Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Meanwhile, Back at The Ranch…

“It was so quiet in Hollywood you could hear a name drop”  -- Hitchcock quote. Paraphrase

Paul Feig, being the nice guy that he is, holds up my book The Golden Theme.
 Once, after mentioning a famous friend while telling a movie business story, I was asked by a young student how I knew so many cool people. I told her that they were just the guys I started out with and that soon enough her friends would become big-time movie business folks.

This is turning out to be true. She does hang with a talented, hardworking, and smart group and they are starting to come into their own.

You will often hear people say about success that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Well, it’s both. But when people think of the “whos” to know they think of people who have already made it and how they might get to know them. That’s not the way it usually goes down. The people you come up with, those are the “whos” you know.

Over the years, I have seen truth in the saying that water seeks its own level. I have noticed that people of comparable talent and capabilities tend to find each other. The better you strive to be at what you do, the better you will be at attracting people reaching for that same level of excellence. And you will all get better by being in such close proximity–iron sharpens iron.

This has been true in the long history of art. Artists hang out, do nothing together, and, somehow, make art.

Back in 1986 I packed up my car and moved to Los Angeles. Hollywood was waiting for my arrival–or so I imagined. My joke at the time was that I was going to get to know Spielberg so well that when asked about him I would say, “That guy gets on my nerves sometimes.” I have yet to meet the man.

When I got to Los Angeles I was lucky enough to stay with a hometown friend by the name of Todd Masters. At the time he was starting his career and was working on make-up effects for an Arnold Schwarzenegger film called Hunter–later called Predator.

Skipping some of the boring details, within a few months I was writing jokes for a professional comic friend. He was a high school friend also from my hometown. It wasn’t long before I was trying stand-up myself. One of the places I worked started learning that craft was in downtown Los Angles downstairs at a place called the Variety Arts Center in a room called the Ed Wynn Comedy Lounge.

The Ed Wynn was a showcase club, where something like 15 comics would each do a very short set. It was there that I met some really cool dudes. They invited me to “The Ranch” as it was called. The Ranch (sometimes called “The Saticoy Ranch” after the street it was on) was a smoke-filled ranch-style house in North Hollywood where a few of these comics lived. There I would meet so many of those “cool people” I am now asked about. We were all just young dudes starting out. I think I was one of the youngest. Well, there was one kid who was younger.

The Ranch was a place where dudes, mostly dudes, would hang out and make each other laugh till all hours of the night while drinking gallons of coffee. After a few years, guys started making it. Some of us were working a little bit in the biz, but mostly we were doing our stand-up (I mostly worked in a lot of creature shops back then).

The first guy in our group to cross over to the big time was a screenwriter I spent a lot of time with talking craft. His name is Jim Uhls. He sold a screenplay called Dead Reckoning that has yet to be made. He went on to write the screenplay for Fight Club.

I won’t get into the details of how everything started to happen; I will just list some of the “Rancheros” (as we were called) that you may know:

Steve Higgins is now the producer of Saturday Night Live as well as the sidekick on the Jimmy Fallon Show. His brother Dave Higgins played “the fat guy” on the show Malcolm in the Middle and was a regular on the show Ellen. Their younger brother Al Higgins became a writer on the show News Radio and a producer on Malcolm in the Middle.

Joel Madison became a writer on Roseanne, the head writer of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and creator of Malcolm and Eddie.

Pat Hazell wrote on the first season of a show called Seinfeld, along with another Ranch guy Matt Goldman.

Comedian Andy Kindler, who you may know from his David Letterman appearances or from Everybody Loves Raymond as one of Ray Ramano’s buddies, was a frequent Ranch vistor.

An actor/writer who was my manager for a while when I was a stand-up, Steve Bannos, became the math teacher Frank Kowchevski on Freaks and Geeks. Another Ranchero named David (Gruber) Allen played the hippie counselor Mr. Rosso on Freaks and Geeks, too.

The youngest and most famous of the Rancheros was Judd Apatow. Judd didn’t spend as much time at The Ranch as most of us–he was funny, but very serious about his career. I wish I had paid more attention to what he was doing, and how he was thinking. I could have learned even more than I did.

Another great Ranch guy was Paul Feig. He is one of the warmest human beings I have met. He was the one guy who everyone knew was going places. When I was learning stand-up I would watch him in awe. He was, and is, a really talented guy. He is the guy who created Freaks and Geeks and took it to Judd, who worked on it with him. Paul directs a lot of TV now: Mad Men, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, The Office and the new movie Bridesmaids.

There are people I am leaving out, but you get it–a lot of cool people sat around at The Ranch.

I spent this time dropping names to show you how all of these guys were in the same social circle. Back then, I never would have believed that most of these guys would become what they have become–but they did. Now I don’t think this is in the least unusual.

The friends you create with when you are making comic books, or short films, or writing screenplays—these are the “whos” that you know. Keep doing what you’re doing with the people you are doing it with and eventually some younger person will ask you, “How do you know so many cool people?”