You can tell a lot about a guy, it used to be said, by watching how he treats the maid. In Hollywood, personal assistants are expected to tend to the most personal aspects of a boss's life, work around the clock, keep all the important secrets and be grateful for a tiny salary. In other words, they can come to the Malibu beach house, but they can't look like they're enjoying it. And the actual Southern Californian maid? She gets paid in cash and is fired the moment the children begin speaking inadvertently in Spanish.
Once, a few years ago, the personal assistant of a major Hollywood actor timidly suggested, while driving his boss to a Democratic fundraiser, that since his boss was going to be introducing the president with a speech extolling the virtues of his health care proposal, perhaps now would be a good time for the centimillionaire movie star to extend health-care coverage to his employee.
He was fired on the spot. Literally: told to get out of the car and catch the bus home.
That's a rather egregious example of crazy boss cruelty, of course, but here's my confession: in pretty much any kind of labour dispute, I instinctively side with management. This, I know, is a character flaw, and yet I can't seem to shake it.
So, for me, watching a movie like The Devil Wears Prada or hearing about the assistant taking the bus, well, it doesn't really move me much. I side with the psycho boss. I think the feckless, forgetful assistant with the rich interior life needs to suck it up and bring the correct coffee drink in the correctly shaped mug, or whatever it was that the psycho boss wanted and didn't get that set him or her off into that tyre-chewing, eye-popping tantrum.
Putting out a magazine, or making a movie or television show - or trading natural gas, or doing anything, really, for money - is hard work, and sometimes the high point in your busy day is lunch at your desk: a turkey sandwich on toast with mayonnaise on one side and mustard on the other. When it comes untoasted, well, that little moment of pleasure and relaxation is ruined. You're eating a lunch you didn't want at a desk you can't leave. That's not work. That's prison.
So it's hard not to get really mad about the untoasted bread - irrationally mad, yes; overreacting and inappropriately raging, perhaps - because, well, I mean, there's a toaster in the restaurant, yes? And slices of bread were proximate to that device? So, basically, what the 20-something assistant is telling me is that he simply couldn't be bothered to double-check that little detail. His expensive education and monumental confidence has led him to think - like the rest of his pampered, spoiled generation - that, "Hey, I went to Harvard. I shouldn't have to get that guy's lunch."
But life, when you're just starting out, is all about getting someone's lunch, if you look at it a certain way.
I worked with a writer a few years ago on a show, and for some reason, every day - every single day - the production assistant got his lunch slightly wrong. The first day, it was roast chicken and not smoked turkey. So, OK, it's still poultry. He grumbled a bit, but it was lunchtime, and we were all eating, so he ate it.
Then the second day, it was a tuna salad sandwich, not a tuna salad, and he was miffed, of course, said something cranky to the PA, peeled off the bread and sort of mushed the tuna around.
By the third day - what we'll call the Linguine versus Ravioli incident - it was clear that either he was jinxed or there was something seriously wrong with our assistant, who could not for the life of him explain why he consistently got the same writer's lunch order wrong. The rest of us thought it was hilarious, but it wasn't so funny to watch the PA slowly melt down. "I don't understand why I keep getting it wrong!" he sobbed. "I went to Stanford!"
That's the trouble with Stanford, Harvard, Yale and places like that. They teach students a lot about confidence and the French Revolution, but they don't teach them to double-check the lunch order. The fancier the school, the more likely it is that the graduates can't do the simple tasks that every entry-level job requires.
The assistant from Stanford eventually quit. He just couldn't handle the pressure. The last I heard, he was working in Silicon Valley, as one of the early employees at Facebook. So, my guess is, he's a rich man right now. I sure hope someone is getting his lunch wrong.
Rob Long is a producer and writer based in Hollywood