Comedian and writer Merrill Markoe was one of the creators of the David Letterman Show. Now she writes books about talking dogs and makes funny short videos. She spoke with Doree Shafrir about her career, and the strangeness of Hollywood.
How did you come up with Stupid Pet Tricks?
Oh, jeez. Well, we’re talking about the 1300s. People were rioting in the streets and there was blood and the black plague and stuff. We were hanging out and trying to come up with things because we were gonna do a morning show. We actually came up with it on Dave’s morning show, which was a live, daily thing. It took place at like 9 o’clock in the morning live in New York. We had to come up with stuff that you could do repeatedly because, as it was explained to me by Jimmy Breslin, who we met sort of around the same time, it’s kind of the way it is with newspapers; you have to keep refilling things or else you’re facing an infinity of blanks every single day all of which have to be created from scratch. So we were trying to find refillable categories.
When I was in college I had some friends who had a Great Dane, and we were broke and so forth, and when we would get together we would drink beer and we would put socks on the dog. And that would be hours and hours of laughter. Seems a little sad now. But it occurred to me that pretty much everybody I knew had at least one thing like that that they do with their dogs or other animals. So we gave that a try; we just ran an ad. And very briefly Chris Elliot was the doofus who had to go around and gather the data.
Yeah, because he was a 19-year-old who was just giving tours at 30 Rock at the time. We were his first job.
He was Kenneth the Page.
He was, basically. He was always hilarious. You know, he was always just smart and funny the second you laid eyes on him. So in that sense he wasn’t exactly Kenneth the Page. But yeah, he was in charge of Stupid Pet Tricks until he could weasel his way out of it.
And you had met Letterman at The Comedy Store.
Yeah. We were both doing standup. The way I always think of it is he was sort of a graduating senior and I was kind of an incoming freshman. I was green and he was one of the two or three big men on campus. And the big man on campus at that time was, or a pretty big man on campus now too, was Jay Leno. It was also where I met Jay’s wife, who’s become a good friend of mine, Mavis Leno. She was around with him at that same time. And Richard Lewis. And there were these certain people who were the big guys and Dave was one of them.
The way you sort of describe it in your bio is that you almost accidentally started writing comedy. Or you had been writing it in your apartment and then it just kind of got picked up.
I think that people pretty much play the hand they’re dealt. And if you’re born the prettiest girl on the block, you end up finding that that’s a tool you can use. And at some point if you’ve got the ability to sling wit, you just start doing that early on and you get a response and you just stick with it. It’s just an adjustment to tackling life that you sort of make very early. I mean, I can remember making jokes in first or second grade. So at some point I was doing that even when I was an art teacher.
I actually didn’t intend to be a writer, because I had a mother who meant to be a writer and she was sort of a frustrated, serious person. So she was kind of pushing me in that direction and I never considered it for even one second and I went into art. I was teaching art and then somehow I switched over and was able to get work as a writer much more quickly than I was able to get another job as an art teacher.
So all the sort of backhanded training from Mom kind of worked I guess, even though I didn’t really take any writing in college. But comedy was just sort of the voice I had. I knew how to write comedy more than I could’ve ever written anything else.
What was it like being a woman writing comedy in the ‘70s? It seems like it was a very male-dominated world.
It’s really way less male now. It’s way, way better for women now. And the ‘70s — actually, I was at the way tail end of the ‘70s. I’m still friendly with Elayne Boosler, and she and I are in — there’s a comedy issue of the L.A. Weekly right now, comedy horror stories. I was reading her story, which was about her initial audition at The Tonight Show.
You know, she was huge at that time. The big issue at the time for women who were doing stand up was that all the precedents in female comedy were very self-deprecating. It was all, “My boobs are so flat. My husband thinks when he looks at me and I take off my clothes, he throws up. Everyone hates me.” So she actually just sort of bypassed all that and started doing political humor and sort of observational stuff about people, and so forth, and that was really considered astonishing. Anyway, when I was reading her horror story in the L.A. Weekly, I had forgotten the word they used to use about her at the time – this was the derogatory term and I heard it used repeatedly about her and I’d forgotten completely about it, except for, it used to color the way I saw myself and make me nervous about what I could and couldn’t do – they used to call her “threatening.” You really don’t hear that word used about women doing standup now, but they kept saying, “She’s so threatening. She’s too threatening.” And you think, “Threatening? She’s a woman standing on stage telling jokes.” But it was such a sort of a delicate dance you were theoretically doing, that it was crazy, the idea that that would be threatening. And she couldn’t actually get on The Tonight Show at the time because she was so threatening. Whereas somebody saying, “My boobs are so little that I take off my clothes my husband throws up,” weren’t threatening.
Right. Because it was sort of safely within the women’s realm of comedy.
Well, that was the theoretically figured-out women’s realm at the time. It’s so much better now. There’s a virtual ton of women now doing whatever they damn well please. It’s still not as easy for a woman, I don’t think, to get launched in the biggest possible way the way that it is a guy, but it’s certainly not the same. I remember thinking when I was doing standup back in those days, I kept hearing that word “threatening,” and I kept trying to figure out how to defang myself, and what did I need to be to be not threatening and yet… it was a lot of weird calculating going on for people that I don’t think is necessary anymore. It’s still not so easy to get in front of a group and get laughs. That’s another dilemma entirely, but it’s not so much about are you threatening. Look at Lisa Lampanelli for crying out loud. “Threatening” isn’t really the issue anymore. Did that answer the question?
Yeah, it does. Do you have any sort of war stories about yourself-say, in the writers’ room, for example?
I actually never have had any trouble hanging out or getting on with guys that way, I don’t think, although I don’t think it was a smart thing for me to put work and love together. I think that’s a battlefield a lot of people can get killed on, and do. And I would say that was a mistake that I really would try not to make again, although I don’t know if you can not make it. When it’s there and it’s compelling, then there it is.
What I love is funny people, whether it’s hanging out with guys or women, if they’re really funny, it’s like another language you all speak. I’m not the sort who would get offended by, you know like that one woman who was suing the guys at Friends because they were making dick jokes. There’s a lot of sex jokes going on in any big group of guys, probably more than a big group of women, but if they’re funny at least, you know, to me…
But were they funny dick jokes?
Well that’s really what it is. If it’s a bunch of funny people making them, then they’re funny, and if it’s a bunch of people just making dick jokes and they’re not very funny, then it’s intolerable, then you just wanna just kill yourself. But it would be the case no matter what the topic. I’m mean, I’m not the biggest fan in the world of dick jokes, I’ll just go right ahead and say that, but at least if it’s really funny guys, then they’re funny guys.
I was always working with guys on the Letterman show. A lot of them are still my friends. They were so hilarious and sweet, such really hilarious guys, and also I was in charge.
What’s your relationship now with David Letterman?
I sort of don’t have one at the moment. I mean, I was on his show a few times and it was a weird experience in all ways, but I haven’t spoken to him in years. You know, he’s married and has a kid. And I live with someone. I don’t have an ongoing relationship [with Letterman]. I’m not the sort who really stays chummy with exes. In fact, that’s why I’m not on Facebook. I don’t really want everyone I ever met to just go ahead and friend me.
So talk about the inspiration for The Pyscho Ex Game, since we were just talking about exes.
The inspiration for that was that I met the man I wrote it with who now lives with me, by the by. Andy. And he had a musical that I went to see a bunch of times, which was remarkable. And he and I started e-mailing, and it was a very compelling e-mail relationship, and the reason it got so compelling is we started playing a game. When we were e-mailing, I barely knew him, so I was just sort doing defensive, jokey bantering with him, because that’s what I do with people I don’t know. And he made some kind of remark, and I made some sort of a challenge to him, about yeah, well, whatever happened to you, I can drink you under the table three times, that kind of a “yadda yadda yadda,” because I get very brave when I’m being banter-y.
And we started playing the game of who’d had the more horrible previous love life for points. And it was really, really hilarious. It got really hilarious really fast. So then I thought, “Well, this is such a great idea for a book,” because we were writing the stories so kind of specifically. But it really wasn’t obvious how to make it into a book. Also, two people writing a book was hard enough, but we were also using all this disparate sort of information about all these various people, and so forth. And there was no way to really turn it into a book without really reconceiving it all together –I thought it would just be, “Oh, we’ll just take these and we’ll just make them a book.” Making that into a book was, I would say, the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
The other thing that was nice about it is we were trading chapters back and forth and we were each allowed to just take whatever the other person and just move it on. I would get my chapter back from him and he would have moved it to some place that I never dreamt of in a million years, but I’d think, “Wow, that’s so much better for the plot than the actual thing that I had written.” So it kind of went like that. But it was, I still think, a very funny and interesting idea for a book.
Actually, the book was an evaluation of narcissistic personality disorder that I was learning about. It’s kind of a narcissistic personality disorder bible in my opinion, because we had both been with a lot of people, having grown up in certain situations. I don’t want to tip any details, but we’d both been with a lot of people who were extremely narcissistic. Which is a thing I know a lot about. I had a piece about that in Real Simple about it. It’s up on my website. Real Simple asked me to write one of these things called a Life Lesson, and so every other life lesson was, you know, an amazing little homily Mom told me at the kitchen table and so forth, and I thought, well, my big life lesson was understanding what Narcissistic Personality Disorder is. I read like 20 books on it. So I explained it. And I had a very narcissistic mother, and therefore went on to meet a lot of very narcissistic people and think of them as family.
How can you know that you’re in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic? What are the warning signs?
How can you know? You know, it really has to do… the “you” in this really has to be taken under consideration, because how can you know? Maybe you’re the narcissist. I mean, I can’t really just say who and what it is. But there’s a great book I read that I always recommend to people called Why Is It Always About You? If you’re in a relationship where everything you do seems to be the instigation for a fight and you didn’t even think you were getting in [a fight], you don’t know why you’re fighting and you didn’t really mean for it to be a fight, you didn’t really know it was gonna be a fight, that’s a pretty big indication: that you feel continuously attacked when all you were doing is sort of being banal.
That was my relationship with my mother. Pretty much everything I said created a fight, and I couldn’t figure out how not to be in a fight with her. And then finally you find out that there’s a category of person who’s just looking for a fight. And it’s generally a narcissist, because they are sitting on a wellspring of rage and humiliation that comes from when they were three and they’re untreated, and usually narcissists are not the kind of people who go to therapy. They instead just look for targets for rage. And if you’re raised by one, you pretty much already know what that dynamic is, and you’re likely to fall back into it with many another person. Think of it as comfort.
I don’t think I’m in a relationship with a narcissist.
Well, I bet you aren’t then.
But I’ve probably dated them in the past.
Well, it sounds like you have a nice relationship with your mother, and that’s usually an indication of whether you’re going to fall into the trap.
People who have weird relationships with their moms—you can’t make a blanket statement, but it’s often a red flag.
It’s a dilemma. In fact, I’m writing a new book, another collection of short pieces, and one of the pieces is called “In Praise of Crazy Moms.” And I’m holding moms responsible for the invention of comedy by having produced people who have no choice but to defend themselves all the time. The funny ones cause comedy.
Can you talk a little bit more about the book and when it’s coming out?
Well, I have been writing novels. I have a newish novel out now called Nose Down Eyes Up.
The talking dog?
Yes, the talking dogs. I love the talking dogs. It’s written in the voice of a guy, and it was the first time I’d done that, which I had to do a lot of research for, because I’d gotten really comfortable writing my own voice, which I sort of came upon post-Letterman show by writing columns. And I was sort of happy to have stumbled upon my own voice after a lot of years of collaborating and becoming somebody else’s voice. You find yourself sort of hungry for, who am I outside of this person?
But in this book I wrote in the voice actually of a guy who works for me, who I have spent almost as much time with as I have with Andy, but in a different kind way. He’s my handyman, he works for me. But in order to write in the voice of a guy, I was very busy color-correcting it with all the men I know because I was very worried I would girl-ify it and make it wussy and so forth. So hopefully I didn’t do that. The new book I’m writing is gonna be another collection of short pieces, which is actually the thing I like writing best. I like writing short, funny stuff. It’s an area of comfort I have as far as writing goes, if there is an area of comfort in writing. As you may know yourself, it’s just the hugest pain in the ass.
And the mother stuff is in one of the pieces?
Yeah, that’s one of the pieces I’m working on, “In Praise of Crazy Mothers.” I’m holding them responsible for the invention of standup comedy. I documented it. Lots and lots of standup comedians have crazy mothers. It’s a big, big definition of crazy. It’s not clinically incarcerated in a mental institution; it’s just an impossible kind of a person. Difficult and hard to get along with and so forth. The red flags of which you were speaking.
Right. Another reason why not to date a standup comic.
Standup comics—very, very difficult group of human beings. They have an upside, but they’re a difficult bunch.
Have you encountered a lot of age discrimination in Hollywood?
There’s a lot. It’s very much easier to get a job in the entertainment industry if you’re between 25 and 35, I would say. And after that, everybody starts getting paranoid. Although, there are some really good examples of older people, you know, like the guy who did The Sopranos, who did well for themselves at ages where you’re not supposed to be permitted to participate. But they were able to just have an opportunity and hit it out of the park. If you at that age and have an opportunity and don’t hit it out of the park, I don’t think you get another opportunity. It’s very youth-oriented.
Is that partly why you started writing novels?
Yeah. You know, it was partly why. When I was working on the Letterman show, I had an opportunity to write a column. And I kind of got overwhelmed by how astonishing it was to be responsible for your own work fully. You don’t get that much opportunity to do that when you write television. It is a massive collaboration and it has other things that really are going for it, like a giant paycheck and the fun of collaboration, and so forth. But there’s not of that, “I did this and it’s by me” kind of a feeling. And I started out in art and I kind of missed that. So when I started writing things by myself it like, wow, so that’s what it’s like when I do things by myself. A lot of people go into creative stuff thinking that they would like particular credit for something, and you can’t really get it when you’re in a massive collaboration. You can get it in other ways, but you know, the battles of directors trying to get a cut and having it taken away from them or writers being rewritten by 25 other writers are, you know, well documented. It’s very hard to be the initial writer on something and make it through to the end as the writer still. It’s more common that you get rewritten and they take it away from you. And for the artist, that’s frustrating and crazy.
When I first started writing print, and especially publishing, and I would turn in something and I’d go, “Well, do you have notes for me?,” I would expect them to say, “Well, ok, we want you to just throw out the beginning, and start here and add a black child,” you know, whatever kind of crazy shit they come up with when you have notes given to you in the entertainment industry. But in publishing, they don’t do that at all. The editor I had at Random House used to write “G.W.F.” on certain sections of what I wrote, and that would mean “goes without saying.” Like I was overstating the obvious. And I was doing that sort of not because I wanted to overstate the obvious but because when you do standup and write for television, there’s no such thing as overstating the obvious, you’re supposed to state it two and three ways in different ways in order to make sure that the stupidest person available understood that you said something.
I mean, that’s certainly the training. And the idea that you could just say something smart and leave it alone and let the person ponder it was sort of beyond delightful. Because when you write print, it’s not going anywhere, it’s just sitting there. Of course, with TiVo now, it could just sit there too, you could play it back and play it back. There wasn’t TiVo when I started doing that. So anyway I just thought that was amazing, that the editors I was working with in publishing were trying to make me sound more like myself and not like an entirely different person, which is what the tendency tends to be in Hollywood. There’s layers of executives that you give you notes when you write TV and movies. The first layer and then the second layer and then the next layer, and you just have to deal with it somehow. Some people get in big acrimonious fights and some people just give in. And it’s very obvious when you watch a movie and there’s just mysterious things happening that a committee got involved. When I watch movies, I always think, “Well, this had to be a committee decision, you can’t tell me anybody came up with that plot point on their own” in an early draft.
That sounds really annoying.
Well, it drives a lot of people crazy, from F. Scott Fitzgerald on, you know. And then there are those people that are the beacons that the rest of us think, “Why can’t I get that?” Like, nobody’s saying that to Judd Apatow. He fought his way through and somehow is a franchise of his own design now. You think, “Maybe that could happen to me.” Or the guy that did The Sopranos. I don’t think anybody was giving him notes that he had to pay any attention to. Or the people that do The Simpsons. From what I understand, they don’t really get network notes. But that’s not the case for the next show that comes on that’s like The Simpsons. They will give them a million notes. But once you’ve got a really proven success, they back off. They don’t want to mess with success. But really proven success is not an easy thing to just stumble into.
One of your scripts has been on the infuriating verge of being produced for the last 20 years.
I’ve got a piece in that L.A. Weekly I was talking about that’s about that, that’s about the 25 years of this one script. It started in 1986 and it went through countless rewrites and it went into “turn around” and “turn around” and “turn around.” And it was at Paramount, and then it was at Lorimar, and then various principles who backed it died, and it had Nora Ephron attached to it for a while, and it just went on and on and on and on. And every time you get your hopes up it just crashes and burns again. I would tell you the story, but I wrote it.
Oh, here it is: “Lather, Rinse, Repeat: My Hollywood Horror Story.”
That’s it. Exactly. And I finally – it ends with me getting called by Fox who apparently has it is their basement now. It’s not in development, but they tried to stop publication of my book Walking in Circles Before Lying Down because it was a talking dog movie and I wanted, at some point, it was like 24 years in and I thought, “You know, I haven’t really written this talking dog thing and, I mean, no one’s ever going to see this damn thing. I’m gonna use the premise of a talking dog and a girl and advice and stuff and redo it entirely so it has no conflict with the script just because it’s still an area that I like and I’m gonna write it into a book, because I would like before I die to have certain things…” So I did that, and the book is doing really well; it just went into a 24th printing yesterday. But before it came out, Fox tried to stop publication of it, even though it’s a different plot, it’s a different girl, it’s a different dog. It’s a different everything. I wrote all different stuff. My joke that I make in that article is that William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and Richard III and nobody told him that they were the same play because they both had blood and talking kings in them.
But also it’s like, they’re not making the movie!
No. They’re not making the movie and they have no plans to ever make the movie, because they thought it was a conflict with Marley and Me, even though Marley and Me is nothing like the movie that I wrote. But the movie’s clearly never – if it were ever going to get made, it’s when Nora was attached. And it didn’t. And at that point the reason it didn’t get made was is, we actually got to a table reading with Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry and Ed Norton and others reading, and Matthew Perry couldn’t get through a whole sentence without starting over, was the astonishing thing to me. And I thought to myself actually, “How did they get him to do Friends? He obviously can’t read. Did they give him line readings, or…?” And then about a day later he was put in rehab. Remember, there was a big mess with the rehab situation that was very all over the tabloids about a day after my reading, and I’m sure he doesn’t still have that problem, and maybe he didn’t have it before that. I caught him at the cusp of it. I honestly couldn’t figure out how they were filming Friends the way that I was watching him at that point.
Couldn’t they have gotten someone else?
Well, who knew? He didn’t look weird. He looked like a regular person. I don’t know what the substance issue was particularly, but it was being the top-notch actor that we know and love at that moment in time. I mean, he did go into rehab for a very long time right after that. Like I say, a day later. So I caught him at the worst of it. That was the last time I saw that movie on its way to being made. I actually thought there was a pretty good shot at that point.
When was all of that, the late ‘90s?
That was at the cusp of the new century. Because I remember writing a draft of it that said, “Me and my boy! All new for the 21st century.” It was only 14 or 16 years into it at that point. Now we’re a full 20-…well, we’re going for the 21st year soon. But it’s not in development so it’s not really a real 21st year. So, fake. But I was happy I wrote Walking in Circles About Lying Down. I’m a big, big, big, big dog lover. I spend all my days surrounded by dogs staring at me, like I’m gonna do something good. They all are continuously let down by me, but I honestly felt like I had a lot to say about it, so I’m glad I wrote that book. And then I wrote a follow-up, which is Nose Down, Eyes Up.
So your dogs are kind of…
My muses. I feel like we’re in a conversation all day.
I know. It’s nice. I feel like I’m in a conversation all day with my dog.
Well, you are, actually. They’re not saying anything about the war in Afghanistan or anything, but they have their things to say.
It’s true. But maybe if I had four dogs, I’d be more inspired.
Well, it makes me really laugh. I find dogs hilarious. I love that we’re sharing our living space and our mental space with a totally other species. I love that it’s just another species. To me, it’s sort of like having exchange students from Neptune. They share our furniture, but you wonder exactly how much they share of what we are sharing with them, what they comprehend, what they don’t comprehend, what they think we’re doing. To me, that’s just amusing. It’s kind of like talking to someone from another country. You know, that’s what I like to write about. I just never understand what they think I’m doing. What do they think I do for a living, for instance? What do they think I’m doing while I’m sitting here, besides not giving them enough walks?
Right, exactly. Like, they’re just waiting… — like you just exist to give them walks and feed them and then pick up their poop, and in between that, you know…
Yeah, I like writing about that. I just wrote a piece for this new book I’m writing where I’m explaining the idea of selfishness to them. Because it would be such a complete anathema, the idea that you could have a concept of selfishness. So I like the idea of trying to go back and forth of what I image the dogs would say to that concept. What inspired me is that in the morning, I still get the paper, because I still like to read the paper, and they stand on it. And they always stand on it, usually it’s right before they decide that it’s now or never for breakfast, they’re just all standing on it, and they’re ripping it and they’re ruining it and I’m, “No! Get off! Get off!” So I was writing this whole piece where I explain that it’s very selfish of them to ruin what I’m doing just because they’re hungry, and the answers which are uncomprehending and also “huh?”. Well, I don’t want to try to paraphrase it, because I’m actually just only writing it now. That’s what I like writing about, is just the idea that there’d be anything that they could comprehend, what it is they get about what we’re all doing.
Oh, totally. I mean, I don’t think they can comprehend their own existence, though, right?
I think they do comprehend. Well, I don’t think they are worried about their mortality.
But they have survival instincts.
This is the second group of four that I’ve had. I had four other ones who just all died of old age, and they have four distinct personalities and they have a pack order. It’s completely hilarious to watch them juggle all this stuff all day. These four – the last four I had reminded me of four people I met on an elevator who were now forced to hang out together – these four are just more like a pack. Some of them have shared interests. There are two ball fetchers. There’s one – two of my dogs, I got from my vet when he was trying to place them because their dad went to prison for Ponzi schemes – so they came as a couple. I was gonna take just one but I’m glad I took them both because they’re sort of like a married couple. He’s always humping her and she’s kind of like, you know, looking for a cigarette or something to read, and she just sort of puts up with him humping her. So they kind of sleep together, so they have a relationship. And she’s one of the ball fetchers, so she has a relationship with the older dog in the pack, who insists on being the alpha even though the other three don’t care. Every single day he takes I.D.’s from them and it’s like he’s going, “Alright, everybody, everybody remember. I’m in charge here!” And the other three are like, “Yeah, we know you’re in charge, we don’t care. Be in charge. We don’t care who’s in charge.” So they all just really make me laugh. This is going on all day long. Luckily nobody else cares who’s in charge, so that guy’s not getting in a fight with the other three.
There you go.
And one of them has got that rescue dog personality of “Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me,” which is, “No one’s killing you! I don’t know what happened to you before I met you, but I have never done anything to you, why are you acting like I’m going to kill you?”
Like, “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me.”
Yeah. I wrote her into Nose Down, Eyes Up. She’s one of the dogs in that. It’s a funny thing to have a dog presume that you’re a violent offender when you have done nothing but kiss her and give her treats for the whole six years you’ve had her. It’s a good argument for what happens in early childhood, the way that it affects everybody.
Oh, totally. Yeah, I don’t know what happened to my dog before I had her, but I’m sure it affects her personality.
It’s the same as with human beings. The stuff that happens in early childhood, before you’re three years old, you know, that’s who you’re dealing with when you’re dealing with petulant adults, is somebody wasn’t smart enough with their three-year-old. And who really knows how to get everything right with a three-year-old? So, you know, that’s the history of violence and insanity in the world at large: mothers who can’t really comprehend what they’re doing to a three-year-old. And why would they be able to? Probably people not getting more sane anytime soon.
Probably. Is there anything else you’re working on that you want to mention?
I’ve been making a bunch of short movies.
I just love doing that. I don’t have a job doing that. But I got a really, really cool camera. I just upgraded my camera stuff. I learned how to edit on Final Cut. I taught art at U.S.C. for a year, and I was taking a lot of film classes while I was there because I could, because I was faculty. And I got really excited about the idea of making films—it was sort of the transition in between doing comedy and doing art. And in those days, you couldn’t do all the stuff that… — you’d have to rent [equipment], get an editor, there used to have to be cameras that you’d have to change reels of tape in the cameras or film and get film processing and all this stuff that you can do it all just in your office now. I can’t get over how completely great that is. Including color-correct it yourself in Final Cut. I love editing. As difficult as writing is is as much as I love editing. I think it’s the most fun. I used to sit for hours and hours with editors when they were editing giving them timecodes and waiting for them to do all this stuff and it would just be the most endless waiting task to see something assembled.
Do you think you ever want to work in TV again?
Yeah, I would. You know, it was something that I believed in. I come up with stuff and try and sell it. And then I tried last year again and didn’t succeed in selling something. My friend Laura Kightlinger and I were trying to come up with some ideas recently. It gets less easy all the time, since reality TV took over, you really have to get the right angle. With reality TV, it’s harder to get that other stuff launched. I tried to get kind of a standard funny half-hour show and they looked at me like I had all the pieces in place and then it fell apart. That’s the way that really tends to work a lot. So I keep writing books. One of the things I instantly liked about books is that they go forward. When you’re writing other stuff, a lot of times you wind up with giant page counts and no one sees it, you know. You can have the end of a really a lucrative and very satisfying career without anyone having seen your work. I know people who have written dozens and dozens of screenplays that didn’t get made. At least when you write print, it comes out. At least somebody sees it. Whether they like it or not, whether it does well or not, that’s a separate problem entirely.
Presumably, if you get a book contract, you will have your book published, whereas you can get something optioned or get a screenplay deal and it will never see the light of day.
Yeah, and you can always – if you write the thing in print first, at some point maybe it can become a screenplay, but at least it also existed at some point if the screenplay never sees the light of day. The other stuff, it goes into this weird vortex of the unseen that… I should write something about that. All those creative things that are sitting in that giant vortex here in Los Angeles and in New York too that have never been seen.
It’s a very big vortex. I suppose that’s why it’s a vortex.
It would be a scary vortex to enter by the way if you think about all the violence and the misconstrued comedy and the weird people.
I should write a graphic novel about it.
You should write a screenplay about the vortex of screenplays.
I know, I was just thinking that’s a pretty good idea.
It’d be very meta. It’d be very Being John Malkovich
This whole business is getting weirder and weirder. Getting things on the air becomes stranger and stranger and stranger. It used to be that, like when they would just shoot a show like The Osbornes, they would fact-gather forever. They would shoot and shoot and shoot – I used to shoot a ton of what would be reality TV for the Letterman show, I would do all the remote pieces in addition to whatever else I was doing. And I would shoot hours and hours and hours and then put together a four-minute piece. I would just cull it down to the very best, most hilarious four minutes. And that was the kind of percentages that it took. That was what they did when they first started doing reality TV. It’s like when they shoot a documentary, you shoot forever. And then you get the best stuff boiled down to an hour. Now they insist on doing an episode of a reality TV show in three, four days. And nothing really happens in three or four days necessarily. Also, they now just have to construct plots out of it. They just make stuff up. They give people lines. It really no longer is what it is, really reality TV, it really is just forcing a plot on people who aren’t actors in their own home situation.
I would say that at some point that’s gotta implode. That’s the wrong direction to be going in with it. That’s like a terrible sitcom. I can’t imagine that it’s going to be able to sustain at that level without some amount of reality being the core. The fascination was, these are real people doing stuff.
What do you think of the recent firings of Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson from Saturday Night Live?
The workings of SNL have always been pretty mysterious to me. A lot of friends of mine have had a run through that system and emerged pretty frustrated. It seems to work for some people and not for others and I can’t pretend to get it. I do know that it is incredibly painful to get fired, but also that Julia Sweeney, one of the most hilarious, most literate comedians I have ever known, emerged from SNL pretty much known only for Pat. Which was funny but if you ever saw “God Said Ha” or any of her other monologue work you know how much of Julia Sweeney never made it on to the SNL stage. So..I would tell those girls to just start writing a bunch of new material for themselves and keep on going. The rejection doesn’t say anything much about their talent.