Hanging on a wall in his immense old office on the Paramount lot is a 1972 photo of a much younger Scott Kaufer interviewing Groucho Marx for The Harvard Crimson. The shot of the young reporter and the old actor grabs your attention — but so does a dry-erase board nearby on which Kaufer has scrawled rough ideas for a TV drama he’s executive producing: “Transplant,” the board reads. “Time Perception. Stroke.”
Kaufer, former editor of California magazine, began his career as a committed newshound and print journalist, but then got nudged into television by his late friend Brandon Tartikoff. With a couple of Murphy Brown episodes to his name, he went on to write and produce scripts for several series, including The Gilmore Girls and The Chris Isaak Show. In his proudest effort, he worked with David E. Kelley as an executive producer on Boston Legal.
Kaufer’s had a great ride so far, but the world of one-hour dramas doesn’t provide the kind of fix he gets from the edgier world of news and politics. To get that, he hosts a vibrant intellectual salon — a monthly invitation-only gathering of journalists, authors, screenwriters, bloggers and other creative types who meet at Yamashiro restaurant in Hollywood.
He founded “Yama,” as the event has become known, six years ago with Slate blogger Mickey Kaus and author Steve Oney. The late conservative journalist Cathy Seipp was a regular, but her friend, liberal French blogger and detective-in-training Emmanuelle Richard, is also at home in the group. Kaufer detests political litmus tests and loves to see strange bedfellows getting along. Los Angeles County Prosecutor Patrick Frey, whose blog, Patterico’s Pontifications, often ferrets out bias at the Los Angeles Times, yaks amiably at the gatherings with Timesians Bob Sipchen (a crowd favorite), Richard Rushfield and Matt Welch.
“I just love Yama,” Kaufer says. “It doesn’t have the stench of networking. It would be tacky to work the room, and the whole spirit of this is disparate views.”
The only shouting comes from those trying to be heard above the din. The crowd can grow bigger than 50, and $1,100 worth of cash-bar alcohol flows freely. Kaufer has two requirements: Conversations are off the record and invitees must show up regularly — or risk disrupting his need for ritual. “It actually does drive me nuts if people don’t show,” he says.
That’s rarely a problem — the group is jammed with talent: screenwriters Bruce Feirstein (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinny), former West Wing writer-producer Eli Attie (one-time speechwriter to former vice president Al Gore), Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse, Daily Telegraph West Coast correspondent Catherine Elsworth and journalists Amy Alkon, Amy Wallace and Amy Wilentz.
The sharpest wit, arguably, is TV writer and KCRW radio columnist Rob Long, former co-executive producer of Cheers; most interesting newbie is former White House counterterrorism policy honcho Kirsten Hildebrand, who, Kaufer says, “looks about 14, pretty and sweet, and talks about antiterrorist strategy.”
Ever the producer, Kaufer enjoys salting Yama with surprises to impress the regulars (this writer among them). He laughs, “Mickey [Kaus] has developed a term — a yameo — it’s a cameo appearance at Yama.” Two favorites (now semiregulars) include LAPD Chief William Bratton and his wife, Court TV commentator Rikki Kleiman. “I send Mickey e-mails asking if he’s got any yameos to bring and he’ll say, ‘Yes, I can bring so and so.’ He knows everybody. He’s Zelig. I don’t hold a candle to Mickey.”