Los Angeles, October 2012

“Which Jack is a member of Tenacious D? Is it Jack Sparrow, Jack Kerouac, Jack Black or Jack Kennedy?’ asks Matt Marcus, game show host, possessor of blindingly white teeth and – as he once bragged to “Access Hollywood” – Minot, North Dakota’s most successful high school drop-out.

Matt is using his Earnest Look to gaze, while cheating to camera, at contestant Richard Wilson, who says he’s a teacher from Springfield, Illinois, but is actually an underemployed actor who heard that being on the Game Show Channel’s “Say That Again!” is a good way to get footage for his audition reel, with the added benefit of sometimes winning Omaha Steaks as a consolation prize.

Lauren Butler is watching the drama unfold from about ten yards away at the producers’ table, in an otherwise empty soundstage, except for the two dozen crew members required to tape six shows a day, all of whom look like they’d rather be outside smoking, except for the camera one operator, who looks like he’d rather be outside smoking and keeps muttering “jackass” under his breath.

A lifelong, vehement non-smoker, Lauren would gladly start smoking five packs a day of asbestos-coated cigarettes stuffed with uranium if it would just get her out of the studio for the rest of the day. But as the head writer of the Game Show Channel’s third-highest rated original program, which is routinely beaten in the ratings by reruns of just about everything that’s not Game Show Channel original programming, she’s stuck watching the complete lack of drama unfold.

After a suitably long, dramatic pause that will enable Richard the underemployed actor to use this footage as a soap opera submission, he says “Jack Black.”

“Hold!”

Charlie the stage manager has just brought the proceedings to a halt. Charlie is late-50s, has some pretty wild stories about the original “Dating Game” and only took this job to finance his online gambling addiction. He motions for Lauren to approach Matt.

She walks across the stage, carefully avoiding the “Say That Again!” logo, so some poor production assistant doesn’t have to Windex off her footprints.

Matt is getting his make-up retouched as Lauren approaches. He sees her out of the corner of his eye, then turns slightly away. It’s not that Matt and Lauren don’t like each other. She’s been the head writer on the show for three seasons, and they’ve developed the kind of we-need-each-other relationship most often found in high school between the nerd-hating jock who’s failing English – badly – and the smart girl who tutors him, in hopes of preventing any pigs’ blood prom nastiness.

Matt mispronounced one of the names in the question and it’s up to Lauren to set the record straight without embarrassing him in front of others.

Their boss, Penn Biftler, 5’10”, 105-anorexic, is both in the control booth and in Lauren’s ear on the headset. She can see everything on the stage, courtesy of camera one and the jackass guy. She buzzes Lauren on her headset, wanting to know why she isn’t briefing Matt.

“He’s getting make-up,” says Lauren.

“I can see that. But that just means he’s avoiding you because he knows he did something wrong. Why don’t you get rid of the make-up girl, and tell Matt how to pronounce ‘Kerouac,’ so we can get out of here without going into overtime for once. That would be a nice change, now, wouldn’t it? A tape day that ends on time. A tape day where one of your questions doesn’t feature arcane and hard-to-pronounce choices. A tape day where, just for once, everything moves smoothly.”

Since ending a tape day as early as possible is always a good thing, Lauren smiles at Janie, who does make-up and whose name Penn doesn’t know, even though there’s never been any other make-up person during the 240 insanely long and repetitive episodes of “Say That Again’s!” existence.

“Hey, Matt, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Lauren walks a few feet away out of Janie’s earshot. Matt reluctantly follows.

“What did I do wrong this time?”

“It’s pronounced ‘Kerouac’.”

“What did I say?”

She shrugs, like she doesn’t remember.

“What did I say?”

“Something like ‘Karaoke’.”

“I figured it was the guy who invented singing,” he says.

And Lauren’s pretty sure that guy wasn’t named “Karaoke,” but keeps it to herself.

Penn on the headset: “Lauren, we have ten minutes before overtime. Can you please wrap this up? Or is that too great of a task for you?”

“Who’s Jack Kera- Kera-…what’s his name again?” asks Matt.

“Kerouac. He was a famous poet, defined the Beat Generation, wrote On The Road.” Lauren says this last part just a tiny bit snotty, as if she hadn’t just unloaded her brain’s entire knowledge of Jack Kerouac into that one short sentence. And, for that matter, the Beat Generation. And poetry. Maybe she’s not the smart girl who tutors the jock as much as the girl who’s just smarter than the jock.

Matt nods. “Got it. Jack Karaoke.”

Penn on the headset: “Lauren, change the fucking question. Put another Jack in there, instead.”

This is the portion of game show rules you may have heard about concerning changes that don’t affect the outcome of the game. The contestant Richard – who’s currently looking in a mirror and adjusting his hair – already gave the correct answer. It doesn’t matter if they change the other choices, because it won’t affect the outcome. This is no “Quiz Show” scandal waiting to happen. This is basic cable TV on a budget.

Lauren tells Penn she doesn’t want to change the question. She wants to keep Jack Kerouac. Penn does not enthusiastically agree.

“No one even knows who that is!” says Penn. “Make it easier!”

“I’m asking a question about Tenacious D, for Chrissake. Two of the choices are dead and one isn’t even a real person. The only way this question gets easier is if we actually make all four choices ‘Jack Black.’ And then circle them. Can’t we, just for once, make this show a little bit smarter than it has to be? Or are we going to keep shooting for an audience of poo-slinging monkeys?”

Then things get really quiet, mostly because Lauren has stopped yelling. There’s no response from Penn. Minot’s finest just stares at Lauren. The only sound to be heard is a quiet “poo-slinging monkeys” from the guy at camera one.

Then, into the headphone, Penn utters a dangerously quiet “Fix this now.”

“So, what Jack is it going to be?” asks Matt.

“Daniels,” says Lauren, right before Penn tells her to meet her in her office after they wrap.

Thirteen years ago, John Masters and Lauren Butler sold a screenplay called “Solar Invaders” that got made into a movie that made a lot of money that spawned four sequels that also made a lot of money. They didn’t make all that much – the studio said something about hidden costs and threw around the words gross and net to the point where John and Lauren agreed to what they were saying just to make them stop saying it – but they ended up getting married and were very happy for a few years. Then it turned out Lauren was happy for a few years longer than John, who eventually fell in love with their assistant. Now John and the former assistant are happily married and he’s making a lot of money as a screenwriter. Lauren, on the other hand, is making very little money as a game show writer, since no one in Hollywood believes the person who did most of the writing on “Solar Invaders” was the wife of the husband and wife team.

Lauren is now 42 years old, divorced and living in a small house in North Hollywood with a very large crack in the bedroom ceiling and paying the bills by writing for one small show after another while “Say That Again!” is on hiatus, which is most of the year. Four months ago it was an infomercial. She is currently, fingers crossed, in contention to write “comedy-related material” for the upcoming tour of the girl who came in fourth place on “American Idol” a couple years ago. For the submission packet, they told Lauren to go easy on the dirty stuff, but to give them her most innovative material aimed at the American Idol/NASCAR demographic. When she jokingly told them her most innovative American Idol/NASCAR material was nothing but the dirty stuff, they just looked at her like she’d forced them to have abortions.

For the record, Lauren Butler has a very good idea of just how entitled her life is. She gets paid pretty well to sit in an office and write questions about pop culture. She’s not one of the extremely hard-working men and women seen every day in Los Angeles who came to this country at great sacrifice to exhaust themselves doing actual work at very little pay. She’s not even someone who works at an insurance company filing forms about other people’s bad days. She has a job where she can wear outrageously expensive jeans every single day and is one of those jerks who spends more at Starbucks each month than some people spend on Maxwell House in a decade.

So she has some perspective. But as she lies awake every night, staring at the crack in the ceiling and calculating just how strong the earthquake will be that finally splits her house in two, she can’t help but think there was supposed to be something more to life than being cynical and dying alone when the earthquake hits and the house finally collapses. It’s not like having someone else in the bed would prevent her from dying, but in those final moments of life, it’d still be nice to have someone to complain to. Because Lauren is pretty sure her attitude won’t improve as she lies there dying.

Lauren is sitting in Penn’s ridiculously tidy office.

Penn looks at her and smiles. “We’re letting you go.”

Lauren tries not to look as shocked as she feels. And fails.

“While your work has been, with some exceptions, quite satisfactory,” Penn says. “Your attitude is terrible. Pure shit, really. ‘Say That Again!’ doesn’t need someone who constantly second guesses me.”

“I thought I was hired for my judgment as well as my writing ability,” Lauren says.

“You were. But you don’t have any. ‘Say That Again!’ is hip, fresh and fun. We’re not Jack Kerouac people. We’re not Lauren Butler people.”

There’s a part of Lauren’s mind which knows that’s a good thing. But it’s currently being pummeled by the part of her mind that realizes she’s just been fired by a woman who doesn’t allow donuts in the break room.

“You’ve still got twelve more shows,” says Lauren. “Who’s going to write them on such short notice?”

“We’re re-purposing some of your rejected questions from earlier this season. Larry will do the necessary fixes.”

Larry is the 21-year-old intern who loves pop culture and, until recently, had never heard of “Friends.”

“So, this is it.” Penn stands, smiles fakely and holds out a nicely manicured hand.

Lauren stands, searches her mind for any memorable last words – she is a writer, after all – can’t think of anything, then shakes Penn’s hand.

Nicely done.

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