I’ve flown to Los Angeles today to meet with network executives about doing a version of my radio program on television. Meetings are set up over the next two days with impressively high-level people at ABC, NBC, HBO, WB, Showtime, and Fox. A&E has also expressed interest.
I and my colleagues will be pitching the show. What is striking about this experience is how familiar it is, even though I’ve never done it. Like most anyone else who grew up in this country, I’ve seen pitch meetings in movies and TV shows about Hollywood. I’ve heard actors and directors and writers chat about them on talk shows. I’ve read–well, no, I haven’t read the many You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again tell-alls or the many novels about the customs of Hollywood, but somehow it feels like I have. I have read all those Doonesbury comic strips making fun of this process.
About a week ago I was on network television for the first time. I made a brief appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. It had this same déjà vu quality, and for the same reason. By the time we get to be adults in America, by the time we actually appear on David Letterman’s program, we’ve seen so many hundreds of hours of talk shows that, essentially, we have been there before. Simply from watching television, I knew that I’d be pre-interviewed before the show, that the questions and my answers would be roughly planned out in advance, but that David Letterman in particular likes to diverge from these preplanned moments to wander down paths unknown. Simply from watching television I knew the set where they tape Late Night would be very, very cold, because that’s the way Mr. Letterman prefers it.
What I didn’t know is what a strange physical space it is, the actual Late Night set, in the Ed Sullivan Theater. There’s a live audience but they feel very far away. The cameras hover and surround in a way that makes you feel as if you’re in an oddly cozy space, more cocoonlike that I’d have imagined. The band is very close to you, but the acoustics of the room are so strange that you can actually talk and be heard while they play. But most surprising of all: When you sit in the guest’s chair, Mr. Letterman is sitting very close to you, closer than it looks on television. Or maybe he just seems unusually close because it’s unusual to see him in three dimensions.
Interestingly, one of the greatest pleasures of appearing on Late Night With David Letterman actually happened the week before my appearance. It was this. Several times I simply declared to strangers at checkout lines that I was going to be on David Letterman’s show Friday. Each time it was like saying “I appear to be one of you mortals, walking here amongst you, but in fact, I’m one of the gods!” As if I had this secret superpower I could reveal to anyone, anytime.
I only tried it three times, and each time it was followed by a rather delicate human moment, in which the person to whom I delivered this important news paused, and then very politely, with quiet tact, summoned the energy to ask the question, “Who are you?” At which point I’d have to say, “Well you know how on these talk shows there’s always a bunch of famous people and then there’s the guest you’ve never heard of? I’m the guest you’ve never heard of!”
That was my role. I was the farmer who grew a potato that happens to look exactly like Pamela Anderson Lee. I was the kid who won the science fair by exploding an ordinary pickle using static electricity.
As to my present mission, I’m here in Los Angeles to sell a one-hour television special/pilot of This American Life. The TV show, if it happens, would have the same form as the radio show: We’d choose a theme, do 4 or 5 stories on that theme. Each story would be filmed in a different visual style. It would look like nothing on TV. The idea is that the stories on the TV program would be the kinds of narratives that we try to do on the radio show: Characters and conflict are introduced fast, and you keep listening because you want to find out what happens. Our hope is that the narratives will be so fiercely compelling that we can be less traditional in the way the visuals work. In many stories they’d be more impressionistic, more like a great rock video, more like Errol Morris, than anything on the TV newsmagazine and documentary programs. The visuals would work the way the background music works on our radio show–to intensify the feeling in the stories.
With me on this little adventure: A TV producer named Jed Alpert, filmmaker Bennett Miller (whose documentary The Cruise is one of my favorite films and very close to the spirit of This American Life: It’s funny and moving and surprising and just beautiful to look at–black and white, shot on the cheap with all natural light on digital video, incredibly), and Ann Blanchard, who’s an agent from William Morris, a woman I’ve met only over the phone but who seems to understand This American Life as well as I could ever dream.
We’ve all talked a bit on the phone about how to structure our pitch. Ann and Jed are pushing toward high-concept ideas like “It’s the next step for reality programming on television” or “It’s reality programming, done with the compelling narrative arc of fictional TV dramas.” All true enough, I guess, though I suppose we should come up with a snappier way to say that second idea, before our meetings start at 10 tomorrow.
When I arrived here in L.A. tonight, I was picked up at the airport by a man who met me at the gate and drove me to the hotel. This is not the way I usually live. He wanted to carry my bags to the car, and I was so stunned by this that at first I didn’t let him. Then I let him carry one. I carried two. I know that’s completely idiotic, but I couldn’t help myself.
His name was Lionel, and he’s just moved to L.A. from Hawaii this year. At first it was hard to adjust, he said, he was so used to “island living.” That’s his actual phrase. I pressed him for details on “island living,” but all I got out of him was that he used to go to the beach every day to run and work out, and that he has this huge and I mean huge family that got together most weekends to hang out. Hawaii, though, is like a small town. You get to a certain age and you want to leave. It’s too dull. Before he moved here, he’d visited L.A. on vacation. The thought never occurred to me before: Where do people who live in Hawaii go on vacation? What is the even-more-like-paradise place they’d go for a break from all that lush loveliness and perfect weather? The answer, according to Lionel, is often Vegas.
We talked the whole ride. He never heard of my radio show and asked if it was like Howard Stern and I nearly told him it was, not wanting to disappoint him with the truth. I asked him what celebrities he’d had in his car, and because he’s so new at it, all the names were TV producers I’d never heard of. He did seem to have some inside information on Baywatch moving to Hawaii, but after a while, talking about this stuff reminded me of the only thing I don’t like about Los Angeles. I find the business side of movies and TV–the grosses, the ratings, the stories about how much stuff costs and how much it makes, all that stuff that fills the pages of so many magazines and so many hours of TV time–I find it all completely boring. And here everyone’s always talking about it.
I have to admit, though, I did enjoy chatting with Lionel. And as I got out of the car, I thought about something Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, said years ago somewhere. He said he realized he’d made it when he no longer felt obliged to make conversation with the limo drivers.
I cannot imagine that ever happening to me.