Producer Rob Long
I stopped by Rob Long's office at Paramount 9/25/02 and meet his bald earring-wearing assistant of the past nine years, Barry Ajax, a liberal who reads several newspapers a day.
We chat for 15 minutes. I contend that Almost Famous is the most revealing movie about journalism I've seen. The necessity of sucking up to people to get interviews and then betraying them.
I gather that Rob's writing and producing partner Stan Daley is not a conservative and avoids the crush of folks who want to chat with Rob. It seems that every prominent conservative who comes through town wants to meet Rob, who writes for the National Review and Wall Street Journal, as do many fellow Yale graduates who want to learn how to break into Hollywood.
Rob, who does not have a show on the air, wanders in. His first question for Barry is about the overnight ratings.
A loud golf cart clatters by.
Luke: "Are people too lazy to walk?"
Rob: "Yes. This is LA. People who haul stuff deserve a cart. Most of the executives have carts so they can get some place quickly."
Luke: "It makes that much of a difference?"
Rob: "It makes no difference at all. I don't think an executive ever has to be anywhere on the lot quickly. They shouldn't be on the lot at all. They should be in their office. There's almost nothing that happens on movie lots than an executive can contribute to.
"People don't like to walk. You might encounter somebody."
Luke: "I only saw positive reviews on your book, Conversations With My Agent."
Rob: "Depends how you read the reviews. If the review says it's a great book, but this part didn't work so well... And you wrote the book, you think, 'What the hell?' If you're just reading the review, you think it's a great review. I got a bad review from Entertainment Weekly. They gave me a B+."
Luke: "That's a great review."
Rob: "I thought it was a snide snarkey review."
Vanessa I. Friedman writes in the 1/24/97 issue of EW: "The only jarring moment occurs at the end, when the writer and his partner perhaps succeed in selling a new comedy to a nascent network. Suddenly all irony is abandoned in favor of mature assessment and a weird kind of personal-growth statement. One of Long's pet peeves is the tendency of everyone in his business to give him notes on his shows, but the temptation is suddenly irresistible, so here goes: Skip the last page."
Luke: "They're a snide snarkey magazine."
Rob: "Yes. Also, when you write something, you're sensitive about it. That's almost the worst kind of review. It means the person enjoyed the book and wrote a thoughtful response to it that you have to take it seriously."
Luke: "I hear it rated right up there with William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade."
Rob: "I'm always gratified to hear that. Nobody bought the book so I'm always gratified to hear that certain people enjoy it. If everyone who ever enjoyed it, bought it..."
Luke: "I checked it out of the library."
Rob: "Most people picked it up at the bookstore, it's so short, they read it while standing in line. By the time they finally got to the cash register, they'd read it. Put it this way. The book caused me no tax trouble.
"People always say, I want to write a novel. My old agent used to say, 'Look, if you want $800, I'll give you $800.' That's about how much money you'll make off your first novel."
Luke: "Was there any negative fallout from the book?"
Rob: "No. Only the young people take themselves and the industry seriously [enough that they'd be offended by the book]. If you're a vice-president of something, you tend to be naive and stupid. I don't think I've ever met anyone with that title who didn't take themselves and their jobs [overly] seriously. By the time you've been around six or seven years, you realize it's ludicrous.
"Everyone tends to believe that they are the island of sanity. So, when they read about how crazy everybody is, they go, 'Oh boy, are you ever right? I'm surrounded by them.' When in fact part of the book is about that person. People tend not to recognize themselves or they tend to be flattered. Most of the people in my book are composite characters who come off ok."
Luke: "No one who matters is afraid of you?"
Rob: "Unfortunately not. Unfortunately, I inspire zero fear or respect in anyone. I think fear and respect are the same thing. People make little jokes about it. 'Oh, this is going to show up in your next book.' I think they're secretly hoping it does. To work in this industry you have to be unembarrassable. Big producers like it when people talk about how dumb they are. They think it's funny."
Luke: "Have you had any huge feuds?"
Luke: "Do you have any huge enemies?"
Luke: "I saw this interchange in Harpers between two sitcom writers who hated each other."
Rob: "Wasn't that awful? I don't even know what they were arguing about but one guy came off to be a lunatic. There are almost always crazy people but if you just do the job, there should be no trouble. It's [television] a collegial place. There are only a few people who work so everybody's got to get along. You prepare yourself for these awful meetings. You tell yourself, 'I'm really going to blow up.' Then you don't because you figure, what's the point?
"There's a whole cottage industry here on the apology. What gift to send to apologize. Where the meeting will be where you apologize. I'm so conflict averse... Today at 4PM we were going to have a meeting in which I was absolutely, in my shower, just eloquently devastating about the idiotic notes we had to listen to [from network executives]. If the meeting had taken place today in my shower, that would've been a great tantrum."
Luke: "Have you ever had any notes sessions in your shower?"
Rob: "No. That's what keeps me back. That I am embarrassable."
Luke: "Has the Gay Mafia ever done anything to you?"
Rob: "No. That was a weird thing of him [Michael Ovitz] to say. In order for that to work, all of those people would have to get along. That particular community is often riven by feuds. They're certainly emotional people. So I don't think they can even agree on their enemies.
"I shouldn't say this as a heterosexual Episcopalian. But as an observer, the most complicated person is the gay Jewish guy. He's got all kinds of things going on. I heard that when they liberated Kabul in Afghanistan, they found two Jews. And they hated each other. They preferred the Taliban to each other."
Luke: "What's it like being an Episcopalian in this business?"
Rob: "It's good. You learn a new language. The industry is so open. They don't care. This is the most open major industry in the world. I hear people say, 'Oh, it's closed.' There's nothing closed about it. You've just got to write the script. And someone's got to read it. It's going to be hard but it's hard for everybody equally.
"And you have to do something that most people don't do - you have to actively manage your own career. Most people get a job and they go where the company directs.
"There are categories of people and you have to hire the right people to put you in the right category. There are funny writers who write vaguely disgusting comedy over here. Girl writers who write romantic comedies, Nora Ephronish but younger, over here. You want to make sure you are in the columns you want to be in. You don't want anyone else defining you. I got a call once from an agent pitching a writer. 'The thing about her is she's great administratively.' What the hell is that? She's not too great with story or jokes, but administratively she's great?
"But this agent decided that this was how he was going to sell this writer. It bothered him to figure out whether that meant anything or not."
Luke: "Do people ever try to make you feel inferior because you work in television rather than film?"
Rob: "I find that people who are sitting at Starbucks working on their screenplay, who've never sold anything, tend to look down on people who write for television. But people I know who write features don't at all. They all want to get into television. It becomes so exhausting going to meeting after meeting, and the project never goes anywhere, and the money's not so good, and you see your friends who write for television, and they cast it and they hire and fire the director, and put it on TV...
"For TV writers like me, who do it for a while, and you do meeting after meeting and you're just trying to get your show on the air... And you get it on the air and you get a 12 share and they don't promote it... You think you'd rather sit at home and write your features. Each side wants to do the other thing.
"I only encounter the snobbery from people who aren't working."
Luke: "Do you yearn to go into features?"
Rob: "It'd be a great job if you were in semi-retirement. To work for a living writing features is a tough job. You need to be able to walk away. You need to have the power of the alternative. The great semi-retirement job is that you come in for two weeks, punch it up, and you leave. If I was going to go into features, I'd want to go in as the boss. It's hard to go from here, where you're the boss, to features where you are not the boss."
Rob is single and has no kids.
Luke: "Let's talk about race. I was raised in America to believe that race doesn't matter but in casting characters in TV and movies, race matters."
Rob: "When people declare things like that, that race doesn't matter, what they're really saying is that race is the only thing that matters. It's the biggest giantest hugest thing. It's a giant subcurrent in every political or financial conversation. It's like the sub woofer. It goes through everything. You may not be able to see where it is coming from, but it's there. And you are not allowed to talk about it. It's rude."
Luke: "I can just picture you going to a network and pitching a new show and then saying, everyone's black."
Rob: "They wouldn't mind that because then it would be a black show. It's a solid performer. There's a financial category for that. You need them. They're evergreens.
"Everyone is so polite and careful that you are never going to be able to get anyone to have an honest conversation at any point anywhere in America unless the door is locked and they're there with their family and they've got, 'I've got shit I could tell people that you said too.' You have to have some kind of mutually assured destruction to have that kind of conversation honestly.
"If you are trying to construct a series, you're just looking for fertile ground. You're looking for fields that are funny. I don't think that I would ever arbitrarily select race unless I knew that it would be funny.
"We wrote a black character for a Bob Newhart show because it was funny having him play against Bob Newhart. But that's why we picked it. We weren't making a statement. We thought it could be fruitful to see a conservative Catholic uptight white guy with a young black guy."
Luke: "How often does race come up?"
Rob: "It has a financial ramification and a scheduling ramification. People think they can have a psuedo-frank conversation about - is it a black show, a white show or a multiracial show? If it's a black show, we can have two areas on our schedule where we can schedule black shows. If it is a black show that cuts young, that's good because it syndicates well. Make it, put it on the WB, syndicate it in the afternoons and make a lot of money. People talk about that - the nuts and bolts - because it makes sense to them and no one can complain about that. But if you're talking about anything else, it's just uncomfortable."
Luke: "Could you write a cutting-edge black show?"
Rob: "No. It isn't me."
Luke: "What are the financial ramifications of a multiracial show?"
Rob: "It depends on how old the people are, whether it is male driven... A black show has a certain niche for the financial backers. The problem is that multiracial shows don't work. Maybe because they are all so pious. We did a show about young guys last season for the WB with a black lead, and a Cuban-American, but it was mainly a guy show about guys chasing women. It didn't have a racial attitude."
Luke: "On the day President Kennedy was shot, journalist Tom Wolfe visited various ethnic neighborhoods in New York and discovered that each ethnic group was blaming another group for the assassination. He wrote the story and turned it in but it was never published because the American newspaper is too much of a 19th Century Victorian gentleman."
Rob: "You can't write the truth because it doesn't fit your audience. That's trouble. It hurts the very groups you're trying to protect. When the homeless were in, under President Reagen, every homeless person was revealed to be a family of four that has fallen on hard times. He's a skilled carpenter and she's a nurses' assistant and they don't have any money and this is terrible. We live in this terrible Reaganite world. The problem is that the people walking up and down the street, their eyes said the homeless tend to be drug or alcohol abusers or mentally ill.
"The media kept hitting this story of no room at the inn, and Joseph and Mary and their baby, and the truth is it was really something else. It delayed a legitimate conversation about the homeless because it was hyper-politicized by the media who wanted to blame it on Reagen. We didn't really want to deal with the topic. We didn't really want to say that part of the problem is that state mental hospitals were closed because they were terrible places... And we had all these people saying in the early seventies that even if all these people live on the street, they're better off on the street than in a state mental hospital.
"I think the same thing happened with AIDS. It wasn't the choreographer or the photographer's assistant but the guy who just got it from the thing and the girl who was a guy one time and all these people who were statistically insignificant. It socialized the risk. The two things that people heard about AIDS when it broke was one, everyone can get it, and two, don't worry, it's not an epidemic. And people just turned off.
"The tragedy is, the very people you're trying to psuedo-protect by lying about it, end up not helping. So the incidence of HIV infection among young gay men is going up. So how have we helped?
"When Friends came out, it was a cultural phenomenon. It was a show about single young people in New York. People forget that there had been a hit show on Fox for a year before called Living Single - about single young people in New York City. But they were black. When NBC moved Friends to 8PM Thursdays, you had a white and a black version of the same show on at the same time. Nobody mentioned it because it was rude."
Luke: "Do you ever fear that you are in an industry that is fundamentally degrading the country?"
Rob: "I don't believe there is an industry. It's too fragmented.
It's a matter of the amount. People watch too much TV. They're always
doing studies that show Americans are busier than ever. So busy they don't
even eat at home anymore. They pick up food and eat it while they drive.
But they still watch three hours of TV a day. I hope people will develop
Rob: "No. I haven't been to church in years. I don't think there's a church around. There's a Lutheran Church around the corner but I'm scared. It seems too... If I were to pick a church, it would be a church that doesn't require a great deal of faith. Being Episcopalian, faith isn't what it's about."
Luke: "How much do you think the lack of religiosity of people who make TV affects the final product?"
Rob: "They've done studies that show that people who don't go to church have a hard time believing that anyone else goes to church or that there's anything to be found there. Some of the biggest, longest running, hits on TV have been church related - Touched By An Angel, Seventh Heaven. I think the theory is that religion is a private thing and you don't want to turn anybody off. You've got to be nice and generic and broad. You can God up there on a big cloud but you can't get too specific about it because you have too many people out there and you don't want to turn anybody off."
Luke: "Would you be willing to risk your life to do a TV show called The Last Temptation of Mohammed?"
Rob: "If I could do it funny. You don't want to do it just for controversy. I saw The Last Temptation of Christ and it was a bad movie. I couldn't tell if it was irreverent or blasphemous or what. I was just so bored by it. A movie about Mohammed wouldn't have any appeal to them [the makers of Last Temptation of Christ] because it is only fun to offend your neighbor."
Luke: "Do you do things for appearances?"
Rob: "No. A traditional film producer needs to do that. You need to be out and to look like you're busy. When you have a skill, you don't need to do any of that stuff. I live at the beach [in Venice] and I find it really hard to turn around and go back [to Los Angeles proper]. I will do anything after I leave work to avoid going east of Lincoln Blvd."
Luke: "Do you go to many parties that you don't want to go to?"
Rob: "I don't get invited to parties. Every now and then you get invitations to charity benefits. Then you look at it and try to figure out who put you on the list and you try to figure out if you have sent that guy invitations to your charity events. People who have given money to your cause, you give to their cause. That's as political as I get.
"I'm political in that I listen to notes. I'm polite and respectful even if the person is a moron. Making sure that everyone feels they have a stake in the project. Be easy to work with. That always pays off and the opposite always penalizes you."
Luke: "How do morons get to be executives?"
Rob: "That's how they hire them. They're a separate class of person. It's not like the old days when they'd say to someone like me, 'Are you exhausted? Come be vice-president of development.' Instead, they have people whose job is to watch me do my job. It doesn't seem economical.
"It used to be that you had a big boss who expressed his taste. That's how you programmed a network or built a slate of films. This picture needs a pretty girl in it and that picture needs a monster... Now there's nobody like that. I don't know one writer or director who wouldn't want to work for one of those old fashioned moguls, because at least you know where they are coming from. There's one guy left who's kinda like that - Les Moonves [who runs CBS]. He's infuriating and difficult and aggressive and scary but you know where he's coming from. He's expressing his taste as opposed to a guy looking at the numbers and the testing...
"There's no scientific formula. When NBC gets Friends, the first thing they do is to try to put on five other shows like Friends, as if they somehow came up with Friends. What gave them Friends was that they hired three people to write a good script and make a good show. NBC fought them every step of the way. In the process of those three people not listening to the network and not doing what the network told them to do, they got a hit show. The lesson from that the network received was - we know how to create hits. The lesson they should've learned was - we have no idea how to create hits, which would be so liberating. All you'd have to do is find people whose work you liked and then hire them do their work. See if it works. If it doesn't, put on something else."
Luke: "What's the most meaningful part of your work?"
Rob: "I don't know. I like doing my work with the camera and the people performing... I like being on the set and making the show funny. But the minute its over, the studio and the network have ideas... You have to cut the thing..."
Luke: "Are most comedy writers misanthropes?"
Rob: "The good ones are. It's not an attractive trait to have a job where you joke around. When you sit in a room with a bunch of writers and everybody is making jokes and you're trying to top each other... Because it is quasi-social, you can convince yourself that is your group of friends. This is your social life. It's not. It's a collegial job. It's not friendship. It's not the job of your real friends to make you laugh. It's OK not to joke around all the time.
"You should try to be the guy who comes up with the line or the fix that is so great that everybody gets to go home early, that's the person you should aspire to be if you want a career. My career goal is to go home. That story editor is a huge star to me."
Luke: "Do you think about comedy as various degrees of cruelty?"
Rob: "That's probably true. There's something hilarious about cruel
humor. People who write great comedy can also write great drama while
people who write great drama can't always write great comedy."
Rob: "The awards shows are my favorite if I'm nominated. And if I'm not nominated, they are my least favorite."
Nominated twice, Long has never won an Emmy.
Rob: "The show [Cheers] got an Emmy for a show I wrote with my partner. I didn't get a statute.
"The best thing is the first two months after your product is a certifiable hit. You have a grace period for a couple of months where you can do whatever you want. No one will deign to give you notes.
"Television is a matter of fact place. You don't have to be or do anything so long as you have a skill. If you're a writer, you always want to let other people think they are discovering you because then they will have more of a stake in promoting you. We tend to spec [submit] our ideas rather than pitch them. They come to the desk fully formed and already written and there's an element of surprise to whoever is reading it. It may take an extra month to write the thing, rather than just pitch an idea, but it is much easier in the long run.
"The worst Hollywood ritual is pitching. I hate it. It's stupid. When you go in a room and pitch someone a story, then go write it... For two months, your idea of what you're writing and their idea of what you're writing grow miles apart. You turn in something they don't recognize.
"In January, all the scripts come in. The networks go nuts. They make frantic calls. 'What else do you have?' If you are a writer who wants to get a show on the air, write a spec pilot, put it in your drawer, and send out January 6. Because they will be so disappointed in the stuff that they ordered.
"It's even worse in features. They take 30 pitches a day in tight bits of ideas that eventually have to become long stories. It never works out."
Luke: "Any pop culture profs see great profundity in your work that you never realize existed?"
Rob: "They used to do that with Cheers. Cheers was an officially approved intellectual piece of work, which always made us laugh. One of the guys who used to run the show remarked that the characters on the show are awful to each other. But because the theme song is so friendly, people get the sense that the people love each other.
"Some guy did an interesting piece about what an ancient form Cheers was. These are natural archetypes. You are naturally going to have these characters in your play. They go back to ancient Greece. The sassy barmaid. The bragging know-it-all guy in uniform. The poor schlub who has a wife he can't stand and he has to drink all day. I'm sure it never occurred to the Charles brothers who created the show. They are smart guys but they weren't trying to resurrect some of the famous archetypes of comedy."
Luke: "Do you tell strangers what you do for a living?"
Rob: "No. I say I'm a financial journalist or a merchant banker. Neither one has any follow-up. Before I did that, people would always respond, 'Do I know anything you've done?' Probably not. I've had a couple of shows canceled. And there was that concern that you'd get. Don't worry. Failure is rewarded around here."
Luke: "Do you encounter people who start lecturing you about the immorality of television?"
Rob: "Yeah, when I go to right-wing events. You just say, 'What do you want me to do? I write things that I think are funny.' I don't think TV is instructional. I think TV is the worst place to learn anything. It's pure entertainment."
Luke: "Is there a common thread through your work?"
Rob: "I hope not."
Luke: "Have you ever been in therapy?"
Rob: "No, I don't think I would do well. I'd think, 'How would that guy know? He doesn't know me.' This girl was telling me about behavioral therapists. You go to them with a problem. 'I can't start anything on time. Instead, I have to do it at the last minute.' These guys are really good. They give you tricks and cues and ways to discipline yourself to accomplish a task. Big sports team use them. That might be cool."
Luke: "But you are not interested in why you do what you do?"
Rob: "I couldn't be less interested. I don't believe I could learn that from somebody else."
Luke: "You don't read on psychology?"
Rob: "No. I don't believe in it. It has fun buzz words you can use.
"You pay the guy to ask you questions. I don't know. What are you going to tell me that I don't already know? It would be hard for me to go and tell somebody what actually happened that day without being bored by it. I think I'd make shit up or make it more entertaining. I often do that in life. I think that would be bad for therapy.
"I'm surprised when I see Larry David's show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. If I were his therapist, you'd know the guy is lying. You'd know from watching the show."
Luke: "Have you ever had a chick tell you to go to a therapist?"
Rob: "No. I'm dating a girl who's studying to be one. It's interesting when she talks about personality disorders.
"If I ever met a therapist who I thought was funny, I might be interested, but most of them seem earnest."
Luke: "You don't see yourself replaying relationships you had as a child?"
Rob: "God no. I see myself taking language from people and using it [in scripts]. It's a pastiche. It's more like dreams where the content is not as important as the emotional story. It's all about how you feel.
"I'm currently having a weird dispute with a friend. He says it happened to him and I'm certain it happened to me. I was driving on Wilshire Blvd and some guy pulled up next to me and said in an English accent, 'Hey, use your fucking indicator!' I'm convinced it happened to me and my friend Tim is convinced it happened to him. He says his wife was in the car but I've already had run-ins with his wife's memory, which is really bad."
I walk back to the parking lot. My van is the only dented rusting beat-up vehicle around.