I am having lunch with my agent. At this point in my career, meeting with my agent is akin to a bald man frequenting a barbershop.
Strictly for reminiscing.
Here comes the obligatory “boo-hoo” paragraph; I shall attempt to be brief. 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 permanently to the sidelines. Though their strategy had been unsuccessful – younger audiences are not flocking to network programming – the networks continue to perpetuate it. What do you want them to do? Make shows for an older audience who will actually watch? That’s just “crazy talk.”
Anyway, back to my agent.
Over the quarter century he’s been representing me, Elliot got me the jobs I wanted and he has made me good money. He has also told me the truth, whether I wanted to hear it or not. For example, Elliot has pleaded with me to write more “edgy.” This is realistic advice. But it’s like asking a flamingo to moo.
There have been times when the things Elliot tells me emerge differently than he intended them to. Once, during a fallow period in my career, Elliot took me to lunch to cheer me up.
In a voice reflecting a serious intonation, he said,
“Earl, can I tell you something?”
How can I stop him if he’s paying for the lunch?
Now I can’t be certain about this, but I believe what he wanted to tell me was this:
“Earl, I respect you enormously and, no matter what, I am honored and proud to be your agent.”
What came out, however, was this:
“Earl, you earn less money than any of my other clients.”
You see the comparison? The subtle difffence in nuance? Over the years, I have struggled with Elliot’s “bucking up” attempts, battlling, after his well-intentioned encouragments, to keep my head safely out of the oven. I should have told him his pep talks were sending me into a dark and downward spiral, but I didn’t. You do not want to upset a man’s feelings. Especially when your future is inescapably under his control.
My closest “That’s all I can stands” moment occcurred when this happened.
We were meeting with NBC about a show I was developing called Family Man, a variation of The Cosby Show, but with Jews. The series would be modeled after my family and its, hopefully, humorous adventures. (Later, Family Man would air briefly on ABC.)
As the meeting was coming to a close, the network president got up, disappearing into a giant closet. He emerged, carrying three very large beach towels with the network’s peacock logo emblazoned on them, and he handed them to me. “For your kids,” he said. He gave me three towels, because the show I was pitching featured three children, although, in reality, I only had two. Sometimes, I embellish.
Coming out of the meeting, I had the powerful feeling that NBC was not buying the series. I was, therefore, understandably distraught. So too, I could see, was my agent. I love empathy in an agent. As it turned out, however, Elliot was upset for an entirely different reason.
“I can’t believe what just happened. Three towels. And he gave all of them to you!”
I could not believe what I was hearing. “Inappropriate?” The word was invented for precisely that situation.
What then followed by an extended tirade. Incredulity has erased its precise contents from my memory, but I remember that it ended with “…and he did not give me one frickin’ towel!” Only he didn’t say “frickin’.”
I felt angry and confused. I had suffered a substantial career reversal. And my agent’s screaming about beach towels! There was a powerful inmpulse to walk away. But I couldn’t. Elliot had driven us to the meeting. So I stayed there. And I listened.
And I started to understand.
In the world of agentry, where behaviors, large and small, transmit unmistakable signals of where you stand, getting no towels from a network president was a reverberating
slap in the face. This insult, Elliot believed, had awakened him to the Truth.
The network did not respect him.
“No towels”, he repeated, virtually in tears. “How can I do business with these people? How can I ever look them in the face again?”
At that point, to my surprise, I began slowly to feel better. I started to wonder if Elliot’s outburst was merely an elaborate act, an ingenious strategy to distract me from my disappointment by focusing entirely on him.
Nah. It was inappropriate.
Still, the man seemed genuinely humiliated.. I had a compelling desire to take action. Elliot had been there for me in the past. I wanted to do something for him. But what?
I handed Elliot two towels.