The Last Day in the Business

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

There's an old cliché about people in this business shouting at each other, "You'll never do business in this town again," or something along those lines -- as if a person (any person) was powerful enough to read someone out of the entertainment industry. The truth is, that doesn't really happen, because for the most part, the entertainment business kind of runs itself, like one of those old, 19th century smoke spewing factory machines, dripping tar and showering sparks, churning out some kind of product in non-uniform, quality-uncontrolled spurts.

In other words, you never really know when your last day in the business is going to be. I mean, it certainly isn't going to be when some for-now powerful guy says it's going to be, but it comes is a curious question.

Sometimes, the business just sort of slowly sheds you, like a parasite or an intestinal bacteria. You're there, you're there, you're feeding off the host, and then, suddenly, you notice something. You're not inside anymore. You're…somewhere else. You're swirling around in the water and you can't get your calls returned. You can't get a meeting. The water closes up over your head and you go down the pipe. The business is done with you. And it never even bothered to tell you.

Years ago, I was sitting in the Brentwood Country Mart, minding my own business, when an older man tapped me on the shoulder.

"I wrote 62 Mr. Ed's," he said. "And I can't get a meeting."

"Wow," I said. "I loved Mr. Ed."

And he nodded and shuffled off to get a chicken. I saw him there a bunch of times after that, like a comedy-writing ghost haunting the Reddi-Chik, and I remember thinking, when did he notice that he couldn't get a meeting? Because Mr. Ed has been off the air for a long time now, and I wondered if, maybe, sometime around 1978 it occurred to him that the business had left him. Or if there were lots of signs -- 20 years worth -- that he chose not to notice.

Because the key here is to leave the party before they collect your keys, get out and retreat before you're tapping someone on the shoulder and reciting your credits, before some executive asks to read something you've done, recently, with a slight, almost imperceptible edge on the word "recent," meaning, I think, "What have you done since those giant brick-sized cellular phones?"

The only power you have in this business is the power of the alternative. You can say no to a script assignment, a set of rewrite notes, a job -- anything, really, so long as you can afford it -- but you don't have many choices in between. This isn't really an a la carte business: you're either a player or you're not.

So the smart move is to plan your last day carefully. Make it a big one. A writer friend of mine and I used to daydream about our last day in the business -- we wouldn't tell anyone, of course, we'd pretend it was still business as usual -- but our plan was to quietly liquidate all LA-based real estate holdings, line up a day's worth of meetings and pitches, and a lunch at a popular spot, say, the Grill, and then proceed to turn each meeting, pitch, and meal into a weird, over-the-top piece of guerrilla theater.

We'd pitch nonsense -- actual strung-together nonsensical words -- at one network, and when they questioned us, we'd just roll our eyes and sigh. Forget it, we'd say, you guys just don't have a clue. And we'd walk out.

At another place, we'd do the opposite: we'd shamelessly and fulsomely grovel and plead and praise the executive -- "you, sir, are a master of your craft, of your art, and it is my pleasure -- no, my honor, to sit here on your suede couch and drink your Fiji." And then we'd pitch something simple like, blue collar blended family, with a post-9/11 thing and a web tie-in.

At another place, we'd sit down, wait for a moment, then say: "I need to borrow six hundred dollars. I realize this is unorthodox. But I need it."

And then, as the sun set on our last bizarre meeting of the day, we'd drive off, out of town, in a blaze of nutty glory, leaving a trail of baffled executives behind us.

Never to return.

Unless, you know, we managed to sell the blue collar blended family with the post-9/11 thing and the web tie-in. We'd stick around for that.

That's it for this week. Next week, terrible, terrible pitches. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long