I’m having lunch with my agent today. At this point in my career, meeting with my agent is akin to a bald man going to a barbershop.
Strictly to reminisce.
Here comes the “boo-hoo” paragraph. I’ll try and keep it short. Ever since the networks stopped hiring my contemporaries and me, because their pursuit of a younger audience decreed, “No older writers”, some of the finest purveyors of classic television have been relegated to the sidelines. Although the networks’ strategy has not succeeded – younger audiences are not rushing to network TV, oh and by the way, the only demographic “brand loyal” to the networks are viewers my age – still, I don’t see the networks inviting us back any time soon. Apparently, it’s better cleaving to a mistaken strategy than having no idea what to do. Hey, it gives me more time for my blogging.
Back to my agent.
Elliot’s been my agent for nearly thirty years. Before him, I had a woman agent named Helen, who went on to fame and docudrama as Jay Leno’s manager, when he was battling for the hosting job on The Tonight Show. After she left agenting for the lofty career of managing, I got a call from my agency:
“I’m Elliot. Helen’s gone. You’ve got me now.”
That’s how Elliot became my agent.
Over the years, Elliot has gotten me the jobs I wanted and made me some money. He’s always told me the truth, whether I wanted him to or not. There are times, however, when the things he says come out differently than I think he intended. Once, during a slow period in my career, Elliot took me to lunch to cheer me up. I can’t say for sure, but I think what he wanted to tell me was this:
“Earl, I respect you enormously and, no matter what, I am very proud to be your agent.”
What came out was this:
“Earl, you earn less money than any of my other clients.”
You see the difference there? The subtle shift in emphasis? Over the years, I’ve struggled with Elliot’s “bucking up” routine, battling thoughts of sticking my head into an oven. Maybe it would have been better if I’d told him his pep talks were driving me into a dark and downward spiral, but I didn’t. And he continued doing it.
Once, we were meeting with an NBC president about a show I was developing, a family show, similar to The Cosby Show but with less money. The show would be modeled after my family and its, hopefully humorous adventures. (Later, Family Man would appear briefly on ABC.)
As the meeting was coming to a close, the network president got up and disappeared into a giant closet. He returned, holding three beach towels with the network’s peacock logo on them, and handed them to me. “For your kids,” he said. He gave me three towels, because the show I was pitching featured three children, though, in life, I only have two. Sometimes, I embellish.
Coming out of the meeting, I had a powerful impression that we hadn’t sold the show. Certain the project was dead, I was understandably upset. So, I could tell, was my agent. I love empathy in an agent. But this wasn’t it. Elliot was upset about a totally different matter.
“I can’t believe what just happened. Three towels. Three. And he gave them all to you!”
What did you say?
Are you kidding me here?!
Elliot’s outburst was followed by an extended tirade. Shock and horror have erased his precise words from my memory, but it ended like this: “…and I didn’t get one friggin’ towel!!!” Only he didn’t say “friggin’.”
I was outraged and confused. Here I am, suffering a major setback, and my agent’s screaming about towels. I couldn’t leave him there; Elliot had driven us to the meeting. So I stayed. And I listened.
And I started to understand.
In the world of the agent, where gestures, large and small, send screaming signals of how you’re doing, getting no towels was an enormous slap in the face. The insult had awakened Elliot to the Truth. The network didn’t respect him. The man was practically in tears.
“No towels. After all these years. How can I do business with these people? How can I look them in the face?”
At that point, much to my surprise, I started feeling better. Which made me wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just an elaborate act, an heroic effort to distract me from my disappointment by focusing on the utter degradation that had been heaped upon to him.
It was just Elliot. And he really felt terrible. It seemed like I should do something. Elliot had always been there for me over the years. I felt a powerful need to cheer him up. But what could I do?
I gave him two towels.