By: Russ Pitts
The story of my most famous farewell email, and how I ruined my TV career without even really trying.
Table of contents
Part One: The Perfect Noun
It took me three days to come up with the perfect noun.
I probably could have gone with any number of things, but this was to be my magnum opus, my final word on top of the hundreds of thousands of words that had so far failed to prove my point. I’d written thousands of words per day at TechTV, for over 700 days and on that day, that word would be my very last. I wanted it to be extra special.
I’d given my notice about a month prior. I was planning to move East, go back to working in theater and maybe regain some of my sanity. The past two years had been a long succession of hard lessons about myself, life and the mindless cruelty of the universe. I’d learned that I could go almost four days without sleep and still write decent dialogue. I’d learned that too much coffee poured on top of too much stress would send me to the hospital. I’d learned that people don’t communicate very well, not really. Not with actual, uncensored thoughts. They tell each other what each thinks the other wants to hear, and, as a result, communicate nothing. I’d also learned that communicating an uncensored thought into such an environment, therefore, can be revolutionary.
On that day, my last day, I was preparing to do just that. I’d been spending every day for the past two weeks writing down exactly what I thought of my soon-to-be former employers, my soon-to-be former colleagues and my soon-to-be former career. I was writing down my exact, uncensored thoughts about the time we’d shared, the frustrations we’d endured and the work we’d performed together, which I thought at the time had suffered due to constant, unrelenting mediocrity at levels beyond our control.
This wasn’t just a rant I was constructing, it was a manifesto. After I had written and delivered it, I discovered almost half its intended recipients became concerned for their safety, worried I’d be returning with a gun. Many of my colleagues wouldn’t speak to me for years after the message was sent, and a great many organizations silently marked me down in their little, black books titled “Do Not Hire.” Some of them still have me there.
Strangely, an equal number of people thought what I wrote was the greatest thing they’d ever read. There were countless souls at TechTV who shared my frustrations and, like me, had yet to find the voice to communicate them. To them, I was a hero, the rebel vigilante who, with his parting shot, struck deep into the belly of the beast, the company we had all poured so much of our lives into and which had, in the end, betrayed us.
That’s the power of a word. The right word, at the right time can galvanize a body of people, cause some to recoil in disgust, and others to rise up in defiance. Words can tear apart, but they can also heal and the best of them can do both simultaneously. Those were the kind of words I was looking for. I’d spent days weighing one noun against the other, and eventually I made my choice.
The noun, I decided, would be “eagle semen.” Yes. “I couldn’t care less if the entire building spontaneously filled with eagle semen.” Perfect.
I pressed “send” put on my cowboy hat and walked over to the studio to watch the last episode I’d ever see of the show I’d helped produce for two years.
If you’re not familiar with TechTV, it was a cable network based in San Francisco that covered, well, technology. We were on channel 700 or something, and the continual struggle was trying to get cable providers to care enough about our product to put us on a better channel (or carry us at all). To do that, we had to be able to show them numbers, which meant we had to have people watching our shows in significant numbers. Not an easy task when there are over 700 channels.
I worked on a show called The Screen Savers. I produced and wrote the show for about two years. All of us on Savers were extremely proud of what we’d created. It was the first of it’s kind; a real television show made by geeks, for geeks. We put up the kind of content we wished we could find on TV. We had a thriving forum community and sent out free webcams so people could call in to the show and join in. We had a rabid fanbase who all felt , like we did, that The Screen Savers was something unique in a world that largely couldn’t have cared less about people like us.
But it didn’t last. Push came to shove, too many people became involved, money was passed around and in the end the show we’d all built to entertain and educate people like ourselves became an amalgam of mediocrity, appealing to no one, while trying to reach everyone. When TechTV was purchased by the G4 network, our show was re-branded Attack of the Show, and now it’s almost unwatchable.
I don’t know the whole story of what happened to The Screen Savers. I came on after it’s beginning and left before its end, but I think the two year time period I was able to observe was a pretty good snapshot. I witnessed the turn, as it were. To put it in sports terms, you may have started watching at halftime, but when the home team is down 31 points by the end of the third quarter, it’s OK to turn off the set. I’ll try to go into as much detail as I can about what happened at TechTV, why it happened and why I ended up posting an email to the entire company telling them I couldn’t care less if they all drowned in eagle semen.
I’ll be posting up my recollections in multiple parts, and on no particular schedule. Expect five or six parts. But first, I want to talk about the meetings. During the two years and 18 days I was employed at the network, the company’s chief executive called approximately three “all associates” meetings. Attendance was mandatory. They served bagels.
The first meeting had something to do with an anniversary and we all got really neat vinyl jackets emblazoned with the company logo that ended up being far too warm to wear in San Francisco. Unless you frequented bonfire parties on the beach, in which case you were all set. (You just had to make sure not to stand too near the fire while wearing the jacket. They were slightly flammable.) Anyway, I digress.
The second and third all associates meetings were about the layoffs. At the second meeting, our CEO, we’ll call him “Larry,” attempted to sugarcoat the pill, spending most of his time presenting new information gathered from focus groups. Turns out the executives had spent thousands of dollars or more on a highly scientific research study during which they’d hoped to discover exactly why people watch television about technology. Their conclusion? “They’re ‘tech fans.’” I shit you not. And they honestly expected us to be as surprised as they were. Afterward, we were told a number of us had already been let go, but that the bloodletting would be brief and short. We were told everything was alright, that our new owner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, still believed in us and that they had a plan. Unfortunately the plan revolved around the revelation that we were chasing “tech fans,” so we weren’t mollified by that to any great extent. Still, for some reason, only a few of us started polishing our resumes. I suppose most of us didn’t really have anywhere to go. Or maybe some dreams just take a long while to die.
The third meeting was the worst. That one signaled round two of the layoffs, and by then people were pretty worried about their jobs anyway. The stock market had been crashing for almost six straight months, dragged down by tech stocks unable to bear the strain of their own inflated relevance, and by this time TechTV was one of the few “dotcom” companies left. All of us in San Francisco knew at least one “paper millionaire” who’d been forced to sell everything they owned or leave town. In fact, we’d been promised TechTV stock options since day one, so in spite of the fact that most of us were paid barely enough to get by in the Bay Area to begin with, we, too, had considered ourselves potential paper millionaires, so the bursting of the tech stock bubble, and the subsequent layoffs and closings had hit us pretty hard. At the end of the third meeting we were instructed to return to our desks and wait to be called into someone’s office and let go – or not. You could have heard a pin drop. Everybody knew someone who got laid off that day. It wasn’t quite the end of the dream, but we had all started to wake up.
The one thing all three of these all associates meeting had in common, aside from the bagels, was the suggestion that the internet would soon prove to be the next, big thing, and that our network would do well to position itself to take advantage of that fact. I’m not kidding. Larry made a point of mentioning this every time. He was not the brightest bulb in the box. Larry was eventually forced to step down shortly before I left in February of 2002. It took them a long time to find a replacement. Luckily, no one seemed to notice his absence.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of my story. The beginning was, well, just as sad, really, but in a different way. And there was more hope involved. Sad, bitter hope. The best kind.
Part Two: The Water Dog
I’ll try not to bore anyone with too much narcissistic background, but it’s relevant to note that in order to join TechTV in the first place, I had to make a huge personal and professional sacrifice. I’d founded a theatre company in 1998, and by the turn of the century we’d put on a few shows and were doing relatively well. Not thriving, exactly, but surviving.
I was living off barely $400 dollars per month, eating pasta for almost every meal and my roommates were threatening to kick me out of the house we shared because I’d spent my rent money renting a stage. Still, it was my company, producing my plays and the people I was working with believed in me and shared my vision. So long as there was no choice but to keep on truckin’ no matter how dire the situation became, there was no question I’d continue to lead these people on, even at risk of ultimately letting them down.
Then I was offered a job at TechTV. A job with a considerable salary. The only catch was I would have to abandon the theatre company. I felt like I owed it to my troupe members to keep pushing on, but I also felt like I owed it to them to not let them down, which I was sure I would eventually do, being relatively young and absolutely horrible with finances. I was also just plain tired of never having money and wondering not only from where my next meal would come, but if it would come at all.
I took the job, obviously, and many people have told me since that it was not only the right choice, but that there was really no choice at all. As in Ghost Busters, when someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes. And when someone offers you a job in television, you take it. Period. End of story. Except it’s not that easy. For many people a job like the one I took at TechTV would be the realization of a dream, and in a way it was. But I’d already realized mine and was living it every single day.
I still wonder if I made the right choice, even now, with eight years of experiences in my head, all of which would be altered or erased had I stayed where I was and struggled to keep the company afloat. I feel as if I was the dog with a bone, seeing his reflection and thinking it was another dog with another bone. When he barks at the water dog to scare him away and steal his bone, he drops his own in the water and loses them both.
I can’t say for certain that I’d be better off in any substantial way had I refused the job at TechTV. I know for sure I would have circumvented a great deal of the pain that followed, but who’s to say I wouldn’t have endured a different set? Who’s to say what I missed out on wouldn’t have been worse? Ultimately we must all live with the choices we make and attempt to make the best of the lives we live as a result, and that’s what I’ve spent the past several years trying to do. I think, in the past few years, I’ve made some progress in that. But I’ve still never known such joy as I experienced every day as the head of my company. Perhaps some day I’ll have something like that again.
So when I say I believed in what we were doing at TechTV, I mean I believed in it enough to leave the place I called home, leave my friends, jeopardize a relationship and abandon the fulfillment of a dream. Heady stuff. But I found, when I got to TechTV, that almost everyone I’d be working with felt the exact same way.
We were all people who’d grown up in a time when the internet was a pipedream, and technology was stuff you saw in movies, being used by people with far better hair. The world changed before our eyes and suddenly people were becoming connected in a way they’d never imagined, and we, who’d been riding the wave, were in a position to blow those doors wide open, take the reins and share the arcane technological wisdom we’d accumulated over the years with a populace who had suddenly decided to care. And someone was willing to pay us to do it. If I’d sacrificed one dream in leaving Texas, I’d adopted a new one. It seemed a lot larger than I was, and walking into a place where hundreds of other people shared it was like coming home for the first time in my life.
I worked on a show called The Screen Savers, which, in the way of all brands, must have seemed like a cute, witty pun at the time of its creation, but which had over the years evolved a life of it’s own, beyond it’s debt to the misuse of language. You see, since we started mainly as a call-in computer help show (think Car Talk for nerds), we were saving screens, therefore: screen savers. Yeah. If you think about it, you ruin it.
But the show was so much more than its name. It was so much more than any of us. We went on TV and told people it was OK to be geeks. Think about that for a second. Think about all the times you’ve been told – directly or indirectly – it’s not cool to be smart. On TV, in magazines, in school or on dates, we’re continually bombarded with the message that cool people don’t think too much, don’t read too much, and for the love of god, don’t play with computers. So why on Earth would anyone create and produce a TV about those things? Because we could.
That was the message of The Screen Savers: Because we could. Why did we take a sledgehammer to a perfectly good computer monitor? Because we could. Also, because the monitor had it coming. Why did we order one of each of the most extravagant, expensive computer components available and use them all to build a monstrously expensive, yet startlingly cool computer, which we then left on the set, just to look at? Because we could, also, because building it taught us more than we would have learned by cutting corners, and we then passed that knowledge on to you. Why did we give away free net cams to every person who registered for an account on our forums? Because we could, and because the show wasn’t just about us, it was about you, and how were you supposed to participate if we didn’t invite you?
I laugh now when I hear the phrase Web 2.0, not because I think it’s an inherently stupid concept (it isn’t), but because back when Web 1.0 was barely in its adolescence, The Screen Savers was already pushing the envelope, stretching that bitch at the seams and wanting more. So we created TV 2.0, in which you were part of the show, and even if you never called in, never logged in or sent in an email, watching other people do so, you knew that you could. You knew that we cared. Because we did. It was all for you. Yes, we were having the fucking time of our lives, but we were doing it for you, because we’d been there on the other end of that TV screen thinking nobody understood why these things were so important to us, and we knew how lonely it could be. And we wanted you to know you weren’t alone.
That, in a nutshell, was the essence of The Screen Savers, and, in a way, TechTV as a whole. Although at some point along the way most of the rest of the network forgot what we were supposed to be doing. And then, later on, we forgot, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
It’s true I spent most of my last year at TechTV sitting at my desk with my head in my hands, wondering where it all went wrong, but my first year at TechTV was phenomenal. In fact, my first year at TechTV was the first year of TechTV. The company had started as ZDTV, as in Ziff Davis TV, named after the publishing company which had helped kick start the thing. Many of the executives, in fact, were print magazine people who’d decided they knew how to run a TV network. They were largely wrong, but we’ll get to that.
After I interviewed for the job, they kept me waiting around for three weeks before they hired me so they wouldn’t have to re-file all of my paperwork under the new letterhead. I spent three weeks slumming in a friend’s apartment, wishing I had enough money to do something, and riding the BART around in circles, going nowhere, just for the experience of it. My very first day on the job was the very first day after Paul Allen’s purchase of the network became official, and the name was changed to TechTV. I was officially the first person hired by the “new” company. I was TechTV Employee Number One.
Part Three: Limo Tours
My first few months at TechTV went by in a blur. I rented a room in an apartment in the only place I could afford, which was about 30 miles north of the city in a town called Novato. I lived in a three-room duplex owned by a young lady who’d inherited the place and who spent the majority of her time in an ecstasy haze. She had one of the rooms. The other was rented by a guy who claimed he was saving up to enter the police academy to become a CHiP. He also said he wanted to become a Navy SEAL. He also said when he became a CHiP, he wouldn’t pull me over for speeding if he saw me speeding because he’d have better things to do. Like studying to become a SEAL. I caught him once outside my door, listening. I moved away from there as soon as I could.
The stress of having left everything I knew behind and having to adapt to a whole new existence, full of previously unimaginable cultural differences was, in a word, extreme, but I was, for the first time in a long time, responsible only for myself. My time was my own, and I spent it being a twenty-something manboy, doing what twenty-something manboys do: playing games and tinkering with my PC. I spent my very first TechTV paycheck at Wal-Mart, on two new pairs of jeans, a handful of shirts and as many videogames as I could cram into my shopping cart, and rediscovered the joy of having very few cares in the world. The feeling wasn’t destined to last.
My days at the TechTV offices were a whirlwind of activity. I made friends, discovered the fun places to eat, learned the company’s systems, hung out with TV stars and learned a hell of a lot about technology, television and myself. I was working long, hard hours, but somehow it never really felt like work. I often worked late, just because I could, sitting at my desk writing, watching the reruns of the day’s shows on my personal TV (we all had a TV at our desks) and shaking my head in wonder at how far I’d come in such a short amount of time.
Producing a live television show five days a week wasn’t exactly easy, but during that first year, the work felt good and right. It felt like we were working toward something that really mattered, making TV that was useful. The hardest part was struggling with the knowledge that there weren’t very many people who knew we even existed. We were so far up the channel scale that a lot of folks, even if they received the network, hadn’t ever clicked to it.
We never knew exactly how many people were watching our show (the suits held that number close, claiming the exact numbers would only depress us), but we all knew the exact number of people who could potentially watch our show. The “potential audience” number was based on the number of folks who had cable systems that bought TechTV – whether these people subscribed to our tier or not – and was the number we put in all of our literature and bragged about to our families (many of whom didn’t even get the network).
The “potential” was our lifeline. It’s what kept us from losing all hope, and each incremental increase, no matter how slight, was cause for celebration. And we had plenty of celebrations. Booze often flowed like water and the company, drunk on the promise of the Dot Com Boom, never tired of spending venture capital money on entertaining the staff. Still, we could never quite shake the feeling that, in spite of the huge “potential” we were just shouting into a void. The on-location handshake events cured us of that feeling.
Our role at the handshake events was to appear famous in front of the local cable company executives, so that they would then order TechTV or maybe rejigger the network into a higher tier, and therefore increase the potential, or maybe the actual. The hosts would spend the day signing autographs and shaking hands at the local mall, and then at night they’d have a fancy dinner with one of our marketing folks and the aforementioned executives. They were sales meetings writ large, with a dash of star power.
At one event in St. Louis we rode a limo from our hotel to the local CompUSA where we were supposed to set up for the autograph signing. I made the mistake of exiting the limo ahead of the hosts. The crowd roared when my feet emerged, and feel eerily silent when the rest of my body followed. I stood politely to one side as the hosts made their entrances and the adoration resumed.
We may not have been a “hit” show by any reasonable standard, but we were doing something people enjoyed and could identify with. In St. Louis I met people from all over the United States, some who’d traveled hundreds of miles just for an autograph. It’s easy, sitting in an office in the most technologically aware city on the planet, to forget who you’re really talking to. Folks in the Bay Area tend to leave their humanity on the other side of the bridge and lose touch with what’s really important to the people they pretend to serve.
The folks who lined up outside the CompUSA in St. Louis weren’t into technology because they didn’t have anything else to do. They were into it because they had too much else to do. For us, the worship of technology was a way of life, for them it was a way out of life. There’s a fundamental difference between these two mindsets and the audience can tell when you’re not aware of that fact. We were, and instead of showing them how many fancy toys we could collect, we showed them how to use the toys they already owned to make their lives more efficient, more interesting and more fun. The Screen Savers wasn’t a parade of gadgetry so much as a festival of knowledge, and every single day we shared a bit of information that might help someone, somewhere, become happier in their existence.
As a result, of all the shows at TechTV, we consistently had the highest ratings. And that’s exactly what caused us so much trouble.
Part Four: Meet the New Boss
The Screen Savers, and our sister show, Call for Help, had been created to take up as little space and use as few resources as possible, so that, if we were lucky, the powers that be would forget we were even there and we could soldier on doing our own thing until “something happened.” And for a while this worked exactly as planned.
Unfortunately, no matter how much money the network threw at shows like Paul Allen’s pet music show, AudioFile, and the “round the clock” technology news program Tech Live, nobody watched, and by 2001, the network was getting desperate. Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures was backing the organization, and there was a sense that he expected results – yesterday. That AudioFile bombed so spectacularly (in spite of spending more money in a few months than most shows spent in a year), and was based off his idea, didn’t help maters. So after a year or so of trying things and failing, and continually watching the two little shows produced out of the back hallway kick their asses, the powers that be did the only thing they could have reasonably been expected to do: They took over.
I can only assume they felt as if their jobs were on the line, and taking charge of the one show that had any legs was their way of securing their positions. It’s entirely possible I’m projecting my own anxieties here, and that their intentions were pure and these folks genuinely wanted the network to succeed and thought that by throwing their resources behind the one show that was actually doing well, they could make it do even better and break through into a whole new market, securing money hats and good, long futures in television for all of us. It’s possible. But I know these people. When you talk to most of them, “altruist” isn’t the first word that pops into your head. And having lived through the aftermath of their decision to “become involved” the only conclusion I can reach is that they were misguided and incompetent.
Another problem facing TechTV at this time was the spectacular stock market crash of 2000. San Francisco had been a boom town for a few years prior to 2000, when tech stocks were overvalued and everyone with a little seed money was buying warehouse space to turn into dot com company live/work lofts. In 2000 everything seemed possible. I could sit at my desk, emailing people all over the world, downloading free music from Napster, buying books from Amazon and ordering lunch from Kozmo.com, which would be hand delivered via bicycle courier, right to my door. (Later on, and before Kozmo went bust, I was ordering antacids to go with my ham and brie sandwiches.)
It seemed like anything we could imagine, we could make happen, and there was always someone hanging around with venture capital money to throw at whatever hare brained scheme the crazy kids on San Francisco came up with. The problem, as I see it, was that a few folks had made stupid amounts of money with dot coms, and everyone wanted a piece, but only a few had any idea how to tell a viable business plan from the inevitable copycat crap that follows in the wake of such events. What’s truly remarkable is it never occurred to anyone this situation couldn’t last.
When everyone came to their senses in late 2000, all hell broke loose. Stocks crashed, companies closed, and we, who’d positioned ourselves to be the multimedia empire astride the surging wave, found ourselves without a wave to ride. All entertainment media suffered to some degree, as advertising, which had endured a tremendous surge in prior years, suddenly crashed. But we had it worse than others; we weren’t just operating a television network, we had an Internet presence to support as well, and there just wasn’t enough money left to pay everyone.
Hundreds of people were laid off that year, although none from The Screen Savers. Our low production costs allowed us to fly under the radar, but eventually someone realized that, even after the layoffs and the advertising bust and the market crash, this little show in the corner was still coming on strong. Even though the tech speculation market had suffered, people still had technology in their homes, and still wanted to know what they could do with it. Most of the shows that had focused on the sexy side of tech (the dot coms, the new products and services and the paper millionaires) had failed, or were failing. Which left only The Screen Savers.
The first decision made by our newly interested leaders was to hire someone from the outside to become our boss. I’m not sure on what planet this seemed like a good idea, either from a business or morale perspective, but it’s what they did. At this time my job was “Line Producer,” and I was in charge of writing a lot of the scripted material, managing the input from our various segment producers and running the live show. I was second in the chain of command at The Screen Savers. Above me was the Series Producer. We’ll call him “Mr. Barbie.”
The company was looking to Los Angles to find someone with television experience to become the show’s new Executive Producer, above Mr. Barbie and myself. We received a memo informing us of this fact. A few weeks later we got another memo telling us he’d arrived in San Francisco and asking if we could all stop what we were doing and go help him move his furniture. I refused the invitation.
Our new boss turned out to be a semi-washed up freelance producer who’d most recently produced a couple of comedy specials for HBO, and had at one time been an associate producer for the Tonight Show. We’ll call him “Mr. George.” Mr. George never let us forget his experience with the Tonight Show. If I could have back the minutes and hours I spent sitting in production meetings listening to him tell us “how Johnny Carson did it,” I’d probably have a lot more hair.
One of Mr. George’s favorite pastimes was regaling us with stories of Carson’s Secret Bar. Turns out there was a bar behind the set, which someone (in television, it’s always “someone”) was in charge of keeping stocked. One of Mr. George’s jobs was to ask visiting guests what they drank so that “someone” could get it for them. Ahh, television. Still, as much as I resented the man’s presence, he certainly had a lot more experience producing television than any of us did, and we were, in many ways, lucky to have him.
Unfortunately, for as much as he knew about TV, Mr. George knew absolutely nothing about technology. It was scary, in fact, how little he knew. Imagine how much your grandmother knows about computers. That’s how much he knew. Less, perhaps. Staff members regularly spent hours each day helping him work his Palm Pilot, or use various programs. These were people who were supposed to be producing television, but instead, they served as his personal IT department.
We had a guy working for us at that time named Yoshi (I shit you not), and he was a genius at tearing shit apart and rebuilding it, Million Dollar Man-style, better faster and smarter than before. At one point Yoshi took a regular PC case, built a PC into and then filled it with the ripped out innards of an Xbox, a PS2 and a GameCube, so that you could play games on all four platforms without having to leave your chair. He was a genius and I admired him. Mr. George, on the other hand, treated him like a tool.
Mr. George started taking Yoshi to his house after hours to work on his home computer setup. Mr. George offered him money, but Yoshi, wisely, refused. Yoshi was later able to parlay his acquiescence into a nice raise and a virtual bullet-proof vest at TechTV, so perhaps it was worth it. Me? The first time I was asked to “help Mr. George” I pretended I’d never seen a computer problem as complex as his, and begged off to, you know, go back to doing my job. I’m sure this is when Mr. George started thinking less of me, if for no other reason than that, if I didn’t know anything about computers, why was I producing a show about them? But seeing as voicing such a concern would have been ludicrously hypocritical, he declined to out me and simply started giving me dirty looks.
Mr. George’s first order of business (after conscripting the tech heads), was to scour every nook and cranny of the TechTV offices for women. Particularly those with large breasts. We were then asked to set up a camera on the studio during off hours and run these girls through screen tests. I don’t remember much about these screen tests except that there was a lot of line flubbing, more than a little giggling and that Mr. George wanted to make sure the camera was getting their tits. The girls who could read from a prompter and smile at the same time were given a free pass to pseudo stardom. It was from these sessions that Morgan Webb, Cat Schwartz and Jessica Corbin got their start.
What was once a 60 minute call-in show became, in Mr. George’s words, “a 90 minute technology variety show.” The first things out the window were the netcam network, the call-in segments and the emails. In their place we ran segments starring the aforementioned attractive women giving Windows tips, Yoshi getting shot with a Taser and a young kid named Kevin Rose showing us how technology could be hip and cool and not just for losers.
It was as if we’d suddenly decided we needed to apologize for what we were, and what we were interested in. And by asking you to accept our apology, we were telling you that you needed to apologize, too. In a few short weeks, everything we’d worked for was turned on its head and we were reduced from a program that genuinely supported, respected and listened its audience to just another show that insulted while attempting to entertain.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against women with breasts, or flashy fluff segments or, even, necessarily, attempting to show what’s cool about technology. What offended me about the direction we were taking the program was not that these elements existed. They had existed all along. The original co-host of The Screen Savers was, after all, a woman, who was not unattractive. She also, however, had extensive knowledge of PCs and operating systems. We had also, from time to time, screwed around with pure fluff pieces, but we never allowed them to overpower the core stricture of the show: Giving you information you could use in a way that wasn’t insulting. That was the key. There were plenty of channels where you could find mindless, insulting TV. We assumed, if you bothered to find our network, you wanted more.
After Mr. George arrived, that assumption went out the window, and our respect for the audience (and ourselves) went right out with it. It was, in other words, a coup. We lost control of our show to the people who’d secretly thought we were all bunch of geeks all along. They then spent the next few years forgetting to keep that opinion secret, until at some point the attitude leaked out onto the screen and the network was sold to G4 where no one could tell the difference.
Part Five: Someone Do Something
Since leaving TechTV I’ve met numerous people whose experiences with the network and The Screen Savers either began after the period I’m describing here, or encompassed it, and who didn’t feel quite the same negativity I’ve described. In fact, quite a few people I know were still enjoying The Screen Savers well after I left the program, and all have varying opinions as to when the program jumped the shark.
I feel it necessary to note that I have the utmost respect for the people who continued to produce the program after I left, and I have no doubt they tried their best to make their Screen Savers the best Screen Savers. And judging from how many of the people I left behind have gone on to lucrative careers in media and technology, I can’t really argue they didn’t know what they were talking about.
Still, the Screen Savers they inherited was not what we originally set out to create. Was so far removed from it, in fact, that I still wish, to this day, the name had changed along with everything else. I realize this makes me sound like something of a purist, and it’s possible I am. It’s possible The Screen Savers as created by Leo and produced by Mr. Barbie and myself wasn’t capable of generating the popularity necessary to keep it alive and needed an infusion of marketability from someone like Mr. George.
It’s also possible that, as with all transitions of power, I was simply swept up in a tumultuous period in the show’s history which smoothed out considerably after a time, and of which I absorbed the brunt, owing to my unique position in the organization. Judging from what I’ve been told of the days that followed my departure, this may be the most likely scenario.
Nevertheless, I look back on 2001 as a year of intense pain and although I’d only been running The Screen Savers for a relatively short time before Mr. George came aboard, I felt as if The Screen Savers was the program I’d been born to produce, and took every change to that show as an insult to both my professional pride and my sense of duty to our core audience.
I understand the show, in its reformed state, eventually found a new, larger audience, and I was very proud for whatever part I played in that, and pleased for the people who’d worked so hard to make that happen. But that show was not The Screen Savers. Not to me. That it would eventually become the lame, insulting program sold to the G4 network and renamed Attack of the Show was as inevitable as Morgan, Cat and Sarah appearing in Playboy.
A lot of what we ended up producing under Mr. George was actually pretty creative and fun, and initially we were all flush with the opportunity to strut our stuff for a (potentially) larger audience. The House Call segments, for example, came about during this time, I believe as an extension of Mr. George’s technical ineptitude. Someone, at some point, realized it was kind of entertaining to watch this line of folks going into and out of his office to help work his computer, and decided doing that with actual, real people might be entertaining. It was, and House Call became one of our most successful segments. At one point, we even House Called Wil Wheaton.
Many of the changes, however, were less popular – at least with the cast and crew. Our new establishing shot of the two hosts at their desk, for example, was frequently shot over the shoulder of one of the new female cast members or another, with the curve of her breast taking focus. In the control room, we took to calling this “the tit shot.” Resident comedians Martin Sargent and Scott Harriott were also brought on to “lighten the mood,” frequently to provide low-brow counterpoint to highly-technical segments. And less and less time was given to comments and questions from our at-home audience. Instead, people were brought in off the street to serve as our “studio audience,” many of whom, since the show wasn’t yet available in San Francisco, had never heard of our show.
More personal to me, however, were the show’s organizational changes. When Mr. George came on, I went from being second in command to being third, and my boss, who’d previously had free reign to produce the show as he saw fit, suddenly had someone over his shoulder telling him how things would be done. I can’t imagine how stressful that must have been for him. His position had been usurped, in other words, and he suddenly found himself with no actual responsibilities. He responded the same way the network’s executives had when they, too, felt threatened: He started blindly reaching for ways to justify his position, which, in this case, meant meddling in my responsibilities.
The following months became an exploration of how far Mr. Barbie and Mr. George combined could push me toward a heart attack. Before Mr. George came on, Mr. Barbie had developed the habit of leaving the office just before air time and watching the show from the comfort of his own home while I did the dirty work in the studio. Mr. George did not operate that way.
Mr. George set up a desk right on the studio floor, behind the camera. He would sit at this desk and yell at the hosts (on air), heckling and goading them, laughing at their jokes and oohing and ahhing at what he deemed were the appropriate moments. He also had a red phone installed (I shit you not, an actual red phone) that wired directly from his desk to mine in the control room. He would call me when he saw something he didn’t understand, or if he disagreed with a camera shot, and insist that “someone” do something.
A little background on live TV: In the control room, the director watched feed from each of the three cameras and had a direct voice connection to the floor manager and all of the camermen (as well as a few other folks). As producer, I had the same links, but only used them when I needed an immediate action and didn’t have time to relay through the director. This didn’t happen often, but it did happen. Mainly I let her run her crew and only interjected when absolutely necessary. What I spent most of my time doing was whispering to the hosts, keeping time, and ensuring the producers were getting their shit done readying props and guests for segments and setting up satellite feeds.
The director and I sat in front of over two dozen miniature television screens, each one displaying a different piece of information. In addition, we had about a dozen people each talking to us over the intercom system, all giving us vital pieces of the puzzle we were to assemble, live, with no chance of a do-over. If you’ve never been inside a live television control room, imagine the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, then magnify the intensity by about twelve. That’s live TV. Most people don’t last very long in this environment. Those who do tend to drink a lot.
“Why’d we take that shot,” Mr. George would say over the phone.
“The one she just did.”
“Mr. George, the phone rang six shots ago, and when you asked, that was three shots ago. At this point, we’ve had eight different shots since we started talking. Can you be more specific?”
“Tell her I don’t like it when she does that.”
“OK, Mr. George. I’ll tell her.”
“And have someone send me out a Perrier.”
Ten minutes later, the phone would ring again.
“She did it again. Did you talk to her?”
“Mr. George, we’re kind of busy producing the show. Maybe we can talk about this later?”
“I don’t like that shot.”
“Can you get someone to fix that?”
The red phone went through a wall after about a month or two. It was never replaced. The entire staff thanked me.
Eventually we reached a kind of equilibrium. Yes, the people upstairs were still doing their best to make the show as lousy as most of the rest of the shows on the network, and yes, I had all stopped really believing in what I was doing. But I’d fallen into the trap of getting used to how bad it was. I wasn’t producing the show I wanted to produce, but I were still producing a show, and as bad, as stressful and as nonsensical as it was, there were still worse jobs.
I started drinking a lot and stopped really caring about myself or my life. I had allowed myself to get stuck doing something I no longer believed in, working for people I didn’t respect. I had always said I wouldn’t let that happen to me, but there I was, and it was happening. Every day I died a little inside remembering what I’d given up to take the job, and how much of myself I’d left in Texas. I’d wake up each morning at around 5am, spend an hour and a half driving across the Bay Bridge, 10 or 12 in the office and studio, another one and a half back over the bridge, then pass out in front of my PC, playing a game to relax. I lived with someone at the time, although I rarely saw her. I’m pretty sure she was as miserable as I was, but for different reasons. After several months of this existence, I couldn’t imagine how things could possibly get worse.
And then they did.
Part Six: Austin, We Have a Problem
Mr. George wanted to do a show in Austin, TX. It was to be the first in a series of shows called “The Screen Savers on the Road,” pre-recorded shows we’d shoot on location, in front of our adoring fans, and then cut together back at the studio. For Austin, we’d planned a House Call, an interview with Warren Spector and a wedding. Yes, a wedding. No, really, a wedding. Someone, somewhere, decided they wanted to get married on stage with The Screen Savers. And then this person convinced his bride-to-be to go along with it. I met them. Seriously, these people existed. They seemed like nice people and all, but still … on TV. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Anyway, we had a lot planned. It wasn’t our first time going on location. The previous year we’d done a live shoot in Las Vegas, from the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. For that show we had a dedicated crew from the studio, two satellite vans (a sewer exploded underneath the first one) and over a dozens of producers. We teamed up with the group from Fresh Gear, the gadget show, for the shots, but The Screen Savers team did most of the production work. Our director directed and I did the line producing and wrote the majority of the scripts. I remember quite a few late nights at the Luxor with Pat Norton, tweaking the script, smoking cigarettes and wishing we were dead. Thinking back on that time, I remember it was awesome, terrible, terrifying and agonizing all at once. I think this is how soldiers feel.
In spite of all the help, the Vegas show was a monstrous undertaking to do a studio show on the road. It was one of the most complex productions I’ve ever been a part of. If memory serves, we had over a hundred people with us on that trip, and we couldn’t have gotten by without any one of them. For Austin, we’d planned to take around 10.
For some reason, Mr. Barbie had convinced Mr. George we didn’t need much of a crew for Austin. He wanted to do it all “in-house.” Perhaps to prove we didn’t need the network, or perhaps because he’d been cut out of a lot of the decision making when we were in Vegas, and wanted a chance to prove he could run something – anything – in front of his new leash holder. He forgot, of course, that we needed the studio crew every day to man the studio positions and keep the lights on, but these were the kinds of daily idiocies we endured at The Screen Savers in the years of Mr. George and Mr. Barbie.
The show was set in the ballroom of a hotel. I believe it was a Hyatt. As Line Producer, I was ostensibly responsible running this thing, meaning when the cameras started rolling I’d have intimate knowledge of every set-up and segment, and be able to walk the crew, producers and hosts through what they were expected to do. I was also, as the show’s writer, in charge of penning whatever scripts would be required. Mr. Barbie was on pre-production duties, meaning lining up all of the above. Post-production would be handed off to the studio editors when we returned
I wasn’t privy to any of Mr. Barbie’s pre-production decisions save for one: the purchase of my plane ticket. For some reason Mr. Barbie booked me on a flight scheduled to arrive in Austin a day and a half later than everyone else, and a mere two hours before the show was to begin. I’m not sure what his exact reasons for doing this were. I think he intended to either a) sideline me to ensure production credit for the show was solely his own, or b) keep me out of the loop just long enough for me to not realize how horrendously the shoot was going to go, then pin it all on me to get rid of me. Neither happened, however, so I can’t say for sure what the real plan was.
When I got my plane ticket I started looking into other decisions Mr. Barbie had made, and came to the conclusion that this shoot was going to be a disaster. I frantically persuaded Mr. George to override Mr. Barbie’s decision and authorize a flight for me the same day as everyone else so that I could begin doing some damage control. I still arrived late, but about 12 hours sooner than I would have. It wasn’t enough. The only thing I accomplished was drawing attention to how much of a cluster fuck this operation had become, but even that was largely futile. We were there and we had to do it anyway, no matter how ill-prepared we were.
The segment producers did some Herculean work lining up interviews and organizing the wedding (I still can’t believe someone agreed to get married on The Screen Savers), but the glue that should have been there to hold it all together just wasn’t there. The result was the worst production I’ve ever been a part of in my life. Those three or so days took about ten years off my life. After returning to San Francisco, I ended up in the hospital from a stress-related illness from which I’ve never fully recovered. What’s worse, someone had broken into my car at the company garage to steal a single dollar bill and a half pack of cigarettes. I’d paid over $300 a month for that parking space. My first apartment cost less, but yet, that apartment was never broken into. There’s a universal truth here, but it’s escaping me.
Nothing ultimately came of the Austin fiasco. Mr. Barbie and I both kept our jobs and I continued to get special project production assignments, but the tapes were shown once, then never spoken of, and we never tried to go on location again. I confronted Mr. Barbie about the screwing over he’d tried to hand me as we were packing up the set for the return journey. He asked me to take possession of the tapes and I refused. He asked me if I respected him, and I lied, and said I did. We yelled at each other a bit, but communicated nothing. He said he’d made a mistake and apologized and that was the last time we ever spoke of the episode.
Every time I think about this exchange I can’t help wishing I could go back and rewrite portions of it. I was 26 at the time, and not as wise as I thought I was. I thought the important parts of the conversation were meaningless and the irrelevant parts, all-important. I was so angry I failed to recognize that Mr. Barbie was genuinely opening up to me. By asking me if I respected him, he was revealing a hidden part of himself and offering me a genuine apology. I could have connected with the man right then and there and probably resolved a lot of our differences. I chose to hurt him instead, and our relationship never recovered.
Part Seven: Anecdotal Evidence
In digging through my hard drives, looking for anecdotes from this period in my life, I’ve found a couple of interesting documents that give a little insight into the world of producing The Screen Savers. The first is a sample show format document I drew up in April of 2002. I believe this document was used as a training tool, and was never a part of The Screen Savers production materials.
It gives a good look at what kind of show we were producing in 2001, and where our priorities were at. Notice how many “live calls” are indicated in the script. These were segments of time we’d set aside for answering calls from viewers over the phone or the Netcam Network. Under the previous regime we’d field about six or eight calls per 60 minute show. Under Mr. George, although the actual show length had increased by 30 minutes, the number of live calls was cut in half, and these were frequently used as “buffers” to be jettisoned if the previous segment ran over.
The second document I found is a report I wrote after the Austin shoot. I honestly can’t recall if I ever handed it to my superiors. I didn’t even remember writing it until I found the document on an old hard drive a few days ago. The format it was in leads me to believe I’d intended to post it on the website at some point, but I obviously didn’t do that.
I suspect I merely wrote this to let off some steam, in which case, this is the first time it’s been read by anyone other than myself. In re-reading it, I think it gives a fairly accurate perspective of the Austin shoot, as well as my state of mind at the time. It’s clear, at any rate, I thought very highly of myself, and was highly insulted by the way things went in Austin.
Here is the document in its entirety:
What I learned from The Screen Savers on the Road in Austin
or ‘Why we’ll do better next time, sirs”
By: Russ Pitts, Line Producer
First off, let me state that it was widely professed and believed by everyone going into this that Austin would be a learning experience, and due to the late planning and limited budget, our show produced in Austin would not be representative of our eventual goal for the On the Road series.
That said, here is what went wrong from my perspective…
1. I was misinformed as to what my actual responsibilities were going to be on this project, and initially I wasn’t given enough time to prepare, nor to fulfill my duties in Austin.
During the initial planning stages, I had been told that I would have a very small part in the production of Austin OTR, and that I didn’t need to worry about any of the planning.
On Wednesday May 9 (barely 24 hours before the actual production was set to begin), I was informed that I would be responsible for helping to co-ordinate our production efforts, writing and producing wraps, and line producing the on-stage demos and coordinating the shoot with the rest of the production staff.
To make matters worse, I was initially scheduled to be flying into Austin with the second wave of our team, arriving late Friday afternoon (May 11) about two hours before the start of shooting.
Thankfully I was allowed to change my schedule, and I flew in with the rest of the team on Thursday. I feel that this change allowed me the bare minimum of time and preparation I needed to fulfill my function on this trip. I believe that had I been given more than 24 hours to prepare for this production, I might have achieved further insights, and been more valuable to the effort.
2. We got stuck with a lousy crew.
I’ve worked with more than a few lousy crews in Texas, and when I was initially told who we would be working with in Austin, Mr. George and I both did some research and Mr. George’s contacts had nothing but good things to report about our production crew. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up working with that crew.
The people we used were the usual unmotivated, under-trained bunch of louts that are commonly found working in Texas.
My sister could have lit a better show (and I don’t even have a sister).
The lighting designer that we were sent was not even a professional lighting designer. He was one of the camera guys, who maybe had a few hours experience plugging in lights. (He wasn’t even a very good cameraman.) The instruments themselves were a poor choice for this gig. We were sent 6 Arri Fresnels and 4 1k Mole Richardsons. Bringing the grand total to 10 key lights and 0 floods.
We had enough lights to key light every position, but we had no fill lights at all. To fill in the gaps, the lighting “guy” flooded out the Arris, and diffused the fuck out of them, which only served to make the entire stage too hot to look at without wincing. I worked with him for an hour (of our shooting time) on Friday to get a halfway decent light scheme. What you see on the tape is the best that he (with minimal experience) and I (with almost a decade of theatrical lighting and a couple of full fledged gaffer credits to my name) could achieve with the lousy instruments we had.
In the future, I would recommend a slightly better quality selection of key lights, and at least half a dozen fill lights (like the marvelous Lowell Tota that we use on the set of TSS).
The Truck Engineer was a disappointment.
The engineer is responsible for maintaining the equipment on the truck, and monitoring the performance of all of the broadcast and recording systems. This guy, Corey, was great at the first part, and lousy at the second.
He worked very hard to give us the setup we needed inside the truck, including ripping an entire console apart to provide me with an IFB panel at the Producer station. This led me to believe that we could count on him.
I was wrong.
He failed to correctly synch the feed from the two scan converters on the stage. As a result, our ISO tapes from the scan converters came out jittery. This means we lost all of our isolated computer screen shots, and Ken had to replace them in post.
During the shoot, I was told that there was a problem with the scan converters. I stopped the show to wait for the problem to be fixed. After we lost almost an hour of our shooting time to the repair effort, I was told (by the engineer) that the problem had been fixed. What I saw from my station looked clean. I believed the problem to be fixed.
The problem, obviously, had not been fixed.
He also screwed up the shading. The cameras were never correctly shaded, thus, on a few shots we get different colors on one camera, than on another. I noticed this problem on Friday, and I stopped the show to wait for it to be fixed. After we lost more time, I was told that the problem had been fixed, and to my eye, it had been.
I later learned that it hadn’t been fixed properly, and that the engineer was just “guessing”.
He also screwed up the time codes on most of the tapes, and failed to record a good portion of one of our shooting sessions on the ISO tapes.
I could have run a better camera hung over and arthritic.
Perhaps an exaggeration, but our camera crew (including the lighting “guy”) were poor substitutes for professional cameramen.
They missed shots, and failed to give us the angles and ISOs we needed to cut the show. Maybe they weren’t properly prepared or informed of our expectations, but good cameramen who can think on their feet would have saved our show, and they aren’t that hard to come by. They’re just more expensive.
The Stage Manager was the worst I’ve ever worked with.
She was lousy at pointing talent to camera, and didn’t even try to do anything else. Nothing. That was all she did. Except for when she gave one of our shooting scripts to a fan in the middle of a shoot. That was a classic moment.
3. Someone forgot to order a stage.
Most of our (brief) setup time was lost waiting for the “borrowed” stage to show up, then modifying it to fit our needs. Which it never actually did. It was too tall, and too large for the space.
4. We were not given enough time to produce a quality show.
Eight hours of shooting time, divided into two-hour chunks spread over a day and a half was not enough time to shoot what we needed to shoot. We’re lucky we got what we did, and we wouldn’t have even gotten that if not for the hustle of our own team.
In addition, our lack of adequate setup time, and lousy crew and equipment caused us to forfeit close to half of our precious eight hours dealing with the above mentioned equipment difficulties, and last-minute improvisations.
It would have been nice to have the option of stopping to re-tape a segment, or see what we got on tape before continuing. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time. What you see was produced “as live” because there was no time to stop, or re-shoot.
In closing let me say this. I’ve worked on a lot of guerilla shoots, and improvised my way through more than one assignment (CES comes to mind) in my brief, but varied multimedia career.
I can honestly say that Austin OTR was the most frustrating production I’ve worked on to date. We were given a unicycle, and asked to pedal up a mountain with an elephant on our backs. It wasn’t pretty, and we all lost a lot of sleep (and some are still losing it), but we got there.
Next time please let us have the tools and the time to do it right.
Thank you for your time.
Part Eight: The Writer
Shortly after Austin, it was determined The Screen Savers needed a full time writer. To this point I’d been handling almost all of the writing for the show, including bump outs (“After the break, Patrick takes a sledgehammer to a computer monitor!”), opens (“Welcome back to The Screen Savers. Today we’re doing what many of you at home only wish you could do, and we’re doing it because we can: Taking a sledgehammer to a computer monitor!”) and all the various scripted moments that help a live television show keep time and flow as smoothly as possible. But in addition, I wrote jokes.
At the beginning of each show the hosts would deliver a monologue of technology-related jokes, riffing off the daily news, just like the late night talk show hosts do. To write this monologue each day, I’d start scanning the daily tech news each morning, and then periodically pen a joke throughout the day as they occurred to me. Mr. George, reminding us of his experience on the Tonight Show, told us he wanted someone working on these jokes all day, every day, because that’s how Johnny did it. Johnny had a room full of writers writing jokes for him, according to Mr. George, and out of the dozens of jokes written for him each day, he’d always take the absolute worst ones so he could put his “edge” on them. That was what Mr. George wanted for The Screen Savers: someone to write bad jokes Leo and Pat could put an “edge” on. Apparently, mine weren’t bad enough.
It was suggested I may be able to move into the writer position full time and spend all of my day writing jokes instead of the few minutes I had between other duties. I wasn’t sure how spending more time on something would make it worse, but I went with it. It was, after all, how Johnny did it. It would also allow me to hand off the line producing and running of the live production to someone else, which would have been fine with me. My stomach lining was already starting to rue the decision to go into live television production. Getting back to writing full time sounded like a fine idea.
After a few weeks of repeatedly asking when I could transition to my new job, I was told to expect an announcement “soon.” The next day I met Larson, the new writer.
Larson was a friend of Mr. George’s from L.A. They’d worked on a movie or something together. Larson wasn’t a bad guy, really, but there just wasn’t any way he and I were going to get along. Especially after I was asked to help train him.
See, Larson didn’t understand technology either, but he was hired to write a monologue for a technology show. I’m sure in some “wheels within wheels” way this decision made sense, but I couldn’t figure it out. Perhaps it was a sure-fire guarantee that we’d get “Johnny style” bad jokes, although the most likely explanation was Mr. George was concerned someone may try to slip acid into his coffee, and was trying to staff the show with friends to stave off that fateful day.
I feel the need to note here that Mr. George wasn’t completely heartless. Although he did sweep in and take control of The Screen Savers in a very “Roosevelt storming San Juan Hill” kind of way, to hear Larson tell it, that’s what he read he should do in some book about management. Mr. George had apparently been terrified of the prospect of having to take over someone else’s show, and came on as strong as he could at first, mainly out of a desire to avoid confrontation. After the initial assault, he lightened up considerably, and while still not the ideal producer for our particular show, wasn’t an entirely bad boss.
I remember walking with Mr. George one day, as we were on our way to lunch. He’d asked me to lunch, in fact, because he was concerned about me. In typical twenty-something year old, idiot fashion I’d been taking every opportunity to throw Mr. Barbie’s horrendous mistakes from Austin in his face, and Mr.George was tired of it. He wisely suggested I knock it off. He told me that, while what I was saying may be true, saying it didn’t make Mr. Barbie look any less professional, it made me look less professional. It took me a long time to understand the truth of that.
Mr. George then asked me if I was OK. Not idly, like you would with the guy at the coffee shop, but sincerely, because he cared. It’s possible he only cared so far as my lack of being OK may have jeopardized the relative OKness of his show, but still, he cared.
He talked to me about stress and how to deal with it. He suggested I begin jogging or something, or pick up a hobby that didn’t involve sitting at a computer or drinking. I didn’t listen. I was too far gone at this point, and the idea that someone I personally resented could help me in any way just wouldn’t take hold. I wish I had talked to him, opened up to him and really listened to his advice, but instead I half-listened, smiled and nodded. Mr. George was a wise, caring man, and although I still believe I had good reason to dislike him, I also believe I didn’t give him enough of a chance. Which, naturally, made me resent him even more.
Larson wasn’t helping. I remember having a few laughs with him, and thinking maybe I could consider thinking of him as a friend. We’d eat lunch occasionally, and walking the long blocks to a decent place to eat, we’d talk about our hopes, our dreams and our favorite cars. Larson was into Toyotas, as odd as that sounds. At the time, I was considering buying a new Accord.
One day we went with the whole production staff. There were about ten or twelve of us at the time. There was a place a few blocks over that had a kind of retro-astronaut-tiki-lounge vibe to it, and they served a fantastic salad with walnuts and apples which, with my increasingly unsettling stomach ailments, was about the only thing I could keep down anymore.
After lunch, there was some sort of disagreement over the check. Someone thought someone else wasn’t paying their share of the tip. I didn’t really care who was right or wrong, and it didn’t look likely the two parties would reconcile, so I paid the difference out of my own pocket and asked them each to consider I’d done them a favor, and thank me instead of insulting each other. I’m not sure if the act really smoothed the waters between them, but it did cease the argument so we could all go back to work, which was good enough for me.
On the way back, Larson couldn’t stop talking about it. He was astounded at what I’d done. Not only because I’d given up some of my own money when I didn’t really have to, but because I did it just so two other people could get along. Their disagreement upset me, so I acted. For me, it was just that simple. But to him it was an act of strangeness surpassing all experience. He must have asked me a hundred times why I’d do something like that, and I didn’t really have an answer for him.
Larson was assigned a cubicle across the aisle from mine, so I’d be close at hand for him if he needed me. He’d try to run jokes by me from time to time, but none of them were even remotely funny. Comedy writing isn’t really an incremental process; it’s either on or it isn’t. And Larson’s writing wasn’t. Not for The Screen Savers. He was trying to make jokes about things he didn’t understand, and in the end, resorted to bodily function humor more often than not. Whatever works, I suppose, but you can only hear “Napster was in the news today … FARTJOKE” so many times before you start to lose faith.
Part of me had hoped “the L.A. writer” was going to work out. I’d never worked with someone who’d done movies, and, although I resented being pushed aside, I thought maybe I could learn something or be inspired. But there was very little inspiring about Larson. It wasn’t long before I was spending entire days studiously ignoring his piercing gaze, turning up my music so I could pretend not to hear him. Just when I was starting to feel guilty about that, he was gone.
Part Nine: The Day the Planes Stopped Flying
The tumult of the previous months had pretty much subsided, the show was continuing to gain audience (slowly) and the executive branch had decided to stop meddling and leave Mr. George alone to produce the show as he saw fit. This wouldn’t last, but it was a pleasant respite. And having Mr. George in place meant we had an extra buffer between us and the folks at the top – always a good thing. Incredibly, Mr. George even started sticking up for us, trusting our instincts and letting us do what we’d come to TechTV to do in the first place. I won’t go so far as to say he acknowledged his lack of experience in producing television about technology, but he did acknowledge our relative experience, so that, at least, was something.
It seemed, for a time, that everything had fallen into place. Not the best place, but a place. Something we could all work with, at least. And really, as I’ve since learned, that’s usually all one can ask for.
Tech stocks were still low, but had stabilized, and the news department was much relieved. They’d received a famous order very early in the organization of Tech Live not to report any “negative” tech news. Ours, according to the suits, was to be an uplifting channel, where we glorified technology, and to report on the negative aspects ran counter to that mission.
Unfortunately, in late 200, early 2001, there was no “uplifting” tech news. Companies were shutting down, people were getting laid off (including many of our own), advertising had dried up and there was practically no money left to dump into tech. What money there had been, it seemed, was mostly illusory, channeled out of the financial ether by overvaluation at the Stock Exchange. Those tasked with having to find something good to say every day for the previous year had had a hard life indeed. Eventually the order was altered to allow them to report on “mildly” bad news, but when actual good news started to roll in you could practically hear the lines around their eyes shrinking.
And they weren’t the only ones experiencing a rebirth. After Larson’s spluttering failure, I was asked to take over as head writer. Hilariously, Mr. George, who was neither a writer nor a “tech fan” asked to vet my monologues each day to make sure I knew what I was doing. I would walk into his office (or wait outside if he was meeting with someone) every day at a certain time and then spend the next half hour explaining to him why something was funny. Sometimes he got my jokes, sometimes he didn’t, and I would have to go back to the drawing board or talk one of the hosts into vouching for me. Occasionally I’d leave my best material at my desk and then slip it into the script right before it went to the TelePrompter.
In spite of the lunacy of having to prove I could handle a job I’d been solicited to train someone else to do in the first place, I’d discovered a new well of happiness. I even got a raise. In the entire, sad spectacle that was my career at TechTV, this was a single, shining moment during which I felt I’d finally gotten everything I deserved.
The Screen Savers was still neutered, and I still didn’t believe in the new direction, but I was the Head Writer of a fucking television show, dammit. Not just a producer who also wrote, an actual goddamn Head fucking Writer. I went to work, wrote, then came home. I wrote all day and got paid for it. It was, again, the realization of a dream. By that time I’d stopped trying to keep track of dreams that had come true, or slipped away, or been snatched form my grasp, but this was one I felt I could put in the damn bank. And then somebody flew a goddamn plane into a motherfucking building.
I’d developed a sort of birthday tradition by this time, if you can call something you’ve done once or twice a tradition. Seeing as my birthday is on December 24th, and most things that are fun to do are hard, or impossible, to get to on December 24th, I’d decided seeing a movie on my birthday was a good thing to start doing each year. And, as luck would have it, a truly excellent series of movies was slated to come out around the holidays.
We’d been following progress on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy for a while at The Screen Savers. We’d gather around the set computers and watch trailers, speculate about how awesome the movies would be and then watch more of the trailers. It was a simple existence, but we were happy.
When the movies came out, they were everything we’d hoped they would be and more. It was as if someone had reached inside my head and scraped out my internal film of the books and planted it on the screen. I’d never been so entranced, nor, unfortunately, so full of sadness. The joyful buoyancy with which I’d expected to greet the first of the three films had, since September of 2001, turned to grim determination. It was as if I expected the film to be the magic potion turning all that was once wrong right once again. Sadly, it was not so.
Although the film was wonderful, watching it was not a joyous experience. Neither was it defiant, or buoyantly neutral, the way a lot of escapism can be. Watching “Fellowship of the Ring” on my birthday in December of 2001 was an utterly sad, devastating experience. The film chronicled the beginning of a long, tortuous journey of redemption, and, although striking beautiful and periodically uplifting, portrayed moments of intensely moving sacrifice, companionship and betrayal. In effect, the very best and worst humanity has to offer. At a time when I was devoutly questioning my own humanity, as well as that of others, it was a crippling emotional jolt. I don’t remember much of the film from that viewing, but I do remember I had tears in my eyes for almost the entire showing.
On the eleventh of September, 2001, three months prior, I woke up, as usual, at about 5am. I took a shower, got dressed, made breakfast and coffee, then sat down to start reading the morning tech news so I could spend my whole (fucking!) day writing jokes and scripts. My internet connection was working, but none of the tech sites I wanted would come up. I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t experienced a single Internet outage since I’d installed the “always on” @home cable internet a few months prior. What I didn’t know at the time was the tubes were all jammed with people trying to find out what the hell was going on in New York, and a lot of the computers that might have told them had been vaporized.
After trying and failing to get most of my favorite sites to load, I looked up Slashdot, saw a headline about a plane flying into the World Trade Center, and then the phone rang. It was my mother. She told me to turn on the television. I did and we watched the second plane hit the second tower together. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to her, although she was over a thousand miles away.
After we got off the phone I sat down on the couch, where I remained, watching CNN, curled in a blanket and trying in vain to make sound come out of my mouth for several hours. I felt as if I should be screaming, but I wasn’t. I’m not sure I could have. I spent two full days on that couch, staring at the television, waiting for some sense this wasn’t actually happening, but nothing came. I don’t remember eating, but I’m sure I must have. At one point a friend came over and we watched together, but neither of us said a word. He left a few hours later, but I’m not sure I noticed.
I lived on Alameda, just a short distance from the airport in Oakland. I hadn’t realized I’d taken the constant sound of jet airplanes landing and taking off for granted, but by the end of the second day after the towers fell, the second day the skies were empty, the second day of silence, I realized I missed that sound. I realized I’d depended on it to tell me things were right and good and OK.
As I looked up into the sky on that second day and could hear the sound of boats in the bay, a sound I’d never heard from my apartment before, I realized things were not alright. Things were very much not alright. And I was afraid.
Part Ten: The Terrorists Have Won
We didn’t produce a live show for days. Very few people were willing to go into the office after 9/11, and I was one of them. There was talk the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Bay Bridge or the Trans America Pyramid building had all been targets, and no one in their right mind wanted to be anywhere near those structures, much less in or on them.
Glued to CNN that horrible day, we’d seen live images of people (those poor people) falling to their deaths from 80 stories up because they’d had the misfortune of going into work on the wrong day. If they’d had a choice, none of them would have gone to work that day, and so long as there was a chance it could happen again, neither would I.
After a while, however, this defiant stand made less and less sense. Not if I wasn’t willing to go all the way with it and check out completely, and I wasn’t – not yet. So after a few days of getting up late, sitting in front of the TV and weeping, I relented. Incredibly, on the very first day I braved the bridge to cross into the city, a FedEx plane headed into SFO missed its landing and had to veer up, over the bay, over the bridge, missing the span – and my car – by an incredibly slim margin. Traffic stopped and so did my heart. The next day I took the ferry.
Going back was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but not just because I was afraid. Suddenly the thing that had meant the most to me for almost two years meant absolutely nothing. I went through, at that time, what a lot of other entertainers and producers were also going through. How could we justify making stupid jokes, or in my case, television about hackers and computers, when the whole world had turned completely upside down? What was the value in silly entertainment when someone had come onto our soil, for the first time in almost two hundred years, and started a war?
I considered joining the army. I considered volunteering for the Peace Corps. I considered selling everything I owned and dropping off the grid. Nothing made sense anymore. This wasn’t supposed to happen here. We were supposed to be safe here. The world may be crazy, but America is safe. That’s what they told us, that’s what they promised and that’s what we fucking paid our taxes for. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did.
It took a long time for it all to make sense, and I’m not entirely sure it ever has. I guess I’ve just gotten used to it. Slowly, we came to our senses and relearned our place in the world. Entertainment may be a small thing, but it’s an important thing. People need it. And while making a silly show about technology may not be as immediately important as running into burning buildings to save the helpless, people need us all the same. And when we’re not around, they miss us. They sent us emails and letters telling us so, begging us to come back. So we did.
We tried at first to be relevant to the situation. We ran a segment with one of the engineers who designed the World Trade Center explaining how and why the structures had collapsed. We took calls from people who’d lost family and friends. We tried not to make jokes. But after a while, just like everyone else, we started letting things fall back to normal. Within a few weeks, it was almost as if nothing had happened. Almost.
I was still having a hard time. Even before 9/11 I was questioning my choices and my place at TechTV. Having the rug pulled so thoroughly out from under my feet only accentuated these misgivings, making me feel even more displaced. Strangely, though, the dislocation gave me a sort of purpose. I felt that if I wasn’t going along, then I needn’t be concerned about getting along. And if I wasn’t concerned about getting along, I could finally be honest with everyone – including myself. So I was. Believe me when I tell you there are very few experiences more profound than opening that kind of door.
Once I looked deep inside myself I discovered I really wasn’t happy. I discovered I didn’t like my job, didn’t like many of my coworkers and really didn’t like working in television. I also discovered I’d been too afraid of having to deal with the fallout of this realization to face it. I realized I’d gotten used to having money and buying myself things. I was afraid to go back to being poor, afraid I didn’t have the skills to take another job and afraid that, if I didn’t work on The Screen Savers, people wouldn’t like me. I discovered I’d allowed greed and insecurity and fear to rule my life, and when I realized that, I was pissed. I didn’t think I’d ever been so pissed. Once again, I’d underestimated the depth of my own misery.
As October 11th approached, word began to spread about a mass tribute to the people who had lost their lives in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. Those who couldn’t make it to any organized event were encouraged to simply walk outside with a candle. The idea, I suppose, was that people would encounter each other on the street, as they used to do, away from their televisions and computers, and perhaps rediscover the bonds that once held neighbors together into neighborhoods, before we all allowed ourselves to be swallowed by the comfortable confines of our living room cocoons.
I asked Mr. George if we could take the show “dark” that day and run a previously aired episode instead. I told him I wanted to be alone and to commemorate the occasion by attempting to come to terms with it, then walk outside my apartment at the designated hour with a candle and see if I discovered enlightenment. I told him some others might feel the same. He told me he thought I was insane. Looking back, I’m not sure if he was wrong.
“The best thing we can do,” he said, echoing the President, “is keep working as if nothing happened. If we start taking days off because we’re sad, the terrorists have won.” He actually said this. I shit you not.
I returned to my desk and after a few minutes decided I didn’t care what he thought. I turned on my computer to write an email.
I wrote that I would be taking October 11th off to commemorate the tragedy and to mourn the people who had died. I apologized that I wouldn’t be around to write jokes that day, but offered to write a few extra the day before. I suggested (vaguely) that some might not understand the necessity of spending a day in solitude on such an occasion, but that we all must grieve in our own ways, and asked that I be excused to grieve in mine. I addressed the email to the entire staff of The Screen Savers and pressed send.
The response was immediate: silence. It was as if I’d thrown a live fish onto the table at a production meeting and then that fish stood up on its tailfins and recited Shakespeare. I don’t think anyone had witnessed such an open act of defiance at TechTV in a very long time, certainly not since the last round of layoffs, and I believe the mood could have been most correctly characterized as “panicked.”
Mr. George replied within minutes. He assured the entire staff that time off would be allowed anyone who wished to take a day of mourning. He wrote that he understood we had all been under a great deal of strain. He asked us all to take a moment on October 11th, whether we came in to work or not, to remember those who had died, and wished us all God speed in finding the strength to allow our lives to return to normal.
It was a complete reversal. By bringing the conversation into the open I had backed him into a corner and forced him to recapitulate. I’d flung a tiny stone into the air, and with the power of words forced Goliath to his knees. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intoxicated by the feeling.
A few months later I gave my notice. I’d planned to leave on the exact two year anniversary of my arrival, but I was convinced to stay a while longer to ease the transition. My last day at TechTV was therefore February 19th, 2002. It’s one of the few dates I can always remember.
Part Eleven: The Rosy-Fingered Dawn
I was again asked to train my replacement, but this time it was Megan Morrone, whom I adored, and I was doing it on my terms, so I didn’t mind. She didn’t take much coaching, which was great because I didn’t feel like doing much of it. Unlike Larson, Megan had a pretty good grasp of why technology was interesting and what about it was humorous. I don’t actually recall having to help her much.
Instead I sat at my desk for two weeks without anything of substance to do, save wipe my hard drive of personal files and write a 500 word farewell email telling my former employers to go fuck themselves. For years afterward, my colleagues would refer to this email as “The Eagle Semen Email.”
On February 19th, I wore my cowboy hat to work. I spent the entire day at my desk, surfing the internet, checking my drawers for stray personal items and searching for the perfect noun; a noun that would encapsulate my intense distaste for what my job had become, but at the same time sound so ridiculous to anyone reading it that it might, in spite of the ire it conveyed, just might cause people to smile. As my final parting gift, I felt I owed TechTV nothing less.
That afternoon, after the rest of the staff had relocated to the studio, I spent a few brief moments in the Human Resources office giving my exit interview, detailing everything that had happened to me over the past two years, everything I’ve printed in this story and more, and returned to my desk in the now-empty office, thought once more about which noun to choose, picked one and sent the finished, perfect email to “all.”
I ran into a few stragglers on my way out the door, who, having read the email, unanimously proclaimed me their hero. Patrick Norton read it at some point during the live broadcast, and, seeing me in the crowd backstage, pulled me in front of the cameras as the credits rolled, cowboy hat and all, to take a final bow. I felt triumphant. I felt, again, as if I’d slain the giant with nothing more than a few well-chosen, well placed words. I felt like I’d proven the pen was, in fact, mightier than the sword. And perhaps I did. Perhaps the email I wrote was so spectacularly rebellious it started a revolution. Perhaps that’s why people still talk about it.
After the show, my former coworkers took me out for a good, happy drunk then deposited me, via the bed of Patrick’s truck, to where my car was parked and I foolishly drove myself home. I remember little of this drive, save explaining to my passenger, (that brave, poor soul), that “I never crashed,” and he needn’t worry. Somebody had given me a purple, helium-filled mylar balloon that said something like “Good Luck!” on it and which I’d somehow retained while getting drunk and being tossed into cars. I took it home with me and set it in a corner. The helium lasted about two weeks. A week after that I was gone. That was six years ago.
In 2004 the TechTV network was purchased by Comcast and merged with G4, the videogame channel. The Screen Savers was transitioned over to the new network, minus its two most notable hosts (Leo had already departed the show and Patrick decided not to make the move to Los Angeles) and most of the producers and other staff members were laid off, save for a couple of notable exceptions. Mr. George and Mr. Barbie not among them. The G4 version of The Screen Savers premiered with Sarah and Kevin and some guy I never met as hosts, and was eventually renamed “Attack of the Show.” I’ve never seen this program, but I hear it’s less satisfying in almost every way.
I moved to Boston, changed my name and started a new career. I even got married, but neither career nor marriage lasted long. I thought I’d be able to outrun my past, or at least leave it behind for a while, but I couldn’t. Some things are a part of you, and The Screen Savers is definitely a part of me. I can’t hide from what I did there any more than I can hide from myself. I’ve tried to do both over the years, both foolishly and unsuccessfully.
The Eagle Semen Email was posted to a website called fuckedcompany.com almost as soon as I wrote it, where it became fairly popular among their forum goers, and made the rounds until it Salon.com did a story about it, using it, and me, as an example of interesting ways to use email. The person who wrote that story was my first boss at TechTV, but he left some time before I did. He did not leave amicably.
Although it’s entertaining to be able to say “I’m famous on the internet,” an email like The Eagle Semen Email can make life difficult for the person who wrote it. I’ve been asked about it frequently, mostly by perspective employers, and I know they’re always thinking “will he write an email like that about us?”
I don’t think I could. The person who wrote that email was afraid and insecure and incapable of taking responsibility for his mistakes. He was young, not as smart as he thought he was and in way over his head. I am not that person, but in living with him, living with his mistakes, I’ve learned a great deal. I’m still not perfect, but I’m willing to own my past, and hopefully become a better person for that.
I won’t deny there were people I worked with at TechTV who could have behaved better, worked better, listened better or spoken better, but I can’t honestly say I wasn’t one of them. I’ve resisted telling this story because I knew that to do so, to begin casting blame for all that went wrong, would be to invite recriminations against myself, and not unjustly. But I realize now that to not write this story would be the same as pretending it never happened, and as much as I may have wanted to do that over the years, I know that and neglecting this period of my life would mean neglecting a large part of what makes me who I am. Who I am now is the product of all I’ve done before, and I know that I’ve learned as much, if not more, from my mistakes as I’ll ever learn from my triumphs, even though I may have been confused over which is which from time to time. I also know that surviving is a triumph of its own.
The Eagle Semen Email
To whom it may concern (i.e. friends and co-workers);
Boy how these past two years have flown by! It seems like only seven hundred and forty-five days since I first walked through these doors.
Then, I was a relatively inexperienced young man, fresh off the bridge, with dreams of breaking into the fast, glittering world of Technology Television. Now, as you all are probably aware, I couldn’t care less if the entire building spontaneously filled with eagle semen.
But the journey, my friends, has been worth its weight in gold. Or at least the gold-like stuff they use to make that crappy jewelry sold at Wal-Mart.
I’ve accomplished a lot since I’ve been here. (See my attached resume and list of major and minor accomplishments in chronological order, if you don’t believe me.) And the number of valuable items I’ve found lying around in your cubicles and near the restroom has made me moderately wealthy. Speaking of which, I think I left my tooth extractor on the counter in the 5th floor men’s room. If anyone sees it, please let me know.
Looking back over all I’ve done here at TechTV, I truly don’t think any of it would have been as mediocre as it was without the constant discouragement, confusion, and the droning, incessant obnoxiousness of you, my fellow employees. Many the rosy-fingered dawn has found me kneeling in front of the toilet, vomiting forth my meager breakfast at the thought of walking through these doors yet one more time. Hours of endless, blinding agony would be preferable to me now than sitting in this dreary cubicle, staring at this pathetic, little screen and listening to your chattering, useless voices one more day.
My addiction to painkillers made enduring this torment possible for a while, and I was able to lose myself in the warm numbness of narcotic-induced tranquility. Unfortunately it didn’t last. Hordes of imbeciles shouting obscenities about needing more rules and calling more meetings and demanding that someone tell them what to do slowly invaded my dreams, and something inside of me finally snapped. Thankfully, it was just my senses returning, and I was suddenly able to see, once again, that all of this corporate crap is meaningless, and that the most important things in life don’t come with a title, nor do they happen in a cubicle.
To those of you who have made my life more difficult than a trip through the outer rings of hell, I offer my most insincere thanks for your apathy, selfishness, whining and neglect. I would hope that someday you will find happiness, but I doubt you ever will. Some of you, though, have actually tried to be considerate, and have helped me in innumerable ways. To you, I can only say that you probably don’t belong here, and you should get out while you can.