Illustration by Mike Lee“Do you think Dave’s a communist?”
My co-worker Kathy claimed to be quoting Pam, our supervisor. Kathy and I were employed as writers’ assistants on the first season of a television show called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, unremarkable sitcud spoon-fed to the prime-time herd, to be chewed, swallowed, spit up and chewed again next week, same time, same channel, ad syndicatum. Pam, our production-office manager (“co-coordinating producer”), was so exhaustively bubbly, peppy and squeaky-clean that at times I could not behold her presence without squinting.
Until now, Pam’s political background had been only implied: In college, she was in a sorority, and she tended to speak in the language of marketing demographics. Pam was, in fact, the first person I’d heard use the seminal term “hot young black talent.” Sometime during the first month of my employment, I’d walked past Pam’s open office door and heard “. . . some hot young black talent . . .” leak out. Then it happened again a few days later: “. . . always on the lookout for hot young black talent . . .” And perhaps a week after that: “. . . taking on some new hot young black talent . . .” Each time, I guessed that Pam was talking with a so-called literary agent and that the two of them were discussing the future of the show — right now we have all the writers we need, but if the network buys a second season, the producers might be interested in buying some scripts written by hot young black young talented young freelancers.
“Seriously? Those exact words?”
“Those exact words. Right after you left, it got all quiet for a second, and then she gives me and Debby this . . . concerned look and goes, ‘Do you think Dave’s a communist?’ Totally serious.”
“And after I’d convinced myself that today couldn’t get any better,” said I, delighted. “So what did you and Debby say?”
“I told her I didn’t think you were, but that we’d never talked about it. And Debby said something like she was pretty sure you were a Democrat. And Pam just sort of nodded and looked even more concerned, and then it got quiet again.”
“Oh God, I’m cumming,” said I. “This is now officially the best day of my life.”
Pam’s concern that local KGB affiliates might storm the production offices and reduce her salary was not unfounded, for the four of us had been discussing lunch. At the beginning of the season, you see, Kathy, Debby and I, the three writer/producers’ assistants, had been allowed to take part in the same lunch orders placed by our superiors — a beneficial arrangement for us, as people who make $5,000-plus each week regurgitating fish-out-of-water jokes tend to eat fairly well.
But then things changed. Word came down from NBC Productions’ accounting office that, in order to save precious production money, assistants would no longer be allowed to nourish themselves from the mondeau-chic eateries. The production company would still occasionally pay for our meals, but we had to place separate orders at notoriously prestigeless restaurants.
(Un)fortunately, the accounting office neglected to include any specific mathematical figures in its memo. No Assistants can’t eat shit that costs more than 10 bucks, no financial stipulations whatsoever. And while, yes, the average cost of a meal from the pedestrian grub-joints was less than at their mondeau-chic counterparts, even crappy restaurants have a few expensive items. Being the $9.10-an-hour communist that I was, I decided that it was my duty to order, at every opportunity, whatever overpriciest grubbery the pedestrian grub-joints sold, grub costing significantly more than the stuff I’d have ordered from the Chosen Ones’ mondeau-chic vittle emporiums.
And we’d been discussing this lunch-situation stuff freely, Kathy and Debby and Pam and I (even Pam seemed to think it was a pretty silly policy) and being sort of amused. We all agreed that this was something done to look good on someone’s balance sheet, and that was about it. And then, as long as we were discussing silliness and having such a good time stuffing envelopes in the conference room, the suspected communist decided to mention how even sillier it was that one of the star’s friends who’d recently been installed as a writer couldn’t yet spell the main characters’ names or compose an actual sentence let alone a remotely funny concept and yet was being paid obscene amounts of money as a “writer.” To buttress my blasphemy, the communist related the story of how this fellow (who’s now a hot young black talented television producer) was being paid $15,000 for turning in 11 legal-pad pages of barely decipherable pencil scrawls — like one of those psycho-rants one sometimes finds staple-gunned to a telephone pole outside a bowling alley. And how he’d then told the communist that since the communist was pretty funny sometimes, if the communist thought of anything to make the “script” funnier to go ahead and just write it in. For $9.10 an hour, naturally. (Yeaux. Phresh. Doughp.)
And then the phone rang across the hall and the communist left the conference room to answer it, to spread his demented brand of justice, to never work in this town again.
On the other hand, some media writers work their asses off, and, after turning in their final drafts, wield relatively little control over what becomes of “their” work, and often receive relatively small compensation and credit compared with their directorial and studio-honcho counterparts. The hot, young Writers Guild of America (and no, I’m not a member) has ever-updated info on this year’s contract negotiations posted. Most of the WGA’s demands focus on three areas: creative rights (increasing writers’ participation by allowing them to sit in on production meetings and filming, and by having the writers remain employees of the studio for the duration of filming, so that they themselves can make script changes), credits (removing the “A Film By” credit for nonwriting directors, and giving writers equal credit to directors and producers in publicity campaigns for films) and residuals (increasing residuals for television sales to foreign markets, home-video releases and the three smaller networks — UPN, Fox and “the” WB — generated after a film or television show’s initial release).