Unless you are the Oscar-winner who got kicked off American Idol, the total unknown who starred opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, or the personal assistant to Matthew Broderick who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, there is no such thing as a meteoric rise to the top. In Hollywood, success comes in dribs and drabs, in a series of little firsts meant to drag and drop your pecking order as though rearranging some great Netflix queue in the sky.
There's the first time someone besides your mother admires your work. The first time someone besides your mother returns a call to share this opinion.
The first time you get a studio drive-on. (Mine was at Warner Brothers, an event I remember as though it were my "first time" with one or both of the actual Warner brothers.) The first time your drive-on is actually there when you reach the gate, so you don't have to pull over and hang your head in shame while they covertly call upstairs and make a furtive search of your undercarriage for plastic explosives. The first time you get to valet at Sony rather than park across the street in an underground lot beside the lady who makes the gravy in the commissary.
The first time you get to meet with the actual star rather than his or her D-Girl, who for some reasons strongly rememble the original only without the veneers, voice training and hair extensions.
The first time a famous actor nails a line you wrote.
The first time you get paid for it.
The first time you unknowingly drop your drawstring skirt on the Disney lot while leaving a meeting, then exit the New Animation Building in the shadow of the giant Sorcerer's Hat exposing your crushed velvet thong.
See, my first time wasn't writing a script for Mr. Movie Star, as popular legend has it. It was years ago, before I ever went to film school, when some drunk Irishman my brother-in-law met on St. Patty's Day at Tom Bergen's gave me a chance to pitch his Sunday morning cartoon. Writing children's animation certainly wouldn't have been my first choice, since I don't care for children or animation. I never saw Shrek, for example. I don't understand why there aren't any people in it. If you-re going to re-make The Princess Bride, I say pony up for Mandy Patinkin in the flesh.
On the plus side, this particular cartoon was voiced by a number of sitcom legends, including Dabney Coleman, John Astin, Allyce Beaseley and Glenne Headley. I pitched an episode where the kids went away to summer camp and the grown-ups took over the school. "Picture Lord of the Flies, only with grown-ups," I explained.
"What about the kids?" the producer asked. He was sober now, and not nearly as much fun as he'd apparently been while powering back the Guinness Stouts and pretending to have a brogue.
"Haven't we had enough of the kids?" I said.
He asked if I had anything else. I didn't. But damn if I was going to tell him that, since I was new in town and still believed in my God-given right to highly overpaid employment. Given my background in comedy improvisation, I knew it was possible to toss off an idea he was certain to like by pausing to let him supply the last part of my sentences. "What if the scool principal got fired, and had to..."
"Take a job at the Middle School?"
"Exactly," I said. "Only the guy who replaces him is..."
"Even meaner than the original!"
"You took the words right out of my mouth," I told him. "Anyway, what they have to do is..."
"Find a way to get rid of him, bring the old guy back and restore order in their universe before six commercials for sugary breakfast cereal!"
"So you like my idea?" I asked.
He told me to go off and write it, getting up to shake my hand. I'm not sure if this is the point when I lost my skirt, or if it happened farther down the hall once I was out of his eye line. I mean, I'd already been hired, so it wasn't like I was trolling for validation. Then again, we hadn't talked money. When I felt a light breeze kissing my nether regions, and my untied skirt around my ankles, I hoped he hadn't viewed the whole performance as some kind of ploy to earn extra points on the back end.
People who don't understand Hollywood think we're a lawless town, that our lack of a shared moral compass means we go about our business without any rules to live by. Oh, we have rules, and they must be obeyed. Rule Number 714: To taste a little victory, a girl must swallow a personal humiliation of equal or larger size.
Though I was never hired to write another episode, my first was indeed produced after the staff re-wrote it beyond all recognition. Though my single produced credit to date has aired again and again in syndication, I neither saw it nor asked for a copy. Rule Number 336: Sometimes it's best to pick up your skirt and keep right on walking.