Last November, Drew Magary and I traveled to Los Angeles to spend a week working on the pilot for what would become the now-canceled Sports Show With Norm Macdonald. You've read his highlights. Now here are mine.
• Within the first three hours of writing on Norm's pilot, I wanted to quit. I said this to every single person I could find on Gchat, just because that was the only way I felt productive. I sat in this cold, quiet, desolate room upstairs in a Culver City studio lot, and sifted through the joke packet with the enthusiasm of someone examining a new life insurance policy. This was technically a paid vacation from Deadspin, during which I had to sit in a room and write jokes all week for a comedian I worshipped, but my misery was so intense that I spent most of my first day trolling Orbitz looking for an earlier flight home. By the end of the first day this is what I'd produced as a possible working bit on the show:
WORKING IDEA: TK FANTASY LEAGUE.
• While most of the other writers printed out pages of jokes and ideas to the assistant producers and talked shop like grizzled longtime writers, I continued to devise ways of plotting my escape. I walked into the room where all the packets of jokes were piled on the table, strolled over to the giant white board of approved ideas, stared at it intently for two minutes, then bolted out of there without saying goodbye to anybody. Even Drew. It was well past 5 p.m. Hey, we're union! This is an outrage!
• The second day I showed up to the office earlier than everyone else, motivated by the previous day's failure and was determined to produce something that would, at the very least, reveal that I was a mad genius capable of producing off-beat evergreen bits that would eventually be staples of the show. Instead of coffee that morning, I made myself a cup of green tea. I was serious. I quietly shut the door and got down to work. I decided to not even check my email this morning, to just focus on the work, because this was work and it should be treated as such. I was a craftsman, I thought. Do your craft. It was well before 9 a.m. and opened up the Google Doc I'd started the day before:
• By 11 a.m., I'd lost all focus, had downed three cups of coffee, eaten 4 blueberry breakfast bars, two granola bars, and a bag of salt and vinegar Pop chips. This is what I'd produced:
WORKING IDEA: TK FANTASY LEAGUE?
A question mark. That's it. Luke (our host for Comedy Week) came into the room to check in on me and see and what I was working on. I couldn't tell him about the question mark so I panicked and told him that the bit for the Fantasy League was supposed to focus on non-sports people. It would be a league where you'd draft women who dated athletes and you'd accumulate points by how many athletes they'd bagged. Like, in this draft, Elisha Cuthbert would probably go number one due to her penchant for dating hockey players. He nodded, smiled at the concept, and generously offered to help me develop it throughout the week. Progress.
• This is the day, also, that both Drew and I were officially introduced to Norm. Daniel Kellison, the producer who'd handpicked us for this amazing opportunity, brought Norm into my little room and called Drew in, too. Norm was dressed in some nylon sweat suit, slouched against the bare white wall, nodded his head and pretended to look excited to meet the guys from Deadspin. He and Drew exchanged banter while I sat at my desk, cleaning up the mounting pile of snack wrappers.
• Norm was engaging, but odd. He seemed preoccupied with adjusting to his new life in Los Angeles and spoke openly about how he missed New York. He said that in New York, he'd walk around his neighborhood in the early morning hours to work over material and just think. In LA, he couldn't do that, he said. His nightly creative routine was disrupted. He was a little lost. The way he told it, in that typical Norm deadpan way, it seemed like it was a bit in its early stages. But he also seemed like an addled guy in his mid-40s, searching for inner peace and normalcy. Norm was incapable of finding it, though, because his mind was hardwired differently. He seemed frustrated by his reality. He's burdened by genius, I thought. I felt bad for him.
• Before I left to fly out to the show, I asked Kellison if it would be possible to write about our show experience after we got back. He said he'd check on it. He brought it up in front of Norm while we were in the room. Norm made a polite facial expression and nodded but you could tell that he wanted to scream, "No fucking way."
• Later that day, one of the other writers told us Norm had dated Elle Macpherson about 10 years ago. After that brief encounter with Norm, this still made perfect sense for some reason.
• It was a little before 6 p.m. on Tuesday and the Fantasy League idea I'd pulled out of my ass six hours before was still pathetically underdeveloped. But I had to turn something in that day. So I decided I'd try giving some of the other assignments in the packet a try. One idea they were developing was "TODAY IN SPORTS SHOW HISTORY" which would be a brief little daily add-on to Norm's nightly commentary where he'd look back at segments covered by The Sports Show at various seminal moments in sports history: Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics, the Pine Tar game, etc. It was supposed to be patently absurd, written specifically for Norm to deliver Weekend Update-style every night. This was one of the assignments we were supposed to produce daily (10 or 12 items, I think) in addition to the larger assignments. Here's one I wrote.
TODAY IN SPORTS SHOW HISTORY:
"In August 1988, we were at Chicago's Wrigley Field where the Cubs were about to play their first night game in franchise history. What most people didn't remember was that the lights were not installed for the purpose of playing baseball, but as a way of attracting and capturing giant moths which were terrorizing the Windy City for most of the summer."
I wrote three more of these, plus a few more half-written "Weekend Update"-style jokes and sent it off an email to Daniel Kellison. I tried to give myself encouragement because I'd finally "produced" but I left that night with that sinking, gnawing feeling of guilt and failure, like I'd just turned in an incomplete homework assignment.
• I left the studio that night, about 8 p.m., and was still adjusting to the drive from Culver City back to my friend's apartment in Hermosa Beach. I had a GPS in the car but I had no idea how to work it. Dog-tired and stressed, I pressed "home" and waited for the robot lady's voice to lead me back to Hermosa Beach. "After .4 miles, make a left at the light." I did and it brought me right back to the Culver Studio lot. "You've reached your destination," the lady robot voice said. I did this twice before I figured out that I'd erased the address to my friend's apartment and replaced it with the Culver City Studio one. I eventually got to the Hermosa Beach apartment at about 10:30 p.m.
• On Wednesday, Kellison came into my room and quietly shut the door. He gave me a pep talk. "I've noticed you haven't turned in any packets yet, but the jokes you sent me last night were a good start," he said. "I know this is an adjustment for you so I'm here to help. Everyone here will help you. We hired you for a reason because we think you're funny. Just don't be afraid to show us that. We need a lot of material." I was both relieved and disappointed, secretly hoping that he was there to politely ask me to go back to New York. But I was also encouraged by his faith in me and determined to not let him down. I stayed later again and emailed him a few more "Weekend Update"-style one-liners. This was one of them:
Cleveland Indians right fielder Shin-Soo Choo plans to change his name next season to "Ocho-Soo-Choo."
I sent this one to Craggs over Gchat to show him what I'd been doing and he said it was the saddest thing he'd ever read. For some reason, I was offended.
• On Thursday, determined to get some use out of me, Kellison gave Drew and me a specific assignment, catered to our online writing experience: find about 10 funny sports-related videos that were popular on the web that Norm could riff on. But they didn't have to be all about sports, they could be broader. "Sort of like what Tosh does," he said. We were to send our selections to one of the producers. Then on Thursday night, the staff would take a look at it. "It'll be a huge help," Kellison said.
• All of the writers, producers, and Norm were herded into the giant writers' room to critique our submissions on a small television. Some of Drew's were greeted with raucous laughter, ones like "Trampoline Basketball," the classic Plano East high school football comeback, and "Gay Soccer Referee."
• I focused on the term "broader" and submitted ones like "The Most Russian Video Of All Time" and "The Best Wedding Band Drummer Ever." Polite chuckles ensued. The only one who didn't crack a smile was Norm. He seemed annoyed. He spoke up. "Why are we doing this? Isn't this supposed to be a sports show? If we're going to do this why don't we just fucking call it The Everything Show since that would make this much easier." He then threw something out about having to be careful what he said because "these guys were writing a diary about it." He pointed in my direction. He stared at Kellison. He wanted some answers. Things were getting tense. Kellison asked Norm to come into his office and talk about it. This was my fault. I had caused a rift.
• Norm cooled off and came back into the writers' room to watch the beginning of Thursday Night Football. The Steelers were playing, so he was firing off rape jokes at a rapid clip. He also went into this bizarre rant about a conversation he'd had with a guy about time travel and the concept of altering history and how this individual said he would go back in time and if not kill Hitler, he'd at least punch him in the face. Norm began to build on this notion: "Everyone uses Hitler as an example. They always say they'd go back and attack Hitler. But this was one of the most charismatic and convincing people in history and you're telling me that if you're standing two feet away from Hitler, you'd try to fight him? I doubt that. You'd probably try to blow him. That's what the end result would be. You'd go up to him to try to punch him and then Hitler would turn on the Hitler charm and instead of punching him, you'd most likely end up blowing him. I'd probably blow Hitler if I were in that situation. Why not? It's Hitler!" He went on for about two minutes and explored every subtle nuance of the joke's potential and context and weaved in both cerebral observations and mundane filth to perfection. The room was awestruck. He may have been testing out material or just showing off, but it was a pure joy to watch, as if he'd just opened up his head and pulled his brain out to tap-dance on the table for everyone there in a one-time-only performance. Just like that, the whole miserable week became worthwhile and unforgettable.
• Friday was our final day and I was invigorated by both Norm's Hitler improv and that I would finally get to go home. I tried to expand the Fantasy League idea once and for all (now called Fantasy Celebrity Vagina, for some reason) and about 10 pathetic one-liners to close out the week. (Notable: "Scientists have discovered that exotic fur covering the Phillie Phanatic was made from a combination of Vet Stadium Astroturf and Godzilla's pubes.") That was it. That was my final contribution to Norm's Sports Show pilot.
• Even though I hated the actual job portion of this experience, I still hoped that the show would get picked up. The people we worked with that week were just fantastic and talented and deserved success. But since the show seemed so underdeveloped and rudderless in mid-November, I was skeptical that Norm's sports pilot would get together in time for Comedy Central executives to green-light it in January. Of course, it did and aired in early spring. I only watched the first episode, but I enjoyed it. I never watched it again, though, because I didn't want to feel like I'd missed out on opportunity to be part of something really special.