Monday, February 25, 2008

And the Wiener is...

My favorite moment in last night’s Academy Awards was the victory of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the two young singer-actors who charmed the shit out of everyone in the low budget Irish love story “Once.“ They won their “Best Song” Oscar for one simple reason: it was a great tune and they were so damn good in that movie that nobody could deny them. My second favorite moment was when Marion Cotillard won “Best Actress” for “La Vie en Rose” for giving one of those transcendent movie performances that are so great, they’re sort of impossible to explain. Neither of these victories was a shoo-in and that’s why award shows are occasionally so great. Sometimes people win because (intentionally or unintentionally) they actually made a little art.

Generally, my feeling about award shows tends to vary depending on how my own career is going. During good years when I’m busy, I tend to like them. They’re pretty and shiny and the people are so gorgeous. Occasionally (like last night) justice is served and I love it when they give awards to old people. That always makes me cry. However, during my not-so-good years when I’m “underemployed,” my attitude tends to be a bit more cynical and (let’s be honest) snarky. But mostly, my relationship to awards shows has been like that of an amateur astronomer gazing at a distant universe, far, far out of reach.

Then in the fall of 2006, something happened that brought me unexpectedly into the orbit of a major award show. Quite out-of-the blue, I was cast in a reoccurring role on a popular TV show. Not only was the character brilliantly written, but I had a field day playing him and the viewers dug it. Suddenly, there was “Emmy talk” in the air. At first, I didn’t believe it. But soon, I couldn’t leave my house without being accosted by rabid fans. Letters from strangers started arriving at my home. I signed my first autograph for a woman named “Vera” in front of the Arclight. In no time, I had an agent. Then a manager. A dear friend became my publicist. Suddenly, I was attending swanky show biz events in a rented tuxedo. Each week brought more TV, radio and magazine interviews. I was even the grand marshal of a parade. It seemed everywhere I went someone was asking about my inevitable nomination and probable win.

In the glare of the spotlights, I managed to maintain a reasonably humble demeanor, but secretly, down deep inside, all I could think about were the people who had been such shitheads to me in high school. Since they were probably too fat by now to leave their trailers, it seemed like a safe bet they would all be home watching the Emmys. Nasty little digs started to work their way into my imaginary acceptance speech. Before long, without my truly knowing it, I began to believe that come September I might very well hold the golden statuette in my hands. I even cleaned off a shelf in my office where I felt it (and all my future awards) would look very nice indeed. The afternoon before the nominations were to be announced, my good friend the publicist called to check my availability to give interviews the following morning. I assumed this meant that I should have some clever sound bites ready for the gang at “E.T.” and “Extra.” No sweat. Then the next day arrived. The nominations were announced. And my name was not on the list.

I felt disappointed and embarrassed. Not by anything I had said or done. But by what I had thought and felt. It’s no secret that everybody in this business takes a few gut punches along the way. Let’s face it. It’s not always easy to justify to your family, your landlord (and sometimes your agent) why exactly you’re in this business. I don’t know many creative people who don’t fuel their professional lives with the hope that maybe tomorrow (or next year) things might improve a bit. Truthfully, the golden statuette isn’t really the dream. The flow is the dream. The river running toward us for a change. The calls coming in. The chance to put your small, individual stamp on something. To ride the wave - just long enough to make up for all the years of struggle. The award is just a golden doorstop; a prop that might keep the gates of Xanadu open a little bit longer. And that’s not such a terrible thing to hope for. Not really.

Shortly after I wasn’t nominated for the Emmy, I went back to my high school reunion where I found that my former classmates were not in general a particularly obese crowd. None of them were living in trailers (at least not at present). They were, in fact, nice, kind people with jobs and lives and children. They didn’t seem to particularly care whether or not I had been nominated for an Emmy. They just seemed happy for me and genuinely excited to have seen somebody they went to high school with on TV. It was a nice evening. We chatted. We drank some punch. We looked at pictures of their kids. And at the end of the night, they gave out awards. And I won one! I took home a bottle of wine for being the person who had “traveled the farthest” to attend. It sat proudly on my “awards” shelf for several months until one night when I needed an emergency bottle of red for a dinner party. The product of a somewhat lesser-known vineyard in Ohio, it was surprisingly delicious, boasting a full, rich body, reminiscent of lifetime achievement while at the same time, retaining a subtle hint of victory in every satisfying sip.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Absence of the Joke

I know this is odd. But I'm going to miss the strike. Yes, I know. Strikes are not good. They wreak havoc on what is already an unstable industry. They cause dire financial straits for thousands of people both in and out of the entertainment community. But I have to confess that when you work in an industry whose unshakable motto is "the show must go on" (and you have seen this motto used as justification for all manner of shitty behavior) it felt sort of nice to finally say "Due to management's complete and utter refusal to negotiate fairly, tonight's show will not be going on after all."

It was also nice to get outside a little more. I can honestly say that prior to the WGA strike, I had never seen the sun rise over Paramount. It was breathtaking. And it was good to meet other writers. I met more writers in the last 90 days than I have in the last 15 years. And we had some terrific conversations out there; dissecting the latest developments with the AMPTP, talking shop, Hillary, Obama, religion, race, sex, you name it. Granted it might have been more fun to have had those conversations sitting in some cozy Coffee Bean instead of walking around in a circle with a stick in your hand, but we were out there for a reason – to reestablish in everyone's head (including our own) that writing has value – great value. There are no terrific TV shows, no iconic films, no stunning directorial debuts and no award-winning performances without great scripts. Scripts matter. And they don't grow on trees. They are written. By writers. Like us.

It was also good for us to have our guts hated a little. Most bad things said about writers are said behind our backs. It was sort of refreshing to have passing drivers give us the finger or scream "Get the fuck back to work!" My all-time favorite epithet was hurled by the guy who sped past the NBC gate one morning and simply screamed "Fuck you, Jews!" (proving yet again that brevity is the soul of wit). It made me want to grab one of those blank signs and write on it "Comedy Writing: It's Not Just for Jews Anymore."

Yes, I'll definitely miss hanging out with such smart (and oddball) people on a daily basis. It reminded me that I'm lucky to be in a business that despite its many headaches is often pretty damn fun. On the last day I picketed at Disney, I saw one of my favorite strike signs. It was one of those blank ones that allowed the writer to express something personal on it. This writer had simply printed two words on his sign: "Something Witty." I instantly laughed. But I wasn't laughing at the joke. There wasn't one. I laughed at the absence of the joke – which was actually funnier. And I felt sort of happy to be one of the 12, 000 WGA members who create all the funny, dramatic, scary, brilliant and mediocre material that keeps America (and the world) entertained day after day, year after year. I know, I know. We can often be a huge pain in the ass, but you gotta admit we do help keep things in balance. We are the ones who keep our eyes open. We know when to make the joke and when not to. And we remind people of the hard, nagging truth that things could always be better. And I think the industry has missed us. Writing is a job, but it's also a calling and it actually has value far beyond anything the AMPTP will ever be able to compensate us for. . Who knows? Maybe someday, the world will recognize its true worth.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell