by Diane Haithman
Since nor the exterior nor th’ inward man
Resembles that it was.
— King Claudius, Hamlet
“See, here’s the thing, Kenny . . .”
I’d forgotten how my immediate supervisor, Danny Gordon, never really shook hands. He’d just put his in yours and leave it there, like a small, limp package waiting for UPS. We’d been holding hands like this ever since he walked into my office to welcome me back. Sweet.
“The . . . thing.” Dan nodded then fell silent. I decided it was up to me to end the non-handshake and gentlly disengaged myself from it. Dan still said nothing. The pause was clammier than his hand. “Say whatever the fuck it is you have to say, Dan,” I suggested pleasantly.
Danny winced; he tended to take profanity very personally. His small brown eyes had been fixed on the floor. Now, as he looked up, they darted every which way behind the narrow glasses — furtive weasel eyes trying to escape from his desperately hip green rectangular frames, from his head, from my office. From me.
“The thing is, Kenny, I’ve been in communication with the writers, and they don’t think they can work with you anymore, Kenny. Kenny, they say they just can’t . . . sing under these conditions. I mean, your condition. Trust me, if we had time to find comedy writers who can function when they’re depressed, I would. I just don’t know what to say, Kenny.”
That was three too many Kennys. I willed myself to stay calm but my heart began to rocket around inside my ribcage like the metal pellet in a pinball machine. I pressed one hand against my chest in the guise of straightening my tie. It probably wanted to get away from me too, my heart — even my heart wanted to leave me now, and you know what, I couldn’t blame it.
“They . . . know, Ken,” Dan said.
“Know?” I asked, keeping my heart in my chest with my hand.
Dan’s thin fingers played over the nascent bald spot in his dark hair. Swear to God he had less hair than when he came in. “This isn’t me talking, Kenny. It’s the network.” The apologetic whimper had come crawling back into Dan’s nasal voice. That bottled spider, that foul bunchback’d toad. “Do me a solid, Kenny. Patty’s Going Out and He’s on the Force both got canceled, and it’s only October.”
“Yeah, saw it on Deadline. At least they sent me an update.” I found myself absently tracing “He’s off the Air” with one finger in the dust on my formerly gleaming glass desk. Not original — some mouth-breathing TV blogger had posted that smug headline on his website. After saying it over and over, week after week, meeting after meeting, I’d honestly begun to believe that He’s on the Force would be the perfect comeback vehicle for former child star Donny — Don — Calder after two years in a minimum-security prison.
“I had . . . concerns about Don,” I said. “But I figured Patty would at least make it to November. I thought she had what we were looking for. People loved her on America’s Got Talent.”
“Yeah, well, fat is fine for competition, where there’s crying. We don’t need it at 9 p.m. when everybody else has thin people.”
Dan was right about that. Patty’s Going Out, our series launch announcement read, would be “the ongoing lament of a young woman’s dating problems in New York City.” It was only ongoing for three episodes. We quickly discovered that people wanted to see an incredibly beautiful, sexy young woman having dating problems in New York City, not a woman who might actually have dating problems having dating problems in New York City.
Now, our only hit was a sophisticated nine-thirty comedy starring white-hot Saturday Night Live veteran Bert DeMarco, another Harvard dropout. Following in the footsteps of his father, Bert’s character had become a veterinarian. Problem was, he didn’t like animals, and animals didn’t like him. It was called Bite Me.
In more recent episodes, developed during my absence, the focus had moved from Bert’s antics in his veterinary practice to his life as an incredibly handsome, sexy young man having dating problems in New York City.
It was my idea to bring Bert DeMarco on board in the first place. Messengers bearing flowers, or spectacular baskets of fruit and cheese, marched for three months between Burbank and CBD Productions in Beverly Hills. The C stood for Bert’s own dog, Coco, who had a small but pivotal role in the pilot episode. The comedy department went ballistic about the bills, but we got DeMarco. We call this process “development.”
“I think that we both know there’s only one thing standing between us and Number Four,” Dan said.
“Bite Me,” I replied.
“Correct. The anchor of our Wednesday night comedy block. Perfect demographics: men 18 to 49. Women love him too because he won’t let the dog sleep on the bed during sex. Kenny, we’ve finally stopped skewing old.”
“I know. I launched that show, Dan.”
“Reality programming, Kenny. We’re up against reality programming. No freaking writers to go on strike every time someone takes away their sock monkey,” Dan fretted. “And you don’t have to pay real idiots 1.5 mil an episode like we’re paying DeMarco. I’m depleted, Kenny.”
Reality, Danny — I’m up against reality. “If they want reality, they should turn it off,” I grumbled. I lifted the shiny gold nameplate on my dusty desk — Kenneth C. Harrison, Vice President, Comedy Development — and weighed it in my hand. Heavy. You could hurt somebody with this. “Look, Bite Me is crap without my creative input,” I said. “I’m the reason we can say ‘It’s Cable TV for a Network Audience’ on those mugs we give out at the summer press tour. We were the Number Four network for four years. Now we’re barely hanging onto Number Three. You want to go back to picking up the Los Angeles fucking Times and reading ‘mired in fourth place’ every time the goddamned Calendar section mentions our name?”
“I’m not trying to be difficult, Ken, but this is my call, not yours.” Dan squared his stooped shoulders to the extent that they were capable of forming an angle. Then he grinned. “I didn’t like the mugs that much, but I loved the Bite Me candy rectal thermometers.”
Dan was easily distracted. I tried to bring him back into the room. “And without me, you don’t have DeMarco,” I reminded him. Arrogant prick wasn’t working for me nearly as well as it used to, but the door seemed to have opened a crack. My tone turned coaxing. “I’m the one who massaged him. I sent him flowers. I sent flowers to his fucking dog. Bert called me as soon as they arrived to tell me that Coco loved them.”
“Yeah, well, he didn’t call you an hour later to tell you Coco loved them so much, he ate them. Let’s put it this way: you are the main reason the CBD office in Beverly Hills had to order new Berber carpet for the main lobby.” Dan shook his head in lieu of further detail. “Besides . . . this is hard to say, but it’s not just the writers who say they can’t work with you anymore. It’s . . . well, it’s DeMarco.
“Bert?” Okay, that was a slap in the face. “But Bert and I . . . we have a relationship.”
“I’m sorry, Ken. I wasn’t going to tell you, but you had to push.” Dan was now actively pulling out strands of his own hair. “You need to learn when to stop pushing, Kenny. Your baby is now our franchise. We own it. We love you, but . . . we don’t need you.”
We love you, but we don’t need you. The opposite of what Alice had told me some eight months ago: “I’ll stay with you as long as you need me.” Her pale, sharp features glowed with the pride of self-sacrifice as she said it. Those were her words, but here’s what she meant: “I’ll stay with you even though I don’t love you — because you need me.” That’s something I couldn’t live with, especially because it was true.
I moved out the next day.
Packing is such sweet sorrow.
I am alone now, I guess you could say. A Nielsen household of one.
The only thing I had left was my job, and I couldn’t afford to lose it. So instead of arguing, I decided to massage Danny. “So . . . I guess I need a new franchise,” I said, my voice on a tightrope. “Your thoughts, Daniel?”
Dan brightened. “I think I’ve got a win-win for you, Kenny. There’s a slot for a development director over in Movies and Minis.” (“Minis” was short for mini-series, which was short for TV that was going to go on way longer than it should.) “We think you’d be perfect for this exciting new opportunity. Writing the press release in my head. In fact, we were just saying the other day that you’d really be a great help to movies, you know, when they do cancer.”
When they do cancer. “Okay” was all I could think of to say.
“It’s the best way to protect our slogan: ’Prime Time Is Your Time.’“ Dan stopped speaking for an uncomfortable moment, then erupted into inappropriate giggles that contorted his thin frame into what looked like a hip hop pose, one karate heel kicking out and splayed fingers crossed in the vicinity of his groin. “Kenny, one of the writers has come up with such a great story line for the next Bite Me. The working title is ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ Do you love it? It’s from Shakespeare.”
“How cool is that?” Dan returned to his usual round-shouldered posture as the giggle exorcised itself from his body. “I had to take Shakespeare at Palisades High, but the only thing I remember is the kid next to me having to memorize the line ‘Alas, poor York, I knew him well.’”
“It’s not ‘York.’ It’s Yorick. And it’s not ‘I knew him well.’ It’s ‘I knew him, Horatio!’ Hamlet’s talking to Horatio. He’s standing next to an open grave with Yorick’s goddamned dried-up skull in his hand, and he’s talking to fucking Horatio.”
Dan stared at me in shock. “Whatever,” he offered warily. I forced a smile and put extra emphasis on his name, hoping it might be helpful in some random way. “Dan. I know, we have our . . . words, sometimes. We push each other hard. We bounce off each other. But in the end I can always count on you to come up with something excellent.” That’s right, just keep on talking. Doesn’t have to make any sense. “That’s why we’ve always had such a sweet collabo going, you and I. Creative tension has always been our franchise.”
Dan responded to this unexpected and illogical praise like a fresh bowl of weasel food. “It is? I mean, it is,” he stammered. “You’re right about our creative partnership, Kenny. Tension is what it’s all about. In fact, in all of our years working together, I don’t ever recall feeling quite this . . . uh . . . tense.”
I nodded enthusiastically. “Could things get any more tense?”
“It’s all good, Ken.” Dan let out a long, shuddering sigh. “Listen, I’ve got to get to the ten o’clock . . .”
“And I don’t . . . kidding.”
“I know, right?” The sigh again. “Anyway, I’ll send someone to the office to move your stuff over to movies. Do you know where it is? In the Hacienda. Right across the way from us.”
“I’ve been with the network for five years, Dan. I know what’s on the other side of the fucking parking lot.” The aging, Spanish-style Hacienda Building stood across from the contemporary, three-story glass box where we were standing now. I’d often heard our building referred to as the “Entitlement Complex,” which seemed a lot funnier before I was asked to move out of it.
Movies and Minis was the only legitimate department in the Hacienda, bounced over there from their suite over here because the network hadn’t had a movie or miniseries hit for fifteen solid years. VOD, need I say more? I was being banished to the land of the dinosaurs, a window office in Jurassic Park, a development hell that still existed but from which nothing ever emerged alive. The rest of the Hacienda was an ant farm of failed, high-level network executives who now had lucrative production deals — “boy deals,” they called them, since the old boys gave them to each other after their short careers crumbled. I always figured I’d have an office there someday, and frankly I was okay with that. Just not today.
“We’ll re-assign you to a parking space in front of the Hacienda.”
“Cool.” I knew this was not so I could park closer to my new office, but because the spaces over there were smaller. I could already see the dings in the shiny silver paint on my Mercedes. “Do I . . . get to keep the plant?” The plant was a gift from Standards, grateful because I’d agreed to cut the word “balls” out of an early Bite Me script. Little did I know how quickly the network would return the favor.
“It’s . . . a little hot and dry over there for a bromeliad, Ken. But do what you think best.”
“It’s going to take them awhile to get you moved. Maybe you want to take the rest of the day off, and we’ll have everything ready for you tomorrow morning?”
“Sure, I’ll take the rest of the day off,” I said. “See, I’d hate to have any of your sensitive comedy writers believe that his latest script is a substantial piece of shit just because he happened to take a piss next to me in the executive men’s room.” I cocked my finger at Dan and used my thumb to fire off a fictional bullet. “Kidding again. Hey, after five years, you know me . . .”
“Hah.” Dan didn’t laugh it, just said it. “Hah. Sure, take the rest of the day off. And if don’t see you on Monday — or, you know, again, ever . . . well, take care, Kenny. I mean, that was stupid. Duh, of course I’ll see you. Oh yeah, and leave your men’s room key with my assistant, okay?” He backed out of my office so fast he ran smack into a passing mail cart.
And whether we shall meet again I know not. / Therefore our everlasting farewell take.
“Later,” I said.
I left my former office and headed for the parking lot. I paused for a second to switch from my regular glasses to sunglasses in front of the corner drugstore, located beside the soda fountain on a street of eerily regular faux cobblestones. A Wright Brothers-style bicycle shop and a peppermint-striped barber pole added to the illusion of some indefinite but comforting period in American history. All it takes is a careful camera angle to keep the shaggy sunburned palm trees, the studio commissary and gift shop, and the Bank of America ATM out of the shot. These plywood storefronts have stood in for the good old days in more TV shows and movies than I can name.
The good old days. A studio tram loaded with visitors rattled by over the cobblestones. I waved. They waved back, in case I was somebody. I took it as a good sign. It was only a matter of time before I returned to my slot as vice president of comedy development, just as soon as everyone here at the network realized what I already knew: I was fine.
I was a straight white male, thirty-six years old, right in the middle of TV’s most desirable demographic: men 18 to 49. I’m our target audience. I’d been in network television long enough to know that the demos don’t lie. But demographics did not explain why the dark gray lenses of my cool new Oakley sunglasses suddenly fogged and blurred with tears.
Since nor th’ exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was.
* * *
Reviewed by Jill Allen, Foreword Reviews — Spring 2014
All the world’s a stage when an actress and a terminally ill TV executive meet in this biting comedy.
It takes a special kind of talent to simultaneously skewer Hollywood and Shakespeare while writing a thought-provoking novel, and Dark Lady of Hollywood proves Diane Haithman has this genius. As a former arts and entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Times, Haithman’s book explores themes of the ephemeral nature of show business, a human desire to connect, and what really matters in life, while causing chuckles at the same time.
As the story opens, TV executive Ken Harrison’s life and career slide downhill fast. Demoted from his job due to the fickle whims of television ratings, he struggles to find meaning in his life while trying not to think about the aggressive form of cancer that he has which other people seem to think has taken over his life. Fate brings him together with Ophelia Lomond, a biracial thirty-two-year-old wannabe actress who finds herself in a rut. Shakespeare aficionado Ken quickly determines that Ophelia will be to him what the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was to the Bard: his inspiration. However, Ken and Ophelia have decidedly different ideas of what being a muse involves.
In a brilliant coup, the author allows Ken and Ophelia to narrate alternating chapters from the first-person point of view so that the reader gets to know each intimately. In this way, Ken becomes more than a one-dimensional cancer survivor, and Ophelia becomes more than just a biracial beauty.
Both Ophelia and Ken have wry, wise viewpoints on the entertainment industry, which will keep readers laughing along. Additionally, the pair is shrewd and intelligent. They play off each other well, making it easy to root for them and their budding relationship. One can empathize with why Ophelia would change her name and pretend she is from an imaginary island, because the author astutely shows the hoops anyone has to go through in hopes of landing the role of their dreams. It is refreshing to see someone like Ken, who, in the face of terminal illness, goes about stubbornly living his life, even when everyone around him says he’s going to die.
Furthermore, the author gently satirizes Los Angeles and the industry while making the Bard of Avon drolly relevant. She begins every chapter with an apt quote from a Shakespeare play. Anyone who appreciates comedy and either loves or disdains Tinseltown will adore this breezy, biting book.