This is the second part of a two-part interview
Tom Straw has quite an impressive background, having written and/or produced for such shows as Grace Under Fire, Cosby and Night Court. He currently writes for The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. I talked to him about some of those shows during the first part of the interview.
Ironically, another Night Court writer, Bill Bryan, has also written a novel about television. While the two writers — and their respective books — are quite different, I decided to add a question about them to my interview by email.
While Straw's entire novel is great — I'd give it an 8 — the last 50 pages are even better. I began my interview by asking him about that. The main character, Hardwick, is a paparazzo.
Your writing becomes even more witty and clever in the last 50 pages with gems like a reference to a “cliché death.” What would, in your opinion, constitute a “cliché death”?
Thank you for saying that. A cliché death would have to be something so done that you can explain it in shorthand. Drunk driving. Gun cleaning mishap. Mistaken for burglar. Chute failure. Casino bus rollover. You pretty much get the whole story in the headline. And anything with “disgruntled” or “estranged” as a modifier for a killer immediately lumps it in the cliché death category. Pair it with “postal worker,” or “former lover,” and you’ve hit the daily double.
You drop a level if the death has a famous nickname. Pulled an Elvis. Copped a Cobain. Worked a Hemingway. These clichés of demise are the equivalent of having sandwiches named for them. Speaking of which – did a Mama Cass.
What statement are you trying to make about the paparazzi with this book? The book's main character, Hardwick, is part of the paparazzi.
It’s hard to like these people, especially being back in LA, as I have been lately, seeing them swarming all over Robertson Boulevard and The Grove and outside the clubs in the Cahuenga Corridor, cockroaches inured to light; they don’t scatter, they gather. The term “in your face” comes to mind. But they are a reality. The right picture is worth five or six figures now, so the economics say, deal with them, they aren’t going away.
Aside from disdain for paparazzi, which is nothing new, I guess in the book I’m trying to say that each one has a story. Although many (most?) are despicable bottom feeders, a lowlife society is a fertile place to set a story about redemption. Hardwick is probably the exception but what I wanted to say about him in the paparazzi setting is that, as with mobsters in the Godfather and sleazy detectives in Chinatown, there are individuals who have moral standards. It may be their own personal standards but they have them, and if those principles are strongly held, those guys are bound to collide with the greater sleaze: the established order, which is the clean-shaven, groomed and manicured embodiment of corruption and immorality. So I guess I juxtaposed one with the other and had my man Hardwick be the one who held the higher standard at a price.
Does anyone actually grow up aspiring to, one day, be part of the paparazzi?
You ask strange and difficult questions. I like that. You’re actually getting at how I put Hardwick among them. I made him a fallen Pulitzer Prize-winning-photojournalist who was only doing it because the alternatives weren’t there for him once he lost his standing in the mainstream press. It was that or shooting graduation and wedding photos. His rationale is that he is still “doing journalism.” It’s the circumstances of the detective story in the book combined with the appearance of his old love Meddy that rubs his nose in the stink of his rationale. So then it’s time for him to either do journalism for real or stop conning himself.
Going back to your specific question, though, I think today, because of the dollars at stake, more and more young men and women with cameras are following aspirations to do work in the exciting field of the paparazzi. Mainly because the national Do Not Call List has limited their opportunities in telemarketing.
What would you say to someone who wanted to become part of the paparazzi?
That’ll work, won’t it? Okay, if you insist, I’d say: Document but don’t invade. See but don’t chase. Shoot if you must but leave the kids out of it. And, finally, before you press that shutter release, ask yourself, “How big an asshole am I?”
I've sent off my questions to Mr. Bryan too. I asked him one I'll ask you – who wrote the better book?:)
Bill did, of course. Keep It Real is a masterpiece, which makes The Trigger Episode read like a toothless street crazy’s incoherent rant. Okay, now I know Bill Bryan, and there’s no way he’ll bother to read on once he’s seen his name and thinks his book is the better. So now I can tell you his book is a steamin’ load of horse apples. If you are loopy enough to buy it, may I suggest you use it to prop open doors or maybe to wedge under that uneven table leg? Hey, winter’s coming. What a great way to start that kindling! Keep It Real? Keep it burning.
As much fun as it would be to lose a friend and start a literary feud in one paragraph, I’ll give you my serious answer now. The best work I have ever done in TV was with writers who have a game that makes you play up. I have been fortunate to have had that experience a lot sitting at some remarkable staff tables. Way up there is the joy of working with Bill Bryan on a beloved yet short-lived ABC series called Good & Evil (starring Teri Garr, Seth Green, Marion, Seldes and Lane Davies). Playing up to Bill’s game inspired me as a writer. Reading his book had the same effect. It is wonderful. Smart, wicked, and funny. But is it better? I’m not objective. Tell you what. Buy Keep It Real and you be the judge. You won’t regret it.
Thanks to Mr. Straw for the interview.
The interview with Mr. Bryan is forthcoming, which is a nice way of saying I'll post part one when I get the answers to part one and I'll email him the part two questions — and read the last 50 pages of the book — when I get part one 🙂
Meanwhile you can read Bryan and Straw interviewing each other.