So, there I was, at some nameless coffee shop in Studio City, stalking celebrities sipping my big-gulp-sized no-foam octo-shot two-percent extra-hot white mocha latte when who should walk in but Hollywood TV sitcom writer extraordinaire: Russ Woody.
"Oh my God," I exclaimed, "you're Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner, Russ Woody!"
"Erm...", he said.
"I LOVE your work!" I said. Because that's what you should say to all Hollywood people who are "in the Biz" - not "You're Mad Dash: Underground Detective! I love you!" - never tell them you love them and never ask for their autograph. Just tell them that you love their work and then they'll ask you if they can buy you a coffee.
And here's another tip: always say YES. Even if you're still working on an octo-shot something-or-other, because then you can brag about it later. At ninety-seven verbal miles per hour.
If you didn't already know, Russ Woody has written for (and produced) such TV shows as Murphy Brown (which is how he got his Emmy), Cybill (which is how he got his Golden Globe), Becker, Mad About You, The Drew Carey Show and on and on - you can see it all on his imdb page. He attended high school in my hometown, Sacramento, California, graduating from Bella Vista High in 1974 (if any BV grads want to holla). During his college years, he worked on a show some of you SacTownies may remember called Weeknight, with Harry Martin.
Also? He babysat Stan Atkinson's kids.
I just happened to have finished his recently published novel, The Wheel of Nuldoid.
"Look!" I cried, yanking the novel out of my book bag. "I just happened to have finished your recently published novel, The Wheel of Nuldoid. Hib nobb del noid! Hib nobb del noid!" I may have giggled and unsuccessfully stifled a snort.
He gaped at me. Probably because he didn't remember me from the book signing I obsessed for weeks over had looked forward to. "We met at Time Tested Books in Sacramento. Remember? Remember?"
"I remember," he said, taking a step back.
I pulled out a chair. "Here, sit here with me. I'd love to interview you for my blog."
"Goats and underwear or something?"
"Oh my gosh!" I gushed. "You remember!" You can go ahead and gush. You just can't tell them you love them. Or ask for their autograph.
I looked up at him expectantly, offering up my best rendition of a winning Nanny Goats in Panties smile. His shoulders fell and he said, "Can I buy you a coffee?"
"YES." I said. See how that works?
So while he went to order our coffee, I whipped out my camera. Then I pulled out my handy-dandy digital voice recorder, (you know, just in case I run into a big-time celebrity that agrees to be interviewed for Nanny Goats in Panties), turned it on and barraged him for a couple of hours.
For all you parents of young adults out there, The Wheel of Nuldoid is a fantastic and funny story about a society of quarrelsome creatures who operate the the Wheel of Nuldoid at the center of the earth. The Wheel is responsible for the earth's rotation. A group of young humans stumble upon these creatures and find themselves on an adventure to the center of the earth with a crystal from the surface that is urgently needed to maintain the Wheel of Nuldoid.
Since the story is also one of political and cultural satire, adults can enjoy this book as much as kids. "You can write to kids," says Russ, "but if it's fairly honest in the structure of the comedy, it's funny to both. Like Charlie Chaplin's movies, I love them, my kids love them. I think you can write a lot smarter for kids than people think you can."
The Wheel of Nuldoid is self-published, partly on the advice of his agent and other writers. "You only get something like seven percent of the gross and you often have to pay for your own publicity and you get a pittance up front, unless you're a big name. But if you can garner interest in the first publication, and maybe even a second, then a publisher will know it has some legs and you can get a better deal after that." But he believes that self-publishing is the "wave of the future".
"The stigma of self-publishing is that your book hasn’t gone through editors, but I’ve done a lot of television which would put book writing to shame when it comes to notes. I gave it to a number of harsh readers. The bastards."
He explained that, to him, the book is about dissent. How a functioning society needs dissent. How this country was founded on it and the quarrelsome creatures in the novel represent that dissent.
Then I told him to shut up about the book already and give me some scoop about being a television sitcom writer. I wanted the dirt on Ted Danson, that no-good so-and-so. But all he could tell me about Danson is that he is a sweet guy who befriended Russ's dad when he became ill with ALS (Lou Gehrig's desease). Russ's dad began visiting the set of Becker and Danson came over one day, introduced himself, and at some point began playing with the keyboard that helped Russ's dad communicate when his speech deteriorated. Others, especially men in the cast and crew took great interest in this device and would type out "Fuck", "Shit", "I want to eat your p---y", and other fun-filled phrases.
Russ's dad was also treated to a special side entrance to the set that only Kelsey Grammar and Ted Danson were allowed to use. And at the end of the season, after the last show had wrapped, the cast began chanting "Woody", "Woody", calling Russ's dad over to the set to join them for that season's cast and crew picture. As the group parted to make way for Russ's dad, Russ watched him get waved in to the set's living room couch to be seated between Ted Danson and Hattie Winston. Russ was relegated to the floor with the rest of the staff.
"OK, OK," I said, "so Danson's a nice guy. I get it. What else ya got?" Let me just say right now that when you say "YES" to coffee, you might want to limit that affirmation to a couple of espresso shots per hour. It can make one a little jumpy.
Russ mentioned that when an actor doesn't like a particular joke, they can "tank" it, by speaking in monotone, or "absolutely fuck up the joke. Cybill Shepherd is a name that comes to mind," he said.
I'm not sure what he meant by that, so I tried a different tactic and here's what else came out of his mouth:
On TV Writers in L.A.: "You can throw a rock in any direction and hit a television writer. And then they'll bitch about it if you do."
On David Milch (Deadwood, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue): "Taught at Yale, didn't finish high school. He's one of the most brilliant writers I've seen in my life. Crazy? Great guy, but crazy. When I first met him, he was walking out of his office and I said, "Nice to meet you." and he said, 'Listen, I'm going down to take a piss. I've only got one testicle. Do you want to see it?' And that's just who he is."
On The Wheel of Nuldoid: "Opposites are next to each other on the Wheel, showing just how close genius and insanity are to each other."
How Emmys work when a group wins: "Everybody gets one and they walk you backstage and they're all blank. And then three or four weeks later, they send you the little round piece with your name on it and you just take it apart."
How Golden Globes work when a group wins: "One person gets it. That's the free one. And then it costs $500 [for additional ones] - they sell them to you."
On his awards: "I use it a lot for publicity. I understand why people are enamored with it. Winning those things is fun, but I don't take the idea of winning them very seriously. You do yourself a disservice when that stuff becomes important to you. Some people base their net worth on what kind of car they drive, or how big their house is.... So that's why I had it mounted on the hood of my car."
It was only a matter of time before I got to ask this:
NGIP: Do you like goats, or do their eyes freak you out?
RW: I've never been with a goat, if that's what you're getting at. If I were around a goat, I would try to stay on good terms with it. I did raise a lamb once, when I was a kid. It's name was Frisky. The next time we went to visit Frisky's owners, guess who was for dinner.
I asked him if he had any advice for writers. He spoke of the value of the "vomit draft", where you just get it down as fast as you can without stopping to edit too much. He also tells young comedy writers to "Write the first draft on paper, when you get to a joke, put variance to the joke out to the margins, write it a different way, try alternatives. Come back in an hour or the next day and you can see which one works right away."
By the way, The Wheel of Nuldoid could become a movie someday. Russ has had a couple of meetings with production companies about it already, one of which is very excited about it. One idea that is currently being pitched is for the story to be animated. "For animation, you can sell the story idea, whereas for live action, you need a whole package" (director, actors, etc.).
What’s next for Russ Woody, you ask? You must be a mind reader, because I asked him the very same thing. Maybe YOU should have interviewed him if you're so smart.
After taking some time off to work on the publication and promotion of The Wheel of Nuldoid, he's going back into television. He's mulling over two recently picked-up pilots. One will star Patricia Heaton (of Everybody Loves Raymond) and is similar to the movie, Little Miss Sunshine, and the other show is called Sons of Tucson. He told me that both are single camera shows, which he prefers. Whatever THAT means.
He also wants to revise the book he wrote about his father and get it published. Meanwhile, two other novels in "vomit draft form" are on the back burner waiting for his attention.
We left the coffee shop and in true stalking fashion, I followed him to his house. When he got out of his car, he seemed surprised to see me. I laughed diabolically and told him that I loved him and asked for his autograph and did he have any coffee in the house...
OK, that's not exactly what happened. Upon his invitation, I went to his house to pick up a press kit and while I was there, he showed me a creature of Nuldoid that he was working on...
Then he showed me his personal museum where he houses such memorabilia as John Lennon's glasses...
and Harrison Ford's boots from Raiders of the Lost Ark...
one of FDR's shirts...
some tasteful political memorabilia...
and lots of other stuff that if I showed you any more, I'd have to charge admission.
What a fun tour! And a nice guy.
So, if you're sick of watching your kid open that blasted Harry Potter book again, or if you're sick of having to read it to him, you can get The Wheel of Nuldoid via this link on Amazon.com. Or if you're in the L.A. area, you can get it at Book Soup in Hollywood, or Portrait of a Book Store (inside Aroma Cafe) in Studio City. If you're in the Sacramento area, you can find it at Time Tested Books and Avid Reader.
If you want an autographed copy, you can buy the book through the Wheel of Nuldoid website and request an autographed copy. In other words, it's okay to ask for his autograph and it's okay to tell him you love him.
Epilogue (for those who don't know what's real and what's not...)
FYI: I was yanking your chain about how I met Russ Woody, but I really did interview him and yes, he really did say all that stuff in between the quotation mark thingys.
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