MotherJones JA93: LA laugh tracks

The editor guy of this magazine asked me the other day if Hollywood has morals. Gee, I certainly don't think so. He seems like such a bright man; why would he ask a question like that? Hollywood uses the TV laugh track, the very soul of dishonesty. In the years before I understood that they couldn't possibly have performed before a live audience, I thought the Flintstones were funny to adults. I assumed the jokes were just over my head and that, when I matured, the elephant who said, "It's a living," while his trunk was used as the spray nozzle for washing dishes would be a knee-slapper.

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I can't tell if I'm becoming paranoid or wise, but it feels like no one is honest anymore. I've spent the last month in negotiation over a contract with a TV network, and at the same time contractors have been building a room on the back of my house. In the span of a few short hours I talk to plumbers, electricians, GTE, alarm technicians, construction workers, agents, lawyers, and network executives. They have much in common.

I made the mistake of reading Outfoxed, a book about the making of the Fox Broadcasting Company, during all of this. I'm embarrassed to have read it in a page-turning fever, unable to focus on anything else, carrying it with me everywhere I went, underlining passages about Barry Diller's philosophy, and quoting from the book while talking with perfectly intelligent adults.

I've never negotiated a contract before, and there was story after story in the book about big experienced Hollywood types making deals at Fox, getting screwed, and having breakdowns. There's no way I could predict every bad thing that might happen and protect myself contractually. When producer Sherry Lansing was a bigwig at Fox Television and all over magazine covers as the woman with everything, her boss kept calling her "dollface" and asking her to work on a sequel to The Sound of Music. Eventually she had to leave. My hair stood on end. Even had Sherry been clever enough to include the unprecedented "no dollface" clause, the odds are good she would have let her guard down only to find the bossman calling her "cupcake" as the ink dried on the signed contract.

I was told my agents would protect me in dealing with the network and that I needed a lawyer to protect me in dealing with my agents. At my house, the construction workers broke the sprinklers, the cable, and the hot-water heater, and then said they didn't. My phone lines had static for months. I called GTE, who promised to come out between noon and midnight one day to fix the lines. Although they didn't fix them, they did screw up the security system. They said they didn't. The toilet, shower, and bathtub backed up. The plumber said I had to have all my sewer pipes replaced, because tree roots had grown through them. I didn't ask the tree. Who wants to be lied to by a tree?

Almost every day some worker set off the burglar alarm or car alarm while I was out, though no one admitted doing it. Criminals couldn't have gotten a turn. I get furious when I think of all of the time and energy I could save if everyone would just be honest. I wouldn't need an alarm to prevent thieves from breaking into my car. I wouldn't have to return to the house ten minutes after I leave, to make double sure I put the alarm on. I wouldn't need agents to protect me from network people, nor lawyers to protect me from agents.

I got to the distressing point in reading the Fox book where I realized there's no protecting yourself from a big company anyway. When Joan Rivers tried to sue Fox for breaching their contractual promises, they just said to go ahead and try and they would keep her tied up in court for a long time. She settled for settling out of court.

I've wanted to work in television as long as I can remember, but I never knew about this part. It actually makes you realize what incredible actors television stars have been. "The Waltons" actress Michael Learned may have been having a screaming fight with some executive about marketing an inflatable doll with her face on it without her permission, just seconds before she played Olivia Walton walking peacefully to Ike Godsey's mercantile, in the dappled glow of the afternoon sun and the quiet, loving company of Elizabeth and Mary Ellen. Now that I know the awful possibilities, I may even be in awe of Suzanne Somers.

Just as I had begun to be stripped of all naivete in these matters, my negotiation with the network had gotten to a place where I'd ask for something. And they'd say, "We won't give it to you in writing, but we will do it," and my agent would say, "Well, if they say they will, they will." This seemed particularly odd, because I hadn't read anything in the trade papers about a prominent agent being kicked in the head by a horse. It was time for another quick chat with the lawyer.

I finally had to hire a private contractor to fix the phone lines. (He said he used to work at GTE and they shouldn't be trusted. Doy.) It took ten hours on a Saturday. Monday the guys doing the drywalling knocked some of the lines loose again. They said they didn't.

Joan Rivers said in an interview in Outfoxed that Fox had lied, cheated, and been dishonorable. Fox President Jamie Kellner denied this and said it had just been business. Apparently "business" looks, feels, and sounds so much like lying, cheating, and being dishonorable that even Joan Rivers was fooled.