Review of “Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke” by Rob Long, SAU Blog, 5th July 2006

Around the time I wrote this I was partial to insider accounts of film-making, and was favourably impressed with the sheer amount of time wasting this seemed to involve. I was also unfavourably struck by the pomposity of the whole enterprise, a pomposity which seems to have grown since. Where is the irreverence of authors like Rob Long now? Once superhero movies would be roundly mocked, now everyone wants to be in one.  Re-reading this, as well as being struck by Long’s piercing one-liners, I am struck by how much space I devoted to my dislike of the Algonquin Round Table.


Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke
by Rob Long
London: Bloomsbury, 2005
Paperback, £9.99

Falling in love with a writer is a lot like falling in love in the more usual sense. Little things, rarely amenable to rational analysis, decide the matter one way or another. The same goes for deciding that a writer is or is not simpatico. A deft, insightful passage, or clumsy, trite lines, can make the difference one way or another when deciding.

I gave Dorothy Parker every chance. I read, stoney-faced, the supposed witticisms of the Algonquin Round Table (I can imagine few circles of hell more unbearable than that company, with everyone competing, it seems, to say something witty and clever), the verse “a kind of dilution of A. E. Housman and Edna Millay” as Edmund Wilson put it whenever it tries to be more than the light, strained wit of the book reviews.

However, what finally made me fall out of love with Dorothy Parker (not, it should be clear, that I was ever much in love with her in the first place) was a passage quoted in the preface to Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood from a letter to her friend Alexander Woollcott in the late thirties:

Last week the board of directors of Selznick Pictures, Inc. had a conference. The four members of the board sat around a costly table in an enormously furnished room, and each was supplied with a pad of scratch paper and a pencil. After the conference was over, a healthily curious employe [sic] of the company went in to look at those scratch pads.Mr David Selznick had drawn a seven-pointed star; below that, a six-pointed star, and below that again, a row of short vertical lines, like a little picket fence.

Mr John Whitney’s pad had nothing whatever on it.

Dr A. H. Giannini, the noted Californian banker, had written over and over, in a long, neat column, the word “tokas”, which is Yiddish for “arse”.

And Meryan Cooper, the American authority on Technicolor, had printed on the middle of the page, “RIN-TIN-TIN”.

The result of the conference was the announcement that hereafter the company would produce twelve pictures a year, instead of six.

I don’t know, I just that you might like to be assured that Hollywood does not change.

Readers who find this passage hilarious, or even mildly amusing, may be wondering why it marked the moment I definitely decided that Dorothy Parker was actively the kind of writer I don’t like. Perhaps it’s the idiocy of implying a relationship between idle doodles and mental activity – as if a writer’s doodles would be perfect pentameters. Perhaps it’s the pervasive cheapness of the shot. More profoundly, reading Silvester’s entertaining but repetitive compendium of writing on Hollywood, one got tired of this kind of thing. For one thing, a book which devoted 24 gossipy pages to the making of the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra, set against with one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain, can be fairly said to have lost sight of the fact that at times the Hollywood “system” does transmute dross into gold.

Writers writing about writing are bores. Only someone of the genius of Borges could pull it off, and there the interest was more in the metaphysical conceits and the laconic, allusive style. Writers writing about writing are even more boring when they are writing about the difficulties of being a writer. And they are most boring of all when they are writing about the difficulties of being a writer dealing with the philistine plutocrat Hollywood executives. Parker’s plaint seems to exemplify this. My sympathies are with the execs.

Excerpts from Rob Long’s Conversations With My Agent were an oasis in the Silvester book. There was no sense that writers were higher beings, cruelly mistreated by the Neanderthal suits. Writers are not only as avaricious as the money men and women, but in their own way more powerful. Long introduced the Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics (HIPE), the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.

Rob Long is a rare beast, a Hollywood Republican. He contributes to National Review, for starters. Or maybe not that rare a beast – it’s instructive to reflect that the movie stars who successfully achieved elective office – Reagan, Schwarzenegger and Eastwood – were all Republicans (of course, Eastwood’s success was at a much lower level). His conservatism is lightly worn here – a reference to not being a Hillary Clinton supporter (in the context of tickets to a Clinton fundraiser being used as currency in the status-frenzied Hollywood world) and a hilarious description of a meeting of the Writers Guild of America, West. While working writers loathe the idea of a strike:

The non-working writers are a more querulous lot. Freed from the burden of actually having to show up to a job every day, they look to the occasional WGA strike to round out their social calendar, to catch up with old friends on the picket line. And since all writers crave excuses for not writing, what better excuse for being unproductive than a strike? Writing? Not me. I’m honoring my brother and sister scribes! I’m taking part in the labor movement! Lazy? Untalented? Nope. Just committed to social justice.

Unsurprisingly, the WGA is fixated on the Blacklist, described by Long thus:

The Blacklist was, essentially, a list of writers who, because of their affiliation with the Communist party, were unemployable by the major studios. It now functions as a handy excuse for older writers who, because of their incredible lack of talent, were unemployable by the major studios.

Long is bracingly cynical about the writers capacity for self-delusion. This ties in with the more general capacity for self-delusion of the – well, I’ll let you decide which nickname is most just for Hollywood:

Hollywood has two pompous nicknames for itself: “the Business” and “the Industry”. Both names pack an ironic punch: calling it “the Business” must surely elicit a sickly smile from shareholders of the Sony, Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner Corporations, who are probably still waiting for the spending to stop and for the business to begin; while the nickname “the Industry” – with its connotations of industriousness – is equally silly when one considers that the most prevalent activity on any soundstage is the reading of magazines and the eating of pastries.

Having dilated on the boringness of writers complaining about the hardship of being a writer, it may seem hypocritical to claim that reviewing the book is especially difficult. However, one of the occupational hazards of book reviewing is the occasional rave or slam that owes more to the circumstances in which the book was read rather than its own inherent quality. For instance, once I wrote an embarrassingly over-the-top positive review of Gullimero Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, which I enjoyed greatly largely because it was the first non-medical book I had read after a set of exams. I would revise my enthusiasm somewhat (though not completely) now, but there it is in cyberspace, my hysterical overpraise, until the end of time or at least the internet.

Perhaps there was some reason in my own life why I read Set Up, Joke, Set up, Joke straight through in one sitting – which is, after all, for a certain kind of book the most genuine praise a reviewer can bestow – and in a year it will seem much less than what it seems to me now.

I hope not. Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke is greatly enjoyable, and to adapt a horrible cliché of blurb-speak, recommended to those who love reading about Hollywood and all its works and those who hate reading about Hollywood and all its works. The book follows a former bright young television comedy scriptwriter, now a somewhat older television comedy scriptwriter whose ideas have dried up. The rather loose structure of the book is a following of Long and his writing partner through a year and a half of development, as they go through the process of firstly trying to come up with an original idea, then the humiliation of developing material “for talent”:

Which means, simply, that you’re coming up with a show for an actor who the network not only likes but is paying to sit around and be available. The word talent in this context simply means actor and/or actress. It doesn’t mean talented. It is just a noun, interchangeable with the word mammal.

There is a sort of framing device, which involves a series of meetings mimicking the meetings that occur during development, but commenting on the book itself. Invariably, the interchangeable commenting on the book profess to “loving it”, before immediately suggesting radical changes, usually involving the Long figure’s likeability. Long is very good on the pomposity of Hollywood verbiage. Another example from this incredibly quotable book:

So with the star suitably dazzled by flattery and woozy with gold fever, the network searches around for a writer. They’re looking for auspices, which, like most industry terms, is neither accurate nor wholly literate … Hollywood almost always has two or three ways of describing the same job, each imprinted with its own little status DNA. There’s no real difference, for instance, between a cinematographer and a director of photography, except that the former probably gets paid more money. Actors can be described as a wonderful piece of talent, an element, and, at the very top, a creative force. And a television writer is sometimes a unique comic voice, then, if lucky, becomes a writer/producer, which, if everything works out, evolves into a show-runner, until, finally, the six-figure auspices, as in: We will pay a lot for a show produced under that writer’s auspices.

There are serious bits amidst the fun. Most serious is the story of Paul. Paul came to Hollywood a little bit after Rob Long (apparently there is a sort of generational collegiality in Hollywood, with those who came around the same time seeing themselves as classmates of a kind). Over the years they kept in touch, with Long going on to the success of Cheers and his other ventures, and Paul becoming a development executive at a successful film production company. Paul got fired, and went out for a drink with Long:

Getting fired from that kind of job was a rite of passage in a young executive’s life, it seemed to me. We met that night, talked, drank a few beers, and said good night.The next day, he shot himself.

Long reproduces his eulogy, rather touching stuff about letting people know what they mean to one and such:

A week after Paul’s death, I wrote three letters to friends who have been good to me, who are important to me, but who I have never told. They were embarrassing letters to write, and the minute I dropped them into the mailbox, I regretted it. But they were sent.I did these things in honor of Paul. My good friend Paul. A person I never knew.

Then the sucker punch:

It went over pretty well. The writer’s ego in me is impossible to smother, so I was gratified when people came up to me later, after the service, to thank me for my words, and to ask for copies. But a true writer is more than an egomaniac. He’s also a pathological liar. And in my eulogy, I hadn’t told the truth.”What did we talk about that night?” Well, actually, I remembered what we talked about that night. Paul asked me for a job. I told him that I couldn’t give him one.

This is a long way from the Dorothy Parker view of noble, smart writers corrupted by evil business. The writers in Long’s universe are as venal and driven by ego as anyone else in Hollywood, possibly more so.

Television is, as Myles Harris pointed out in the Social Affairs Unit Web Review, pervasive in most of our lives. Those of us who own televisions and who tell ourselves and others that we never watch it can surprise ourselves by reflecting how much time – precious, fleeting, never-to-be-recovered time – is spent in front of the box. Even those who affect to hate it seem to watch an awful lot of it – Long recounts the tale of a prominent television writer who affected to a New York Times interviewer that she never watched. She turned out to possess “an upstairs television”, “a downstairs television” and “a kitchen television”. I actually believe Long, however, when he says that:

I never watch the damn thing either, and certainly never waste my time with anything as awful as Temptation Island. This had less to do with my elevated sensibilities than my all-consuming jealousy. Why turn on the tube – even just to flip around the dial – and run the risk of seeing a show more successful and popular than anything my partner and I have ever written? Or, worse, better than anything my partner and I have ever written?

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