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THE RULES OF HOLLYWOOD

Before You Say 'Nice Socks,' See If They're Hiring

July 02, 2006|Brad Dickson | Brad Dickson was a staff writer for 13 years for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Networking is a combination of luck and people skills, and often is considered more important for a writer than actual writing ability. I'd classify my luck as questionable and my people skills as marginal. At lunch meetings, in perhaps some neurotic form of self-sabotage, I've actually uttered the following inept compliments: "Great posture, man" and "Hey, nice socks!"

I learned of my lack of networking acumen soon after landing in Hollywood in the early '80s. I was an aspiring sitcom writer, which in the Hollywood hierarchy ranks right between "awards show seat filler" and "out-of-work butt double." I was buoyed by a letter I'd received from legendary "Tonight Show" executive producer Fred de Cordova, complimenting me on some material I'd submitted for Johnny Carson but explaining that his staff was full. (A couple decades of accrued wisdom allowed me to realize that what had inspired me to quit my job and move 1,600 miles to Los Angeles was, quite possibly, a form rejection letter.) Reasoning there were more openings for sitcom writers than variety writers, I set out to join the ranks of half-hour scribes.

My raw, early attempts at making contacts were for naught. I took a job delivering pizzas to the Hollywood Hills. In addition to putting up with lousy hours and meager pay, the biggest name I met was a grip on "Trapper John, M.D." My next attempt at networking consisted of joining a Hollywood gym. In six months of working out religiously, the most successful show business luminary I encountered was a guy who worked as an extra. Desperate to gain access to Hollywood's inner circle, I invited him to coffee, where he tried to entice me to buy into a pyramid scheme.

What followed was a series of waiter jobs. The closest I came to the inner circle was being stiffed on a tip by a soap opera diva.

I began hanging out at the Comedy Store on Sunset, which at the time was the center of the universe for aspiring comedians and comedy writers. I befriended one of the doormen/comics and wrote a few jokes for his act. He reciprocated by giving me his Saturday night onstage spot to "try out some of your best lines."

I arrived early that night, aware that the audience normally included producers who could hire me as a writer. I watched patiently as the audience got progressively drunker, culminating in the late Sam Kinison working the post-midnight crowd into a frenzy normally observed only at European soccer riots, when my friend approached and said, "You're up next."

I began telling jokes about then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's economic initiatives as the crowd drowned me out by chanting an expletive. As I segued into the differences between cats and dogs, the audience switched to a new expletive, which led me to begin screaming back the original expletive until the emcee grabbed the microphone and dismissed me.

My subsequent endeavors at networking included briefly dating the secretary to a pornographic movie producer and sitting in on a Malibu AA meeting. The latter was ripe with A- through D-list celebs and industry types, who were rightly suspicious of the new guy who awkwardly mentioned he had a treatment in his trunk.

I eventually moved back to Nebraska without contacts or a job. In 1989, I mailed sample monologue material to Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall for their new shows. Sajak rejected me; I'm still waiting to hear back from Arsenio. But as an afterthought I sent some jokes to a then-guest hosting Jay Leno at NBC, who called and soon offered me a staff job writing for his "Tonight Show." I acquired the position with zero networking.

After 13 years of penning Leno lines about Bill Clinton and McDonald's, I'm on my own now and pitching a pilot idea to network executives and producers. If any of them are reading this, I'd like to say you all have excellent posture and nice socks.

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