Thursday, April 19, 2012


The sitcom that never was

While going through my three year starving artist experience in Los Angeles, I had the privilege of joining The Office as a Production Assistant for the back half of Season Four. Since this was in the immediate aftermath of the WGA strike, which likely derailed the careers of countless assistant-level aspiring auteurs, this was the Holy Grail of PA jobs.

If you're looking for scandalous insider gossip you won't find it here, as every member of the cast and crew was totally friendly and professional. John Krasinski once bought pizza for everyone, and multiple cast members provided ice cream and Dippin' Dot carts. I got to ride in a Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier with Creed at the wrap party and listen to him talk about the beginnings of his performing career. I got fist-bumped on multiple occasions by Craig Robinson, who was an unbelievably cool guy to the entry level staff. The only way it could have been more of a Heaven on Earth for a TV nerd is if the cast of Community arrived from the future in a TARDIS.

This does have a point, in case you think I'm name-dropping for SEO purposes. What stood out to me about The Office was that since it was such a well-oiled production machine, there wasn't a whole lot of work to do for 3 off-set PAs. Work primarily consisted of occasional deliveries to the Universal studio lot, sets off-site, or the dreaded and harrowing script revision run to cast and executives. [Fun Hollywood Fact: the true power of a film/television executive is directly proportional to how probable a drive to their house at night would result in death. Some of those estates make a trip to Dracula's Castle look like a suburban cul-de-sac.] Two of these production runs may have permanently altered the course of my life if my mentality had been different.

I was tapped to make a script delivery to one of the producers during location shooting for the "Night Out" episode. While waiting for the all clear to walk on set, B.J. Novak formally introduced himself to me for the first time since I had joined on the show. While I don't remember the details of the conversation, I did bring up that I was a fellow Massachusetts native, was interested in standup comedy, and had seen him perform at the Hollywood Improv in the past.

I didn't think anything of that encounter at the time, but a few days later B.J. came by the production office and actually initiated a conversation with me, asking how much standup I had done and if I had been to any shows in Boston. I mentioned I had performed a couple times so far (in bowling alleys),and had been to nearly every Boston comedy club, with my favorite being The Comedy Studio (the site of many failed first dates in college). B.J. mentioned that he had a few connections in Boston comedy clubs and if I was interested he would refer me to them. So, to recap, based on a couple of short conversations, one of the hottest television writers in Hollywood was willing to help me get booked at legitimate venues in a major metropolitan city.

I never brought it up again. It gets worse.

A few weeks later, I went to deliver new pages to the show's casting agency. I dropped the pages off and quickly walked away when the casting director caught me and asked me to stay and actually read for a part in the "Job Fair" episode - the 17-year old nerd harassed by Michael Scott. I'm sure having thick glasses, a round face and acne at 24 played at least a small role in this turn of events. I went in, read the pages, and related the experience to the production staff. They told me that since the show had a history of rewarding crew with on-camera roles or notoriety, (the most obviously notable being that Ellie Kemper's character is actually named after longtime Office staffer Kelly Hannon) I actually had a solid chance at getting the part. I spent the next week chugging Airborne to avoid getting sick in case I got my big break.

The character's speaking role was expanded from three lines to three pages of dialogue in rewrites, so the show now needed an actual actor and I didn't get the part. I wasn't that disappointed since I always knew I was a long shot, but I was even told later by casting it was a close call and I had a look that might fit Apatow-type projects, and with some formal acting training I might have a niche.

I never sent a thank you letter to casting. I figured I had gone to LA to become a writer and producer, not to act, so it wasn't a big deal and I didn't want to invest the money for acting classes. I could always do something nicer for them next season to thank them for the opportunity.

A month later I was informed I would not be retained for Season Five. I was given reasons why and heard others from third parties, but it would be unprofessional to speculate which reason was true. I did get a recommendation letter from one of the producers for my later grad school applications, which I appreciated.

I imagine many people in the entertainment industry work far harder than I had for far longer and never get golden chances for a big break, and I had blown two in the space of a few weeks. I had figured these unique and valuable opportunities would simply be there "when I came back." Instead I was expelled from TV Heaven so abruptly I didn't even get the chance to get my audition tape as a memento. I never considered that in LA these moments are rare and fleeting and if you're out of sight, you're permanently out of mind. I had even just learned this lesson a few months prior, when the WGA strike permanently cost me my job on iCarly (where I was actually the tenured PA and also worked with a tremendous production group) and it hadn't been ingrained.

Beyond these lost opportunities, I have multiple spec scripts and original work that I never bothered to submit to any talent agencies before I moved home. I was afraid of being rejected, or being perceived as an imposition, or bothering people like B.J. to the point I would have a black mark on my entertainment career. I decided I would simply do the job I was doing the best I could until I had a high enough profile for my talent to be recognized. That never happened, and now I'm completely out of the industry, which would have been the end result even if I had been an "annoyance" to famous and powerful people and gotten "kicked out." You only get one real chance to make your mark in the entertainment industry, so you might as well approach it by being assertive and fighting for every inch of recognition. The overwhelming majority of aspiring artists and producers flame out anyway, and you're out of the industry whether you feel like an "embarrassment" or not. There's no difference between going out with a bang or going out with a whimper, you go out just the same.

Life has still worked out fairly well for me despite those missed chances. I have a Master's degree in a growing field, a stable job with actual benefits (which, newsflash film students, most studios don't give PAs), and a salary that allows me to save for my future (ditto). I live with a beautiful, funny, and bright girlfriend who constantly blows my mind with how utterly perfect she is for me. I still do standup for fun once in awhile and write when I can. I'm even pulling out my personal slush pile and seeing what I can do with it - the creative dream dies hard.

However, I can't help but wonder what might have been if I had I drank from that Grail when it was given to me. Going forward, it's always the better option to try and leap across the invisible chasm.

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