As a non-union comedy writer with no credits, I know I’m ready to write for television. Truth be told, I don’t watch a lot of TV because, my god, who has the time? But what I lack in commitment to developing my craft I more than make up with in confidence and diverticulitis.
I heard that you need to be persistent to break into the entertainment industry, so I send my writing sample to whoever is on Fallon that night. It’s a spec of Malcolm in the Middle that I wrote when I moved to Los Angeles in 2005. I don’t want to give too much away without having you sign an NDA, but the plot involves Frances leaving military school to join Al Qaeda. It’s 170 pages long and fucking dark, but also a brilliant piece of writing if I do say so myself (something those idiots at NBC’s Writers’ on the Verge wouldn’t know if it bit them on the ass or was sent to them fourteen years in a row).
One night during my evening punch up of the Malcolm script I watched Nick Kroll on Fallon promoting that Ozzy Osbourne show of his about the kids who have sex with monsters or whatever. I’ve never seen it, but know about the premise because my buddy Jaden in Florida knows one of its writers, Victor Quinaz and is always going on about it. “This is perfect,” I thought. I’ll write for Big Mouth! I called Jaden and asked him to introduce me to Victor, but he refused even though he’s read my Malcolm script and agrees it is way more violent than a normal Malcolm in the Middle episode. Fucking Jaden. “It doesn’t matter,” I thought, I’ll just send the script directly to Kroll and get on the show myself.
Boy, is it difficult to find Nick Kroll’s email address online. I searched for hours, but the closest I could find is the information for an orthodontist named Dr. Nicholas Kroll, DDS in Lansing, Michigan who told me that he had no capacity to hire an inexperienced screenwriter at his dental practice and also that he felt my Malcolm script was “ill-advised.” Everyone’s a critic.
I had lost all hope until I learned that Nick Kroll has what I assumed is his own production company and, just my luck, Kroll Inc. was hiring!
Unbeknownst to me, Kroll Inc. is not a production company, but a high-end corporate investigation and security consultancy started by Nick’s father. Not realizing this mistake, I sent them a copy of my Malcolm script along with a cover letter in which I pitched an episode of Big Mouth based on several instances of early childhood self-discovery that occurred in the clearance racks of a Filene’s Basement. Needless to say, I was very confident I would be hearing back from Kroll asking me to write for Big Mouth.
Indeed, it was only a few days after sending in my application that I received a call offering me a job. I was with my usual confederacy of elderly men that congregate at the North Hollywood Weinserschnitzel every morning to discuss immigration policies and their love of Leonard Cohen. Kroll wanted me to fly out to their Washington D.C. office the next day and I was nervous about starting on such short notice because I’ve never actually seen Big Mouth. I was ultimately convinced to go by Moshe, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who told me that life is full of uncertainties and that I owed it to myself, and indeed all those who perished at Bergen-Belsen, to pursue my “dreams of writing that fakakta sex show before some Guatemalan agrees to do it for next to nothing.” He meant well.
The next morning, I flew to D.C. where I was met by someone from Kroll and escorted to their headquarters. I was tired from my flight but told that they needed me to start right away. I remembered hearing a Big Mouth spinoff was in the works and figured they were desperate for some fresh ideas. “This must be how Hollywood works,” I thought as we made our way from Dulles to Georgetown.
When I arrived, I was met by at least 10 Kroll executives. I was a little nervous being around what I thought was a room full of surprisingly well-dressed comedy writers and, perhaps feeling the need to overcompensate, immediately started pitching story ideas. It wasn’t until around three hours into my meeting that I realized that this was not Big Mouth’s production company and that they didn’t want me as a writer.
“I’m going to stop you right there,” said General Deepak Gundersen, as I wrapped up a very graphic story that involved a chance encounter with someone I thought was Michelle Branch but who, in retrospect, was very clearly a pre-Pasion of the Christ Jim Chaviziel. “We need you to infiltrate an Al Qaeda sleeper cell and don’t have much time.”
General Gundersen, it turns out, is not a comedy writer for Big Mouth (or a Jim Chaviziel fan, apparently. But I guess who is?). He heads Kroll’s Private Security and Risk Management team and informed me that I was hired after he read my Malcolm in the Middle Script (suck a dick, Writers on the Verge!) which although he felt lacked the “tone and charm” of a Malcolm episode (that is actually consistent with what NBC thought), displayed a surprisingly adept understanding of Al Qaeda’s western recruiting tactics.
“This is Maryanne Frankel,” said General Gundersen as a photo of a striking woman in her mid-50s displayed on a PowerPoint. “We believe she operates one of the largest terrorist recruiting channels in the United States.” Over the next several hours I was convinced to go to Canton, Ohio to make contact with Maryanne to find out the source of funding of her sleeper network. As I made my way back to the airport I wondered if I really knew enough about Al Qaeda to complete this mission. Most of the terrorist stuff from my script was lifted directly from a 20/20 episode. Maybe Kroll would be better off hiring Hugh Downs? These self-doubts continued until, needing to take my mind off of things, I signed up for a Netflix account and finally got to watch an episode of Big Mouth on the plane. It wasn’t really for me.
I was told Maryanne ran her terrorist operation from a Bob Evans in Canton and decided to head straight there from the airport. As I drove through the Ohio countryside I was taken aback by its open space and fresh air. You always hear about how awful and ugly Ohio is, but in reality, only most of it is awful and ugly. Some of it is less so.
I recognized Maryanne as soon as I stepped inside Bob Evans and asked the hostess to seat me in her section. “I hear I have a fan,” Maryanne said as she approached my table. She was remarkably beautiful, even at her age and in her Bob Evans uniform and really stood out in a place like Canton. I couldn’t help think that with a face like hers she could have easily made it in Dayton or even parts of Cincinnati. I ordered a biscuit platter and the two of us bantered playfully throughout the meal. When she finally came around with the check I asked her if I could take her out to dinner.
“I’m sorry, hun. I don’t date customers,” she said with a genteel smile.
“You don’t?” I panicked, trying to think of anything I could say to make her change her mind.
“Well…death to America?” I whispered.
“Death to America,” she smiled. “Ok. Pick me up at 8:00!”
I spent the day reading a dossier Kroll prepared for me about Maryanne and walking around Canton. I was impressed with the number of monuments the city had to its kidnapping victims, and also perhaps not unrelatedly, how friendly and trusting everyone seemed to be. Los Angeles can be a hard place to live without growing jaded and I wondered if I would have been a happier person if I lived somewhere like this. Had I ever really been happy before? Certainly not since Diane left.
I picked up Maryanne at the end of her shift and had her show me around town. By the time we made our way to Canton’s nicest Walmart I decided to make my move.
“Canton seems great,” I said.
“Oh, it is!” said Maryanne. “When I was a little girl I used to dream about seeing the world, but when I finally got old enough I realized this place has everything that I need. We have three Walmarts, you know?”
“So why do you hate America?” I asked bluntly.
“Oh, that. Who are you? F.B.I.?” Maryanne asked as our hands casually touched, slowly making their way into each other as we strolled down the electronics aisle of the Super Walmart.
“No. I’m with Kroll. I think it’s like a spy company or something. I’m not sure. I’m actually a comedy writer.”
“I don’t hate America. I just think America could be a lot better than it is right now. You would agree with that, right?”
“So, what’s wrong with trying to connect with others who also want to make America better?”
“But you work for Al Qaeda? How is that going to make America better? Don’t they hate us?”
“Oh, Al Qaeda is just an alternative! It could be any organization though. It’s just a symbol that America as we know it right now could be improved.”
“Shit,” I thought as I realized I agreed with her. Recognizing there was a real connection developing I told her that what we said would just be between the two of us and that I hadn’t felt this way since Diane left me. We spent the next several hours discussing politics and the America of our childhood and what she called the “impending race war,” which sounded bad but I was so focused on the beauty of her eyes that I missed most of the details. She told me about how a chance encounter with a Sudanese arms dealer named Alfalaun Malah-Sadiq made her start to question things and how he encouraged her to connect with other “open-minded” Americans who believe their country could do better. “What’s so wrong with that?” she asked as she invited me back to her house where we continued to talk deep into the night. As the conversation flowed I knew we had fallen for each other. When we finally began making love beneath a bookshelf of Korans and a framed picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri I realized that fate had brought me here. As my eyes drew shut for the night she whispered أحبك into my ear.
“What’s that mean?” I asked, pretty sure I knew the answer.
“I love you,” she said. I was right.
I woke to a loud bang early the next morning. I sprung up and saw Maryanne was not in the bed. As I ran into the living room I saw her on her knees in prayer facing west.
“What’s going on?” I yelled out just as what must have been 20 armed men in unmarked military tactile gear stormed inside. As I watched the soldiers seize Maryanne, General Gundersen came up to me grinning.
“Great work!” he said as he shook my hand.
“I don’t get it, what’s happening?” I asked as Maryanne looked at me for help.
“Timothy?” she screamed. That’s my name, by the way. Timothy Penisfeldschmidt. “What is going on?”
“We tapped your cellphone and used its microphone to hear your conversation last night,” said General Gundersen. “You got her to admit that Alfalaun Malah-Sadiq is funding her operation and that she has been actively conspiring against the United States.”
“So, it was all a lie? How could you do this to me? To us?” Maryanne screamed as they took her away. I never saw her again.
I was flown back to Los Angeles that afternoon where I was debriefed, paid $125 for my time, and told that Kroll Inc. had a permanent job for me if I wanted it.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m a comedy writer.”
“I thought you’d say that,” said General Gundersen. “As a thank you for protecting your country we pulled some strings and Nick Kroll has reluctantly agreed to hire you to write on that Ozzy Osbourne show of his where the kids have sex with monsters or whatever.”
“Thanks,” I said as we shook hands. My dream had come true, but I couldn’t shake the memory of having love ripped away from me so quickly after finding it.
The next day I went to Big Mouth’s production office where I met Nick and the other writers, including Victor Quinaz, who said he didn’t know my friend Jaden in Florida. Fucking Jaden.
Ultimately, I didn’t last long at Big Mouth. Maybe it was my unfamiliarity with the show or that my scripts were what the producers described as “hundreds of pages too long and lacking in humor.” It could have also been that I found it impossible to stop thinking about Maryanne throughout the day or the way she looked at me as she was dragged away, but whatever the reason I found myself back at the Weinserschnitzel listening to Moshe and the gang go on about Leonard Cohen every morning.
“Boychik,” Moshe interrupted, noticing I looked particularly down as the fellas discussed the lyrics to Chelsea Hotel #2. “There will be other women, you know? Don’t be so upset.”
“I know,” I lied. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do with myself now.”
“There is no ‘supposed.’ It doesn’t matter what you do, you have to live your life because you still have a life to live. That’s more than a lot of our people can say.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was Presbyterian.
When I went home that night I sat down at my computer and began to write for the first time since being let go from Big Mouth. Turns out Moshe was right and I found the creative process cathartic and before I knew it had completed a 220-page spec of Black·Ish in which Dre and Rainbow move to Ohio to start a terrorist sleeper-cell that will make the people at NBC’s Writers on the Verge program finally take notice.
Life is unpredictable and, as Moshe always says: “Hashem has a plan for us.” I think Moshe means specifically the Jews, but I like to think god has something worked out for all of us. That night I saw Anthony Anderson on Fallon and decided to send him a copy of my script. Soon after his people reached out about producing a spin-off based on my spec called Terror·Ish. He’s seeing if Malin Akerman is available to play a character based on my dear Maryanne. I think she’d like that, wherever she is being detained.