in the plush enclaves of the network suites, high-echelon executives sink to their knees and pray at shrines dedicated to Jim Burrows, murmuring His Name in hushed and reverential tones. In above-the-line Hollywood, there is no more enduring love than that generated by a long track record of big-money success. Having cut his teeth on shows like “Bob Newhart” and “Mary Tyler Moore”, he moved on through “Taxi”, “Cheers”, “Friends”, “Will and Grace”, and dozens more to emerge as the Big Dog producer/director of the sit-com world. More than any other living human, Burrows has the Midas Touch in television. If ever there was a Messiah to lead us all back to the Promised Land of sit-com heaven, Jim Burrows was the man. Given his track record, “Back to You” was an exceedingly rare failure -- the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

I got a chance to watch Burrows in action while day-playing on “Will and Grace” during that show’s final two seasons. He’s everything a director/executive producer should be: smart, quick, and blunt. He knows what works and what doesn’t, and will neither mince words nor waste time in his drive to make each show as good as it can possibly be. His intolerance for incompetence pays off for everyone involved; Burrows routinely blocks a complete show by noon, at which point, most directors would still be picking their way through the rubble of Act One. Having already made more money than God, he continues to work because he likes to, and is thus in the enviable position of not having to take bullshit from anybody.

Given all this, there isn’t a new sit-com on the Fall schedule that wouldn’t gladly sell its soul to have Jim Burrows involved. How much “soul” our pilot had in the first place is debatable, but when “Back to You” went down, Burrows suddenly became available – which is why he will now be directing “Gary Unmarried.” The specifics of who approached who remains a mystery, but none of that matters now. With Jim Burrows on board, this show’s chances of success just got a lot brighter.

You might assume this would be good news for moi. After all, with The Legend Himself at the helm, might not that eight year ride into the sit-com sunset I’ve been looking for have a better chance to morph from fantasy to reality?

For somebody else, maybe. One of Burrow’s exemplary qualities is loyalty: whenever possible, he uses the same crew. The cancellation of “Back to You” left his crew high and dry for the first time in a decade – a crew not familiar with being unemployed -- so Burrows reached back and brought them on to “Gary Unmarried.” But there are only so many jobs on a sit-com crew, so when they came in, we were out, just like that. The Hollywood promise I was given last Spring vanished quicker than a quarter in a Las Vegas slot machine.

I’ve worked with Burrow’s crew, and they’re good people -- it’s not as though I want those guys to be unemployed -- and I have a great respect for his sense of loyalty. “Loyalty” is not a word generally associated with above-the-line Hollywood, which typically takes a cavalier, there’s-always-more-where-they-came-from stance towards those of us who do the dirty work. In that, Burrows remains a laudable exception, but it’s still galling to watch a crew that has enjoyed such a long and lucrative run of success slide in just under the wire to snatch my show away. A year that started out so badly, then seemed to turn around in a big way, is once again taking on water and listing to port.

But that’s the way it is here in the zero-sum world of Hollywood, where the rich get richer and everyone else fights for the leftovers. Same as it ever was.

There’s a Machiavellian twist to this story, though – and here’s where we venture out onto the very thin ice of a rumor I have no way to confirm. According to the story, while Kelsey Grammar was riding high on the success of “Frazier” at Paramount several years ago, circumstances arose that brought him into conflict with a certain unnamed Paramount executive. Maybe that exec had a good reason for doing what he did, but unless you happen to be Sumner Redstone, it’s seldom a good idea to get in a pissing contest with one of your company’s big money stars. Not being Sumner Redstone, the exec lost the battle, and eventually his job. In time, he slithered over to Fox and managed to worm his way up the shit-stained ladder of success to a position of power – and right about then, who should come tap-dancing onto the Fox lot with a brand new sit-com?

That would be Kelsey Grammer, now needing another hit show, and no longer quite so high-and-mighty. I’m told the ex-Paramount exec waited until “Back to You” was teetering on the slippery side of the bubble, then pulled out the long knife and took his revenge. Only then was “Back to You” officially dead.

If all this is true, I should probably curse Kelsey Grammer when I end up manhandling hundred-pound rolls of 4/0 in the hot August sun, while the fat-and-happy crew of “Gary Unmarried” kicks back in the air-conditioned comfort of the sound stage... but that and five bucks will buy me a small cup of Starbuck's finest -- assuming I still drank the stuff.

Hollywood. It is what it is. Life in the Industry has a lot in common with ancient Greek mythology, where the Gods played their scheming little games up in Olympus, heedless of the collateral damage suffered by those helpless mortals below. All you can do is roll with the punches, hope for the best, and be ready for the next opportunity. But even after all this time, that’s easier said than done.

“Shit happens,” I tell the face in the mirror. Chewing on the hard, sour bone of bitterness won’t land another sit-com, nor lead to that eight-year wave. Maybe something else will come along. It always has, and I suppose it always will... until it doesn’t.

And when that day comes – ready or not – it’ll be time to go.


egee said...

As usual, you've provided some interesting insights into that seemingly bizarro world of movie making. It makes me appreciate my own rather dull-by-comparison occupation. However, I would point out that Machiavellian maneuvering and last-minute upsets happen in other professions as well. I think it has something to do with the fact that we have to work with people. Human beings always seem to be the wild card in any game we play.

Michael Taylor said...

True enough, Egee. This post is limited to the niche world of television sit-coms, but the feature film world has its own unique rituals of disappointment.

My first twenty years in Hollywood were blessedly free of the "office politics" so many of my civilian friends complained about. I didn't even understand the meaning of the term until I went into sit-coms, there to recieve a belated education. As I said in a previous post (in a different context): "a serpent lurks in every Eden." It seems that snake is often the dark side of human nature.

Nat Bocking said...

Mike, once again a really good piece of writing. I'm expecting this to transition to a 'dead tree' format one day.

I can't find it but you may know it. I think there's a quote from Christopher Isherwood or someone of that generation about how Hollywood is basically feudal (the inspiration for my chart) describing the roles of jesters and knights and kings and so on comparing actors, studio chiefs and agents. Can't remember where I read it but I think it was written in the 1930's and remains true to this day.

Michael Taylor said...

Thanks Nat. I don't have that Isherwood quoute at hand, but am familiar with it -- and you're right, it pretty much says it all.

I owe an apology to any readers who clicked on the link to "Jim Burrows" expecting to find his IMDB page. Due to my own incompetence at the computer, the link initially went to a business site with a similar name, but having nothing to do with the Industry. This has now been corrected -- and it's worth a look at Jim Burrow's impressive television resume.

D said...

Yeah, the loyalty cuts both ways. i've been both a beneficiary, and a victim of it,especially when my key grip gets a show and the DP has his own dolly grip. As for hit shows- it's like William Goldman said, "Nobody knows anything."

Unknown said...

It's been a long time since I saw the movie (and never read the book) but is the quote you refer to from "Day of the Locust"? Scathing behind the scenes Hollywood stuff, circa 1930s but still true today. I think I lived in the "earthquake apartment" on Genessee, off Willoughby.

Michael Taylor said...


You really should read the book someday -- Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust." Although not exactly a cheery read, it's less than 130 pages, and well worth your time.

I think we all used to live in "the earthquake apartment" off Willoughby. Some of us still do...

AJ in Nashville said...

Tremendous story, unfortunate ending, Michael. I admire your fortitude.

The loyalty issue is very much the same way in the record business and I've been both victim and beneficiary of it.

I'm optimistic that you'll have another opportunity to ride into the sunset; you're too good of a person to not catch that well-deserved break.