“It took me a very long time to realize that the ads in the back of the newspaper I wrote for were for prostitutes. I’m not sure what I thought these ladies were selling, I just didn’t know prostitutes were allowed to advertise. Well, whether or not they are, the truth is they do. In fact, the real boom time for alternative newspapers in the United States were the years between the deregulation of 976 numbers and the emergence of Internet porn.”
I took the above paragraph from my first novel, The Big Love. I took all of The Big Love straight from my life, and my life, in my early 20s, was like an old Meg Ryan movie complete with pleated-front khaki pants and very little actual sex. I lived in a brownstone on the most beautiful street in Philadelphia, just like Meg would have, and I worked as a columnist at The City Paper, just like Meg would have.
The City Paper was a free weekly, and I got paid $80 per column. I wrote a column called Dunnwandering every other week. Basically, I wrote about nothing much in particular, and usually the column started out one place and ended up someplace completely unrelated, but there was usually at least one good line, and that good line garnered me a bit of local goodwill. Plus, it was Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the kind of city where the local newscasters are celebrities. (That line, the newscasters one, I still think that’s a good line.)
It was a great gig, and I suppose if I’d been born 15 years later I would have written those columns on a blog, only they never would have gotten written because I wouldn’t have had the publisher yelling at me to turn it in or he would fire me. Those columns got me, in a roundabout way, out to Hollywood, where I started working on network sitcoms (Murphy Brown, Veronica’s Closet, Spin City) back when a network sitcom could attract 30 million viewers. Now they attract around 107 people, most of whom have misplaced their remotes.
Philadelphia is the kind of city where the local newscasters are celebrities.
Once you’re in Hollywood, if you can write a halfway decent script, pretty soon they’ll pay you to write pilots. Since I had very little life experience, I pitched a lot of pilots set at The City Paper.
“We don’t want to do shows about newspapers,” I heard a lot. That quickly became, “We don’t want to do shows set at magazines.” I never was stupid enough to pitch a TV show set in book publishing, but I’m sure people do and I’m sure the TV people give them the same answer. This year, I went in and pitched a show called The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport. When I was in the middle of my pitch to one of the networks, I stopped in the middle of a sentence and screamed, “I hate this job!” Which would have been fine, but then I added something like, “I bet you guys hate your jobs, too!” I mean, I didn’t yell that part, but I said it out loud.
That experience made me think about the pace of change.
I went to go see The Martian yesterday, and I had the thought, Movies are dead. I did not want to go see any of the movies that were previewed, and there were a lot of previews. Basically, I’m down to only seeing movies set in outer space inside the actual theater. Somehow, outer space, that’ll get me into a seat. Expect to see a lot of outer space movies once this gets out, once Hollywood realizes that there is a lot of this type of outerspace thinking going on out in middle(aged) America. The rest of them, even the Oscar contenders, I’ll watch the first 15 minutes of on my computer two years after they’re released and then I’ll find five seasons of some gripping cable drama I can watch every night for the next month.
I stopped at Wal-Mart before I went in to the theater to buy some NyQuil for my husband who claims to be sick, and I grabbed a Diet Coke and Milk Duds and smuggled them in in my — well, I feel like I should call it a purse, but it’s really just a huge bag I bought on Etsy that you could haul a human head around in if you needed to. The ticket lady asked to see the inside of my purse and I said, “Well, you’re going to see a soda and some candy in there if you look.” She told me they weren’t worried about that. They were worried about guns.
When I got home, I told my husband my theory about how movies are dead now — it’s just a matter of running out the clock, really, if people like me only go see outerspace movies and they’re letting us smuggle in snacks inside our Etsy bags. That is what I’d call a broken business model. Like newspapers. Like magazines. Like book publishing.
Then I gave him the NyQuil, which he pretty obviously planned to take during the day.
“This is ZzzQuil” he said.
“What the hell is ZzzQuil?” I said.
“It’s for people who are addicted to NyQuil,” he said. “This makes them sleep but without the cold medicine in it.”
The people who make NyQuil, though? Those folks are still thinking. They’re gonna be just fine.
(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)