I ran into a guy last week, in the waiting area of a big TV network. He was there to pitch a show, which was odd, because up until that moment I had been pretty sure he was out of the business.Not in a bad way, though. The guy had his name on three hit TV shows. He had a major chunk of the last two, which both ran several years, both hit syndication, both, in other words, flooded his world with money. The third show didn't do quite so well, but at that point I'm not sure he even noticed.
We greeted each other in the lobby, made polite small talk. Chatted about mutual friends, good Thai restaurants, our favourite reality TV shows. But I never got up the courage to ask him what I really wanted to know: "Why are you here? Aren't you rich enough? Why are you not in the South of France, or travelling the world on a yacht, or shopping for $300 shirts?"But I don't ask people questions like that, questions that I really want to know the answer to. I ask questions like: "So, did you come over the hill or did you take the freeway?" And: "Do you like the Audi?"
But I was curious, so I did what all writers do: I called a friend of mine, who's also this guy's friend, and asked him the question. "Why was that guy pitching to the network like a working hack? Isn't he rich enough by now?" And then, because it suddenly occurred to me, I added: "Please don't tell me he lost it all with Madoff."My friend assured me he hadn't. "So how much money does he have?" I asked.
"No idea. A lot. I mean, two shows. On points alone, say he was at 25 modified adjusted points to start. Gives some away, gets to the hard floor of, I want to say 20 but let's be conservative and say 18 points minus overhead, which comes off the stop, and back out all of the advances on contingent compensation -"When writers talk about money, they suddenly get very, very good at maths."- and let's factor in fees, which were high, times 22 episodes times 6 years, times 2 shows, the house in the Palisades -"
"Which part?" I ask."Riviera," my friend says, with quiet awe. Which is the most expensive and exclusive part of the already expensive and exclusive Pacific Palisades. More calculating. Some subtraction for the kids at Crossroads and the college tuitions. The divorce. The second divorce. Still, you end up at a whopping sum."So what was he doing there?" I ask. "Why is he not relaxing, yachting, spending all that money? I mean, if this guy gets a show on the air - his fourth! - he'll be working so hard, late hours in the editing suite, casting, writing, getting notes from the studio, getting notes from the network, what's he want all of that for? You know, in his position, I'd be so far gone, so out of town. Swinging on a hammock somewhere. Starting a second career as a food writer. Travelling around the world on one of those freighters."
"Wow. You've really thought about this," my friend says."Are you kidding? I have a file on my computer called 'Things I'd Rather Be Doing'. I have a bookmark file on my web browser called 'Syndication Escapes'.""Well, this guy obviously likes working in television.""But that's so sad," I say. "That poor guy. Here he is, so successful, so rich, he can do anything he wants, and it turns out that he has nothing else in his life but this business? How tragic. You know, I actually feel sorry for him."
"Did you ever think," my friend says, "that maybe that's why he's so successful?""What?""Well, maybe he likes doing this. Maybe he genuinely likes television, likes casting and writing and producing, and enough to put up with notes and networks and executives. Maybe he has a show he's passionate about, something he's burning to do, and that's why he's still in the game?""Sorry?""Maybe, in order to be successful in television, you've got to really love doing it."
"Not following you.""Maybe if you spend so much emotional energy planning your escapes and daydreaming about the day you can leave town, you don't have any left over for the work itself.""I'm sorry," I say. "You're going through a bad cell. I'll have to call you back." And I hung up. Because life has few enough pleasures, and feeling sorry for someone who is richer and more successful and more productive than you are is one of the juiciest. So I'm going to stick with: that poor guy, he has no life, how tragic, and ignore the possibility that he loves what he does and does it well, because, well, you know why because.