Monday, April 27, 2015

"Falling Prey To Parasitical Redundancy"

Every once in a while, as is happening today, I will draft – or is it draught – on the writings of super-blogger Ken Levine (  Ken wrote a while back about agents, specifically about a pack of agents who defected to a rival agency.  I cannot imagine caring less about a subject.  However, Ken’s observant chronicle reminded about my agent.  Specifically, how it felt when he retired.

Maybe tomorrow, if I can locate it – the likelihood being a fifty-fifty proposition – I shall reprint a long-ago written blog post entitled “The World’s Greatest Agent.”  Today, I offer ancillary recollections.

Over a thirty-year career, I had a total of three agents.  I did not choose any of them.  My first one was the only agent who, at the incipience of my career, showed any interest in representing me. 

The agent’s area of specialization was variety shows, like the Lily Tomlin special I worked on when I first got to the States.  I had gotten that job not because of the agent but because Lorne Michaels who knew me and liked my work was producing that special. 

The agent did, however, collect his commission, even though he had participated in neither my employment nor the accompanying negotiation, since I was receiving “Union Minimum” and could not legally have received less.

Still, thank you to that agent for taking me on. 

When I switched to writing half-hour comedies – after Lorne Michaels left town, moving East to create some late-night variety show – I was assigned a new agent, a barracuda-like female who went on to manage Jay Leno, ruthlessly manipulating Leno’s Tonight Show takeover bid over archrival, David Letterman.

I have no definitive evidence about what I am about to tell you.  Which is the reason I am not mentioning any names.  One… nah, I won’t tell it.  No, wait, it’s an important part of the story. 

Okay, here we go.  But without any names.

One evening, after my agent, a renowned half-hour comedy show runner and myself attended a ballgame together, I was subsequently dropped off at my car, and the (notorious Ladies’ Man) renowned half-hour comedy show runner and my agent disappeared into his house.  The next day, I had an appointment with the show runner to discuss a story idea I had submitted and my half-hour comedy-writing career was on its way. 

What my agent did that night – of which I have no direct evidence – I am sincerely grateful for.  Her behavior on my behalf – and hopefully her behalf as well; otherwise, I would feel enormously guilty about it – initiated an extended run in the half-hour comedy arena, and it prevented me from moving to New York where I did not want to live, working on a late-night variety series I was unenthusiastic about working on. 

Still, thank you to her too.  For whatever she did.

My third and final agent, who represented me for more than a quarter of a century, was named Elliot.  Elliot began his employment hawking “Yes!’ t-shirts outside Madison Square Garden.  (Whenever a Knicks player scored a basket, their announcer Marv Albert would excitedly exclaim, “Yes!”) 

Later, running into satirical cartoonist Garry Trudeau at the beach, Elliot bravadoly blustered, “I hear you’re big.”  Garry Trudeau became his original client.

When the my barracuda-like agent resigned to become a manager, I got an unsolicited call from Elliot saying, in effect, “She left the agency.  You got me now.”

And I said fine.

Elliot, whose caricaturistic likeness regularly graced the Doonesbury comic strip as agent Sid Kibitz, was a brash, appealingly unpolished Brooklynite whose non-professional demeanor was considerably more congenial.  Which is good.  You want a tough-sounding agent.  But it was enhancing to our relationship who was subterraneally a softy.

It is impossible to cover a twenty-five year relationship in a single blog post.  In his oft-stated opinion – a not entirely inaccurate one – Elliot’s signature achievement on my behalf was that he “got me out of the house.”  And by doing so, he “put (enough) money in my pocket” so that in retirement, in my brother’s astute description, I could become the “non-starving artist” that I am today.

Every deal Elliot negotiated for me was progressively more lucrative, every opportunity, an upgrade in my position.  If, at some unspecified juncture, I stopped advancing in my career, that was considerably more because of me than because of my agent. 

For reasons I am unable to satisfactorily get my head around, there was only so “big” I would allow myself to become.  Or maybe I got as far as my abilities would take me and simply ran out of talent.  Or maybe my time in the spotlight just, inevitably, ended.  My best guess?  One of the above or, most likely, a combination. 

There was one bump in the highway involving Elliot, concerning a disagreement over back commissions, which was finally resolved via a negotiated settlement.  Eventually, we got past that unpleasantness and I continued to stay with him.  Why did I remain a client?  Because of my Elliot’s generic humanity and my congenital aversion to change.   

Near the end of my career, after vainly pleading with me to become “more edgy”, Elliot strong-armed clients of his who had created a series to take me on as a one-day-a-week story consultant.  The job lasted two seasons, ending when they decided not to renew my contract.

I was not without hope, however.  I still had an agent.

Until I didn’t.

The day Elliot informed me he was retiring… it was not a good day.  I was not ready to be finished.  But without an agent, and lacking the energy and enthusiasm to find a new one… as the late Monday Night Football analyst “Dandy” Don Meredith used to sing when the game’s outcome was no longer in question…

“Turn out the lights… the party’s over.”

There is a story about an agent who calls up their client and announces,

“I have great news!”

“What!” replies the client, immediately excited.

“My cold is definitely getting better.”

Elliot was never that self-centered.  But, as I shall relate to your tomorrow…

He had his moments.

Still, I am eternally grateful for his efforts.  Elliot was the indispensible tugboat that towed me reliably into the harbor. 

Without him, I am perennially adrift.  


Canda said...

I was once told by two writers that their agent called them at the office of the TV show they were employed by, and said, "I heard a rumor that you're working".

They had gotten the job on their own, and not told him. Of course, he got 10% of their pay as his commission.They were under contract to him.

By Ken Levine said...

Elliott was all you described and more. He was not my agent per se, but I was at the same agency and would often seek his advice.

Those were the days when the same four agents represented every writer you worked with.