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Small screen, fat chance

November 21, 2008|JOEL STEIN

I was discovered on the fly machine at Gold's Gym. "Will & Grace" co-creator Max Mutchnick approached me mid-set, my pecs, no doubt, rippling. He told me about his new sitcom pilot for ABC-TV, and I figured he was bragging due to insecurity over my pecs. I acted very interested, in case he wanted to hire me to write for it. Or to lift it up and down 12 times.

Instead, he asked me to audition for the lead role. At which point I informed him that, though I could see why my pecs led him to assume otherwise, I'm not an actor. He countered that he sees me on television all the time. At which point I had to tell him that parsing the semiotics of the 101 sexiest celebrity bodies on E! would not qualify as acting even under the broad definitions set forth by James Lipton.

Nevertheless, Max insisted I come in, and even though I was well aware that I cannot act, I agreed. As soon as he sent me the script, I started figuring out how to deal with my upcoming money and fame. Within minutes, I pictured myself usurping Max's authority and threatening to leave the show unless they made the writing darker and artsier. This was despite the fact that the script was way better than anything I've ever written, none of which is at all dark and artsy. Also, I oddly fixated on bringing back the "Battle of the Network Stars" so I could do the obstacle course. I am not a very good fantasizer.

By the time my agent, Richard Weitz -- who only handles writing and not acting -- got the call from Max, I had convinced myself that I should star in a network show. If every rapper could do it, so could I. Richard, however, did not feel the same way. He used phrases like "make a fool of yourself," "look stupid in front of executives you'll have to pitch your own shows to" and "you're not doing this." I used phrases like "fun" and "life experience" and "you're typing e-mails and not listening to me anymore, aren't you?"

The night before my audition, I drove over to my actor friend Andrew Leeds' house so he could teach me how to pretend to be another person. In four hours of considering my character's motivations and reactions and even what he was thinking about before the scene, I learned more about script writing than any four hours I'd spent at a keyboard. Andrew learned that being my friend was a huge mistake.

When I showed up for the audition, I signed in and sat quietly in the hall pretending to review my script but actually using it as a screen as I secretly flexed and unflexed my chest. Despite everything I had ever seen in movies, the other guys up for the part were friendly. When I told Matthew Lillard that I hadn't acted since high school, he not only gave me advice but -- when he finished his audition and left -- came running back up the stairs to wish me luck.

Max, his writing partner, David Kohan, and the casting director were equally nice, spending five minutes chatting about mutual friends, which calmed me down but may also have reduced the blood flow to my chest that I'd been working so hard on.

You know when you meet some people at a party and start to tell a story, and realize about four words in that those people are totally not interested in anything you're saying? Me neither, but I imagine it's just like my audition.

The part wound up going to Josh Cooke, who had the advantage of being an actor. And ABC didn't wind up putting it on the air anyway. But I still needed to find out how I did, so I called Max. "You're too cerebral," he said. "You thought about what you were doing. Actors are dumb for a reason. They don't think, they just be. It's like when you make love. You just have to do it." It's as if Max has been secretly talking to my wife.

He said he made me audition because I had the right look for the part, which he said was 75% of the requirement. "Eric McCormack was hired because of his hair. He got that job because of his haircut."

Max accurately guessed that I didn't play an instrument because my rhythm was so bad; good actors, he said, usually play piano or drums. But he said I wasn't the absolute worst person who auditioned for the part. "You have business managers who say, 'Please read my second cousin.' But you were definitely in the bottom 10%."

Despite the fact that most of my agent's warnings came true, as always, I'm glad I did it. I not only learned about writing and how to run an audition, I gained an appreciation for acting. In the preparation, it requires a whole lot of thinking. And then, when you perform, you need to stop thinking. All while keeping your hair perfect.

I still don't know why every rapper can do it.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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