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JOEL STEIN | [Love Your Work]

Hollywood's desperate, but in a nice way

October 02, 2005|JOEL STEIN

EVEN IF YOU MOVE here for noble reasons -- outdoor exercise, cultural diversity, a chance to ruin the reputation of a major American newspaper -- you can't help but hope, deep inside, that you'll get famous.

So, like any good Angeleno, when the TV Land network offered me $1,500 to tell a story for a pilot, I didn't stop to ask myself if I had any stories to tell. If those kinds of questions aren't important to Jim Belushi, they're not important to me.

When I walked into Cabrini's Jazz Alley and met my fellow storytellers, I realized that, without being notified, I had already become famous. Unfortunately, at some point my career had apparently hit the skids and I was now in that desperate-to-make-a-comeback stage, as if in some very late season of "The Surreal Life."

The show was emceed by Skippy from "Family Ties" (Marc Price), who was going to introduce the "cast": me, ex-Laker John Salley, "Soul Food" actress Vanessa Williams and O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. I felt like an extra in one of Kobe Bryant's nightmares.

Once I saw the real celebrities, I started to freak out about my performance. Also, because I had chosen a story about getting fired by Martha Stewart that was about as exciting as a Sudoku puzzle. Also, because audiences feel cheated when they walk into a jazz club and get stories about craft projects with the whitest woman in the world.

Noticing my building anxiety, the very nice TV Land execs told me that the performance wasn't even being taped. Instead, they were going to watch it live and then determine whether it was a good idea for a series.

This seemed an idiotic way to choose programming until I realized that the 50 people in the audience were exactly the size of the TV Land viewership.

I sneaked upstairs to review my notes and drink Cabernet Sauvignon as fast as I could. But I was quickly joined by Salley, who, it turns out, is a longtime member of the Masons, and he spent the better part of half an hour trying to persuade me to join.

I then had a lovely conversation with Clark, who has platinum hair and was wearing a leather bomber jacket that had patches of skulls and the flags of countries where the United States has killed people, plus Canada.

Price told me a story about locking his keys in his car and getting a ride to a gas station from a couple by exploiting his Skippy fame.

I headed to the stage as a jazz trio softly played, and Price said, "I didn't think there'd be someone here to out-nerd me." I was just happy that TV Land hadn't hired Steve Urkel to emcee.

My story did not go well. At some point, confused amid a pointless digression, I turned in desperation to Salley. Who was asleep. I'm guessing that people notice when a 7-foot-tall power forward nods off during your story.

Everyone else's stories were pretty amusing and taught me both about the human condition and just how awful the TV Land schedule must be. But it mostly taught me that celebrities will show up for anything.

At first, I figured it was because they become addicted to the attention. Fabio goes to my Hollywood Gold's Gym only at peak hours. And I get excited every time. Skippy was right about me.

But I think the real reason celebrities will show up is because they know their success will be short-lived. And that if they appear in enough places, someone will see them and give them a chance at a comeback.

There is a lot less shame in this city than desperation. And that's why this is such a nice place to live. Despite their reputation, most celebrities of modest success are surprisingly nice, if totally phony -- which is just what you want from the people you're not married to.

It's that humility that helped Clark go from prosecutor to author to TV drama writer. And that has allowed Salley to go from four NBA title rings to hosting a radio show and a TV show on Fox Sports. That, plus he's a Mason.

Those guys, he told me, run the country.

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