Yesterday, while nursing a mild hangover brought on by my reckless quarantine red wine intake, I found myself fondling myself in the middle of a 14-person ZOOM business meeting.
Ohhh boy. Hang on… Let’s analyze this for what it is…
The team I am currently working with was all in pajamas, hats and glasses – sporting unkempt beards and yelling at their kids to stop interrupting their video calls. Our hair had been laid to waste by weeks of barber shop closure. The ladies passed on their morning makeup and contact lenses for more natural headbands and eyeglasses… Others had pets jumping around living rooms and husbands yelling about burnt toast from other rooms… and one guy did not mute his video microphone when he yelled, “FUCK OFF I’M ON THE PHONE” at his six-year-old.
I understand. These are tough times.
Anyway, as we were discussing a podcast I am currently working on for our company – I noticed that for a good majority of the meeting I had been sort of… playing with my penis beneath the camera lens.
Yeah. Not sure why I was doing it, it was just one of those “personal moments” where I probably was up way too early, taking advantage of my comfortable sweatpants and recovering from some weird dream where I fantasized about maybe LEAVING my house during the day… I wasn’t focused on the meeting at all, in fact I was muted (thankfully) and just sort of having one of those “moments” that I’m sure we have all had recently… I wouldn’t call it a weakness, necessarily – it’s just a need to FEEL SOMETHING.
After realizing what I was doing, I quickly discontinued my Zoom video stream claiming I had a “parent-teacher conference” and did 25 push-ups.
During this quarantine, like most fathers, I have two kids in my house fighting over bandwidth and laptops and TV and all I want to do is watch The Last Dance on ESPN and drink until I pass out and somehow do some sort of coherent podcast episode the next day.
Whatever the case, those preceding paragraphs you just read were all I have managed to come up in regards to my short stories… The thing is – I am not that concerned. Why? Well, look… I used to be a pretty prolific short story writer. I have published (Online) over 250 stores since about 2001. But recently, I just haven’t felt the passion… I mean, I HAVE been writing, but it’s not like I really have any actual ‘put together’ or ‘completed’ short stories as of yet… but in my mind they are coming. At least I think they are… Well, maybe.
What I have really been writing somewhat prolifically are TITLES to stories I would love to write should this quarantine ever end …and I ever feel like putting the written word out to the public again.
Now, my old writing professors would have asked me why I haven’t been writing and finishing these short stories… Of course they would have been asking me that question in the 90’s when people still paid for the written word… But the answer is mainly – for one – that nobody cares or gives a shit about anything but survival right now. Also? in reality, every time I post a new story it hits the internet and about 500-1000 people read it. Maybe 40 of those readers comment on it and tell me how great it is and then nothing happens until I get a cease and desist lawsuit threatening to sue me for $900 because I used a photo of a mushroom that I borrowed off of Google Images in a blog post. (Yes, this is true. A company tracked me down, demanded $900 and threatened further legal proceedings for using an image of a fucking image that some Danish photographer took in the first in 1998. )
This was before quarantine, when I had maybe $750 in the bank. I never paid the company. I’m now guessing that Covid-19 furloughed those cockroaches back to the unemployment line where they now search for answers to explain to the Government how they worked as Soul Sucking Jizz Stains for living… and now they need a bail out.
They’re probably asking for $20 million, like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse received. (By the way – maybe Ruth’s Chris will spend some of that money to change the horrible name of their restaurant. I mean what is a “Ruth’s Chris?” It sounds like a toothless kid asking for her teeth back on Christmas Day. “All I want for Ruth’s Chris is my Two Front Teeth…“)
Look, I consider myself very lucky. In my life – writing has actually worked for me on occasion. I recently optioned one of my short stories as a screenplay to a pretty fantastic independent film company… but in the end it ended up resulting in two years of work on a film that never got made, which is really what you hear in Hollywood all the time, but I’m not upset about that- I’ve been in this business a long time. I mean listen… The first script I wrote in college was called Wedding Crashers. It had been read by a lot of people, but when the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn film came out I had my first taste of “What-the-fuck-is-this-town?”
Another time, a website that published first person essays offered me $250 for a story about the Great Wolf Lodge that I still feel is the funniest thing I have ever written … The thing was, they told me to cut 400 words out of it. I told them to fuck off and retained my rights to the story. By the way? A grand total of 47 people commented on that post.
But fuck it, it’s a new world, a new normal… whatever the fuck this is. I’ve been busy writing scripts for podcast comedies, jokes for projects and animated sitcoms that may never see the light of day. But, as I said – I have also been writing titles for a book of QUARANTINE ESSAYS…
And as of today – here is my working list of titles.
…And Other Quarantine Essays by ZACH SELWYN
“I Thought I had Enough Booze for Three Weeks… I Said on Day Four.”
“I Dunno, a Wife Swap Might Not be the WORST Idea, and other Reasons I’m Sleeping on the Couch…”
“Don’t Trim Your Toenails While Inebriated.”
“My Conspiracy Theory Friend Explains it All”
“My son is 13. We had “the talk.” It wasn’t about sex or pregnancy…. It was about “How to hide your porn history using private browsing.” #NewNormal”
“Divorce on Pause… One Friend’s Living Hell Awaiting a Legal Separation”
“Why am I Googling My Exes?”
“Finding’ a Jerkin Window… an Impossible Task”
“I’m Committing Suicide, Dad… And Other Things I heard When the WiFi went Out.”
“Fuck if I get Sick. I’m Going to the Store for Beer and Easter Candy… One Dad’s Adventure.”
“Alexa, Play Anything but Ed Sheeran.”
“My Kid Goes to School on the Same Laptop I Googled ‘Hot Girl Gets Blasted by Stepdad’ on Yesterday.”
“Yeah, it’s a Breakfast Beer… Big Deal…”
Oh…. By the way. I’m Repped by WME.
Reach out if you’re interested in reading the rest of my essay collection…
Zach and Missi Pyle have a new podcast called “Missi and Zach Might Bang!” Exec. Produced by Anna Faris and Sim Sarna of “Anna Faris is Unqualified” – the show takes on celebrity guests, improvisational music and offers entertainment business advice as well! Head to http://www.ewpopfest.com to buy tickets now!!!
11 years ago I covered a $659.48 bill in a Vancouver bar because Jason Momoa had conveniently, “left his wallet at home.”
Aquaman owes me some cash.
All of these Aquaman billboards that are towering all over the country have had me nostalgic for a night, back in 2007, when I had spent the night drinking and hanging out with a young actor named Jason Momoa who was playing “Ronon Dex” on a TV show called Stargate Atlantis.
I had met Jason because I had made and performed a viral “Stargate Atlantis rap video” about how much of a superfan of the TV show I was… (even though I had never seen an episode). The producers then offered me a small role as “Scientist #2” on an upcoming episode of the program and they even flew me up to Vancouver to act in a scene. We also scheduled a “Set visit” for the TV show I was currently on called Attack of the Show.
This whole thing started when my friend Jane, a veteran TV producer, was asked by the Stargate universe to create them a “viral video” for the internet.
This was during a small period of time when TV/Film companies were hiring producers to try and capture lightning in a bottle for the masses by shooting high quality videos that seemed cheap, affordable and easy to digest online… This was WAY before influencers, SoundCloud rappers and Instagram stories… This was before everybody had an iPhone and a high quality camera in their pockets and garage band on their laptops. If you had musical talent and were willing to work for next to nothing, you could get a million views and the respect of the industry in about a week.
I had recently performed and produced a series of comedic rap videos for Attack of the Show – which led to Jane calling me to do a song about Stargate Atlantis as they attempted to develop their online brand.
“Have you ever seen the show?” Jane asked me on the phone one afternoon.
“No, but that won’t matter,” I responded. “Send me the DVD’s and I’ll write a song tonight.”
Her messenger delivered the DVD’s that afternoon. I watched six episodes. By 11 p.m. that night I had written an entire rap song about how much I loved Stargate Atlantis and how, as an actor, my dream was to be on an episode of the show…
Two days later we recorded the rap song with a music producer named Terrace Martin. Yeah, the same Terrace Martin who rolls with Kendrick Lamar. You know that song “Damn?” THAT TERRACE MARTIN. The man is a hip-hop legend. However, back in 2007 he was just another guy trying to make it, like we all were… and his resume included some indie rappers and a couple of songs with Snoop Dogg.
Here’s the Stargate Atlantis song and video we shot while making it…
After this song and video went “nerd viral,” which meant that all the Stargate Atlantis fans went crazy analyzing the lyrics and anointing me the “King of Stargate rap music” – I began receiving hundred of emails and MySpace requests from Stargate fans across the world. They all had names like “Wraith Woman #2” and “Daedulus Dude” and were asking me for my address so they could send me things like Stargate collector’s plates and shit. (I still have these). It was crazy. The fans rivaled Trekkies or the disciples of the Star Wars Universe. I had suddenly been accepted into the tight circles of Stargate fanatics.
The video was spreading and an executive producer on the show held a cast and crew screening and made me an instant celebrity amongst the cast, grips and writers of the show. It was INSANE. A week later they flew me up to Vancouver to play my small role, put me up in a hotel and even PAID me… These are the type of jobs that RARELY come along…
Anyway, I first met Jason Momoa on set the day of my scene, and I watched him train incessantly for some tricky fighting sequence. I interviewed him along with the rest of the cast for my set visit and got along well with everybody. What stood out to me most about Jason was that, whereas the rest of the cast had big, beautiful trailers… Jason had an AirStream trailer from the 1960’s. The other cast had couches, but Jason had removed his and fastened in a hammock instead. The dude was definitely living a different life as a TV star.
After interviewing him, we started talking music and went back to his Airstream where he showed me his 1940’s Gibson acoustic guitar that was worth about $5,000. I played it in awe and dreamt of the day I could play a character like his – a “Satedan,” a member of civilization from the Pegasus Gallery on my own bad ass science fiction TV show… Instead, on the episode that day I was simply playing “Scientist #2,” a character who contracts some disease and had a few throw away lines to Dr. Mckay (played by the hilarious David Hewlett).
By the way, I still get occasional 13 cent residual check in the mail from this role…
After my scene was shot, Jason casually mentioned that he had a day off the next day and wanted to know if I had any interest in getting some beers that night.
“Sure, man,” I said.
That evening we met at the hotel and proceeded to ambush the nightclubs of Vancouver. At first, we met some of his friends for drinks where the bartender refused to charge him anything. A few beers in and we headed over to a dinner spot where a bunch of his friends joined us. The drinks and food flowed and I was amazed at how many people stopped and paid their respects to Jason and his impressive dreadlocks. He was a big time celebrity in town… I just thought he was a cool guy. Then, around 11 p.m. the bill came.
We all sort of stared at it for a long time. And then Jason picked it up. He looked at it, leaned over to me and whispered in my ear.
“Dude, I left my wallet at my place, can you cover this?” He said
“Uhhh, pay me back?” I said, rather scared to look at the total.
“Yeah man, we’ll go to my apartment. I have cash.”
And so, just like that, I put my card down and bought Jason Momoa and his friends a $659.48 dinner.
And then we went to the bar and I bought some more beers. And then some more. And then we stopped at a liquor store on the way home where I picked up some Stella Artois to take back to his place.
I was about $750.00 in the hole at this point.
Momoa’s apartment was sort of like his trailer. He had decorated it with a bunch of his homemade leather furniture, was definitely not a fan of pre-fabricated food and he immediately put on the incredible Tom Waits CD Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.
We drank a few beers and talked about Hollywood, his girlfriend Lisa Bonet and how he had dreams of becoming a “Warrior” in the movies or something… I told him how my dream was to play the Greek Theater in Los Angeles someday. We went back and forth about how the wolf was his spirit animal and mine was the eagle. He showed me his screenplay, which was wrapped in a handmade leather-bound notebook of some sort – and I gave him my band’s new CD Alcoholiday, which he told me he liked. He then gave me a copy of a terrific book called “Hobo” by Eddy Joe Cotton (A MUST READ) and we toasted to our dreams until the early morning.
Around 3 a.m. I called a cab and my night out with Jason Momoa had come to a drunken, blurry end. I stumbled back to my hotel room at the Sutton Place and got into bed… It was then that I realized SHIT. I forgot to ask him for the money from dinner.
The next day my wife called and asked me if I had spent $750.00 on our card, as she was getting “fraud alerts” from the bank.
“Yeah, it’s a long story,” I said. “But I made a cool new friend!”
A few weeks later, the British TV station SKY 1 contacted me about using my Stargate song as a promo to hype the upcoming new season of the show. I agreed and it opened up a brand new fan base across the pond. To this day, the ASCAP residual checks I got from that usage are above and beyond any financial success I have ever experienced.
And somewhere, on an old hard drive of mine, exist about 25 photos of me and Jason hanging on set… in the bars and among the barflies of Vancouver back in 2007. There is also a segment we produced for Attack of the Show on a DVD buried somewhere in my garage, but I ain’t trying to go dig that shit out either… If you have it, internet, feel free to post it.
Jason and I stayed in touch for a few years, texting songs and book recommendations to each other, but once he got more and more successful, our texts stopped and we both fell into busier work and fatherhood. Now, as I see him staring at me from the stage of Saturday Night Live – or from behind his massive Trident on an Aquaman billboard, I feel like he finally became the “warrior” he had told me he wanted to become.
As for me, I haven’t played the Greek Theater yet… But, when I make it there, I’ll perform any song you want to hear…
It was somewhere between Los Angeles and Palm Springs when I found myself helping a woman re-apply bloody gauze to an open wound that had split open due to complications from liposuction in Tijuana.
Moments later, another woman – with a razor blade tattoo on the side of her neck – smacked her 7-year-old son for spilling his Mountain Dew on her iPhone and screamed something at him in Spanish.
Sometime after that, a man with an infant child walked out of the bathroom in the back and promptly dumped a full diaper in the trash bag hanging in the middle of the aisle.
We still had seven and a half hours until we hit Tucson…
Welcome to the Flixbus.
For the past few months, my mom and a bunch of other friends have been raving about a new public transportation service known as “The Flixbus.” For a low price, you can travel on this large “comfortable bus” anywhere you like and select from a great list of pre-chosen movies – and use free WiFi the entire time. I looked it up and it seemed legit. And definitely affordable. A ticket to San Diego from Los Angeles cost $4.99. A ticket to Palm Springs? $6.99… To get to my hometown of Tucson, I was looking at $22.00. Since Southwest Air wanted nearly $400 for two one way plane tickets, I booked my 9-year-old daughter and I on a 12:30 Flixbus to Tucson leaving from downtown LA.
Wanting to beat the crowd, my daughter and I took a Lyft down to the parking lot across from Union Station, right by LA’s famed “Twin Towers Correctional Facilities.” It’s an intimidating spot – heavily populated by at least five bail bond storefronts and street meat hot dog vendors. It’s hard not to take note of family members leaving the bail bond stores, openly weeping about their loved ones having spent the night in jail.
“Are they crying because they have to take the Flixbus too, daddy?” My daughter asked.
“Uhh, no. Whole different situation.”
I promptly took notice of the waiting area and its potential to escalate into a violent “prison yard” type of situation. A woman was walking around selling homemade “street tamales” out of a plastic bag, three 12-year-olds were selling bottles of water and packs of cigarettes and two men with children were openly sharing a blunt in front of their kids. (As would happen, I ended up buying two street tamales and a bottled water, as I had not thought to pack any food for the journey.)
I hadn’t even boarded the bus yet and I was $19 dollars in the hole.
The line to board the bus was non-existent. as Everybody sort of milled about near an area until the ticket conductor shouted out, “Palm Springs, Phoenix and Tucson line up HERE.”
The awaiting pack scrambled immediately. As people got tossed aside and trampled like they were rushing the stage of a Travis Scott show… Elbows were thrown. Space was cleared. Somehow, I managed to grab all of my luggage and scoop up my daughter before she was flattened to death. Sadly, even though we were the third people in the waiting area, we had been easily bullied to the back of the line by the violent mob, which was led by a 6’7” ex-linebacker wearing a baseball cap reading: K.U.S.H. Keeps Us Super High.
My advice? Pay the extra $20 online and get a reserved seat.
Once my daughter and I got on the bus, we noticed that any available seats together had been claimed. Eventually I was forced to convince a man who looked like he had recently been let out of a Texas prison to switch seats with me so that my daughter and I could sit together… He scoffed, kicked the side of the seat and mumbled something under his breath.
“Thank you so much, sir,” I said.
“I run this bus, cocksucker.”
Eventually he moved and we accepted the fact that we were stuck in the last seat in the back of the bus… basically right next to the toilet. And then, minutes before we left, a rather large woman came back and destroyed the bathroom… I nearly vomited. My daughter asked to switch seats. The bus pulled out into traffic.
Nine hours to Tucson.
The first thing people tell you about the Flixbus is that you can watch unlimited movies and surf the web, email, text, whatever you like. As it turns out this is simply not true. After trying for nearly an hour to watch Euphoria on HBO GO, I was alerted repeatedly with notes that I was in a “non-connection zone” and that I was possibly traveling “out of the continental United States.” I switched over to Netflix and was met with much of the same. Incredibly long loading times, spotty streaming and the inability to watch anything. After looking up the Flixbus website, I came across some small type in the “Services” section that read, “Please do not stream Netflix, YouTube or HBO Go on the Flixbus as it slows down everybody’s WiFi speeds and will not load correctly.”
Wow. That would have been nice to know. Oh, also? They DO NOT ALLOW MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS on the bus that are bigger than 12 inches… So unless you’re strictly a harmonica player, forget bringing your acoustic guitar anywhere. (Since I was going to play a gig in Tucson, I now had to rent a guitar from the local music shop).
Anyway, reading deeper, they recommended that passengers watch their curated film selections on the Flixbus app, which were “expertly chosen” and free. I checked it out. The selections were the same as what you’d expect on an airplane: Wonder Park, A Madea Family Funeral and about 9 shitty Melissa McCarthy movies.
Seven hours and 45 minutes to Tucson.
As we rattled over the freeways on the outskirts of Los Angeles, weaving in and out of the carpool lane, I was convinced I was going to die on the Flixbus. My daughter was getting carsick from the bumps and sudden stops and I could not believe that I had chosen this as my best means of transportation to Tucson…
The bus continued to shake from side to side, causing a middle-aged lady across the aisle from me to begin moaning. Like, painfully moaning. And grabbing her sides. Thinking that she may be in labor with a child, I looked over and noticed that she had a freshly dressed wound on the side of her mid-section. At one point, she screamed “Fucking FUCK, can you drive a little slower?”
“Are you OK ma’am?” I asked her, hoping she hadn’t been shot in a bank robbery gone wrong and was using the Flixbus as an escape tool.
“Uggh, yeah – I’m just recovering from plastic surgery,” she said.
“On the Flixbus?” I responded.
“Well, I live in Palm Springs,” she proceeded to tell me. “I went to Mexico for liposuction because it’s like, 75 percent cheaper down there.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “Didn’t you go through some sort of like, recovery first?”
“I’ll be fine once I get to Palm Springs.”
We hit a bump and she made a noise that I have only heard once before in my life back when I witnessed a goat slaughter in a tiny village in Mexico in 2003.
“Oh fuck,” she screamed. “One of my sutures popped – can you just hold your finger here for a second?.”
Shielding my daughter from the horror of this situation, I regrettably leaned over and put pressure on an area of bloodied gauze that had come undone. Eventually, the woman fastened it back together with a clip and thanked me profusely. I excused myself to the bathroom and threw ice cold water on my face.
30 minutes later the ride was smoothing out. Looking out the window I saw the desert approach.
“Folks we are stopping in North Palm Springs in eight minutes,” the driver announced. “We will have time to get refreshments and some air.”
“Thank fucking God,” the bleeding woman said.
We pulled into an AM/PM parking lot in Palm Springs and the lady limped off the bus and met her ride. She waved good-bye to me and sped off into the Palm Springs afternoon. For all I know she bled out on the way home and is dead.
The good news was that 12 passengers got off the bus in Palm Springs. This freed up some seats and we moved a few aisles away from the bathroom. The miles began to roll away and I started to fantasize that I was Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy taking the bus to a new dream, over expansive desert land and into the heart of opportunity. Of course, Jon Voight was heading to New York City in 1968 and I was going to Tucson to visit my mom, but the view sure was pretty.
20 minutes later, I opened up one of my tamales-in-a-bag and gave it a shot. It smelled like some sort of fucking rotting animal. A few passengers looked over at me and covered their faces with blankets and scarves. Acting casual, I took a small bite and chewed for a few seconds before beginning to feel violently ill. I managed to spit the food into a bag and quickly wrapped it up, avoiding the grossed out looks of my fellow Flixbus friends. Luckily, that was exactly the moment when the newborn’s father emerged from the bathroom with the full diaper. He tossed it in the center trash bag and the entire bus groaned and began cursing him out.
“What am I supposed to do?” The dad asked the gallery of hecklers.
“Flush that shit,” the guy in the K.U.S.H. hat suggested.
The driver came on the intercom and reminded everyone that nothing but toilet paper could go down the toilet. The passengers collectively groaned and went back to their devices. At this point, between the tamale and the diaper, the bus was turning toxic. If you lit a match in the thing, there was a strong chance the bus would explode.
Six hours to Tucson.
Our next stop was in Blythe, California, on the Arizona border. Here, we were given a 30 minute lunch period and the only restaurant around for miles was a McDonalds 25 feet away. Assuming this would be my last chance to eat before 9:30 that night, I broke down and ate six Chicken McNuggets and an Oreo McFlurry.
I also called my mom to alert her of our progress.
“How’s the Flixbus?” My mom asked. “Watching any good movies?”
“Well, nothing really works,” I said. “Half the seats don’t have outlets, the WiFi in the desert sucks and they don’t allow streaming… and I refuse to watch Life of the Party. (That’s a terrible Melissa McCarthy movie BTW…)
“What kind of food do they have?” She inquired.
“They don’t have food,” I said.
“What?” She said. “On their website it says you can purchase snacks and stuff from the driver?”
What? Here I was nearly puking street tamales and eating Chicken McNuggets when the driver had food on him the entire time? Why were we not informed of this? I tracked down the driver as he smoked a cigarette and asked him if I could see a menu of the food they offered on board.
“Their aint no menu, mane… We just have some Ruffles and shit.”
Ruffles and shit?
“Come on my man, you don’t have like a Tapas box? My daughter needs some Wiki Stix!”
“This aint Alaska Airlines, mane,” he responded.
Eventually, 100 miles from Phoenix, a college kid broke down and went into the bathroom to vape. He was far from discreet and as a man who once routinely snuck weed to smoke into airplane bathrooms, I viewed his efforts as amateurish. The key to smoking on a bus or airplane is to basically flush the toilet as you exhale with your face nearly in the bowl. Yeah, this is a disgusting activity, but for some reason back in the mid 90’s I had no problem shoving my head inside an airplane toilet. Now I can’t even USE bathrooms on moving vehicles. Anyway, the kid opened the door and a cloud of Watermelon E-Juice enveloped the back area. The kid walked out as if he had done nothing wrong.
The smoke was impossible to miss and even though it dissipated quickly, it really upset the bus driver, who pulled over to the side of I-10 and DEMANDED to know who had smoked on the bus.
My daughter raised her hand to volunteer the information.
“Put your hand down,” I said, knowing that being labeled a “narc” at age 9 doesn’t do anybody any good.
“Who was smoking back here?” The bus driver said. “I demand an answer!”
I expected somebody to speak up… but nobody did. We all held together in a Flixbus code of silence. Shit, we felt like we were in La Cosa Nostra. For the first time on the ride I sensed a camaraderie with my fellow passengers. We all sort of looked at it the same way… If this was a bus in 1957, people would be smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey from flasks. We all had the same thought… Let the kid vape.
Four and a half hours to Tucson.
The rest of the trip went fairly smoothly. I was amazed at how well behaved my daughter was and as the stops piled up, the passengers started getting off. A few people got on in Phoenix and we got to Tucson in roughly nine hours and 30 minutes. To put that in perspective, If you drive directly from LA in a car, you’re guaranteed to spend eight hours on the road and you have to buy gas. If you fly to Tucson from LAX, door to door takes about five hours and 30 minutes. So, I basically lost four hours of my life, had to endure some awful smells and I got to be an impromptu nurse to the woman recovering from plastic surgery.
When we got to my mom’s house, she had food and wine waiting for me and I told her all the fun stories from my 400 mile road trip in a public bus. We laughed, drank and I slept in until 8:30 the next morning when I awoke to my mom freaking out about a dead animal in the walls.
“Zach, some animal died in the wall I called the exterminator already,” she shrieked.
I woke up and smelled what she was talking about. I opened my backpack and found the OTHER street tamale I had forgotten to throw out buried beneath my laptop.
“Found it, mom,” I said.
She made me throw it out in the neighbor’s trash can…
WATCH Zach’s music video for his song “Watch the Horses”…
I am uncomfortably straddling a white folding chair with 40 other people, ages ranging from 21-60 on a 103-degree day in Alta Dena waiting to work as an extra on a network TV show for the day. The pay isn’t terrible – $142.37 – or something like that, plus whatever gargantuan amounts of Craft Service snacks, candy, sodas and mini sandwiches I can shove into my shoulder bag to take home, but the overall feeling is grim. There is some old Greek food suffering beneath a sneeze guard nearby, a lot of discarded banana peels and a large fan blowing cool air towards us to keep us comfortable – like we’re NFL running backs playing a September game in Phoenix.
The scene has a prison-like feel to it. There are the lifers, the newbies and the guys who are only here for a few days trying to get their health insurance. I fall into that last category, but the fear of getting sexually assaulted by one of the older “inmates” is very real. Only problem is I can’t kick anyone’s ass to prove that I’m “tough.” Instead, I choose to bury myself into my iphone and hope the 45% charge lasts another 8 hours.
A year ago I was in New York City promoting my own TV show in Times Square for Tru TV. Now I am listening to a 22-year-old kid talk about how Hot Tub Time Machine is the main reason he dropped out of college to try to make it as an actor. You gotta love this business.
The majority of chatter amongst these “background players” or “atmosphere” is about the world of extras. Many relay the legendary scene in Ben Hur where an extra forgot to take his watch off during the chariot race. (Look it up – it’s hilarious). Others talk about how Ricky Gervais ripped off their idea when he did his Extras TV show. However, the subject that keeps coming up time and time again is the “bump up.” A “bump up” is when an extra is promoted from an extra to a principal role. Suddenly, the lucky bloke can go from zero to hero and earn Screen Actors Guild daily rate. However, according to everyone, incidents like that are more rare than finding a piece of sushi that hasn’t been in the sun for six hours beneath the cast and crew food canopy.
I am here today because I need to make $6300 before the end of the year as a way to qualify for Screen Actors Guild health insurance, a plan I have somehow managed to attain for the past twelve years. This year, however, the jobs dried up, a ton of work went non-union and I have finally aged out of the commercial actor category of “young, shaggy haired beer-drinking party guy.”
At this pay rate, it will take me working nearly every day for three months to earn the necessary SAG income to keep my family on the health plan. Alternative options – Obamacare and Cobra – basically guarantee that I will be paying 75% more money for lesser benefits. It has long been noted that SAG has terrific health care. The problem is that you need to earn an outrageous amount of money to qualify for it, and this year has been an ice bath as far as SAG work has been going.
“My dad was Jimmy Smits’ stand-in on LA Law,” a man named Sonny who was dressed as a Native American jewelry salesman bragged to the lot of us huddled beneath the blue pop-up tent. “He told me to find a niche as an extra. When I started out I only played Latino, only roles were for prisoners or a gang members. Now that I play Native American, I work all the time.”
I suddenly found myself wishing I had some Native American cheekbones.
As the day rolled along, I began to hear everybody’s story. You coop someone up for long enough, they will eventually tell you their life’s narrative. Every extra on set seemed to have a tale about the one legendary time they were “bumped up” to a principal role. One woman claimed she was bumped on Two and a Half Men because Charlie Sheen fired the original woman who had been cast for her one line of “Suck it, Charlie.” A guy who often plays blue-collar types said he got his bump on Dharma and Greg and had his career-defining moment in a bar fight scene when he raised his fists and said, “Meet my two friends… Mary-Kate and Ashley.”
And then there was Sonny, who said he specifically learned the extinct Native American language Kiowa to nab a line in a Civil War series. His line was “D’on T’ap Piii.” Which translates roughly to “See deer eating.”
I stared at Sonny for a long while. He did look familiar, as that Native American guy you sort of see in films, but I wasn’t sure. Which meant he was a great extra. One who blended in. He bragged of his work on The Alamo, Oz, The Longest Yard, Texas Rising, Hatfields and McCoys. Dances With Wolves and of course, That 70’s Show. The way he saw it, he was an integral part of these films. A guy who went uncredited – but felt he deserved all the success.
“There should be an extras lifetime achievement award,” he offered.
As a young actor, I did some extra work at age 22. At the time, like most young dreamers, I thought I was a small break away from my own series and I treated the other kids in the high school dance scene like castaways and future failures. When I started booking some jobs and enjoying the confines of an air-conditioned trailer with a private bathroom, I swore I’d never go back to the extras holding again. Yet, here I was. A 15-year TV veteran with a decent resume that I was too embarrassed to share with the other inmates. I decided to shut up and do my time and maybe get out of there with a few Clif bars and some coconut water.
Then, there was a call to action.
“Peter, Mike, Donna, Marla, Zach – party scene, now!” An Assistant Director yelled at us, directing us towards the makeup department to get touched up.
I put down my phone and walked over to the area, when Donna, one of the younger extras, mentioned that she often worked on the show. She then proceeded to refer to one of the makeup artists as her “glam squad.”
A short, effeminate man named Ty erupted in her face.
“Don’t call me ‘glam,’ don’t call me ‘glam squad’ or I’ll shove this hairbrush up your ass,” he screamed.
Emily, another makeup artist stopped him before any penetration took place. It was surreal. Never in my life had I seen a fight between an extra and a makeup artist. It was like the Cubs-Pirates bench clearing brawl in the National League Wild Card this season. You couldn’t believe it was happening.
It was a major altercation. Apparently, Ty was sent home and Donna was threatening to sue the show for harassment. It didn’t make sense. In my opinion, being called the “glam squad” wasn’t nearly as bad as being referred to as “background” or “ambience.”
My scene was fairly easy. I had to drink some iced tea and mouth the words “peas and carrots” to another extra. The entire time I was placed in the corner of the party and they shot about 9 angles and we let the main actress do six takes before she was happy. As the director stood merely three feet from me, I tried to convince him that a line would be appropriate for my character. I pitched him ““D’on T’ap Piii.”
He didn’t respond. Apparently he didn’t speak Kiowa.
Lunch was at 1:00 and the extras were told to not touch or come near any food until the entire cast and crew had eaten. I was actually quite full from snacking – so I didn’t need to rush, but a lot of the extras bitched and moaned about the lack of respect. I turned to a fellow extra named Tony, who was about my age.
“Why can’t everyone just relax?” I asked him.
“Welcome to the Screen Extras Guild,” he responded.
An hour later, following one of those naps when you fall asleep with your chin in your hand, there was a small rumbling about a potential bump up for one of the extras. Apparently, a producer had seen one of us and wanted to add a line. The bit was that the lucky person would confront the female star of the show – who was wearing a fur jacket – with an uncomfortable long hug and then said, “you feel like a plushie.” All the extras began rehearsing their lines as if this was an audition for the next Coen Brothers film and we all got excited. I even took a walk around the tent and worked on my delivery.
Eventually, the female star and the director came to the extras tent and started looking around at all of us as if we were cattle being sold at a livestock auction. The female actress passed the first few folks, skipped the youngsters and then whispered to her director, “I need a middle-aged schlub.”
I am certainly creeping up on middle age, but I don’t feel like I look that way. I’m in great shape and still have hair and my skin has been hiding from the sun throughout the years as I write my life away. However, I was chosen as one of the three finalists to play “middle-aged schlub.”
We all went and had a private audition with the actress and director. I immediately messed up my hair, raised my jeans to mom-jean height and did my best to look like a total Midwestern chump who would give a hot girl a “long hug” and make her uncomfortable.
“Mmm, you feel like a fluff – wait, what’s the line?” The first guy said, immediately messing up his chances.
“You feel like a plushie,” said the next guy who was 40 pounds heavier and 100% balder than me.
When my turn came, I looked deeply into the actress’ eyes. She stared back at me for about five seconds. I knew this was my job to lose… so I did my best to “eye-bang” her and get the job on the spot. Instead, before I could get my line out, she interrupted me.
“You look like that guy from that Tru TV show,” she said.
“I am that guy!”
“What are you doing in the extras tent?” She replied.
“Trying to get my health insurance,” I said, hoping she would feel my pain and give me the bump up on the spot. I dug deeper into my plea, mentioning that my family had been sick a lot the past year and I was a huge fan of the show.
“You might be too recognizable,” she blurted. “Second guy, you got the job.”
And with that, the fat, bald guy went off to his own folding chair, better food and a holding area behind the video village where the producers and directors hung out.
I returned to my spot in the tent. All the other extras wanted to know what had happened and I told them I relayed the story as best I could. When I mentioned that the female star had said I was “too recognizable” the tent wanted to know why. After all, not one of these folks had any idea who I was. I told them. Nobody had even heard of my show.
“I get recognized all the time,” said Sonny. “People stop me when I walk down the street.”
The rest of the day I watched my phone dwindle down towards the 3% range and eventually die. In a way, I felt like that iphone charge… A year back I was flying high at 100%. Now, I was hanging onto 3.
Before I left, I managed to fill my bag with enough high fructose corn syrup snacks to kill a small village and I hopped into the first awaiting white van that would shuttle us back to the parking lot. Luckily, I ended up in the same row as the female lead actress from earlier.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry about that moment back there… I just recognized you from that other show – I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
“Amazingly, you’re the first person to know me from that like, ever,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what. Give me your manager’s name and I’ll make sure we get you in for a small role this season,” she offered.
I couldn’t believe it. Here she was telling me that she would go out of her way to get me a speaking part on her show. I got her personal email and said I’d be sending my demo reel and headshot over immediately. We exchanged good-byes and I returned my mom jeans to the costume department and signed out for the day.
As I walked to my car, the lead actress shook my hand and said I would be hearing from the production office very soon.