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Four Corners of a Box
A life-like adventure from Cheeseburger Brown
Four Corners of a Box, a life-like adventure by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by the author


Have you ever wanted to have your own TV show?

Have you spent hours imagining your broadcast destiny, plotting elaborate scenarios of splendorific entertainment that would enlighten as well as amuse? Have you worked for years through toil and tears to make that cathode-ray painted dream come true?

Well, me neither. TV sucks.

...But sometimes TV is thrust upon us. And the idea of having your own TV show doesn't seem half-bad, once offered. From even the most cynical point of view: lemons = lemonade.

So you squeeze. And then you look down and realise that you're not squeezing a lemon, you're squeezing a four-lobed glistening purple sac from Interzone. And you think, "That juice can't be tasting good." You know that it is not the sweet lemonade of success in that glass, but rather the funky swill of bitterest failure.

...Yup.

This is the story of how it came to be that I don't have my own TV show.



Rolling Snowball

My new apartment was considerbly cheaper than my old one.

The disparity in rent was no mystery. Where my old place looked high and far over the midtown skyline, my new place commanded a shoe-box size view of my own parked car. Where my old place had a windowed tile shower big enough for two, my new place featured a mildewed stall I couldn't stand up straight in without risking a head injury.

From high-rise to basement flat, my costs were cut in half overnight. Which was good. Because I had quit my job.

In an effort to define a new job for myself, I had collected evidence of all my whoring onto a convenient videocassette, and distributed it with wanton abandon to every production house I knew. I had fancy business cards printed up, and tried to figure out how to gussy up my feeble website. I called in favours and contacted old contacts, pitching and then asking and then just plain begging for jobs.

Years before, when I had been the teenage apprentice of a loud Sicilian oil-painter, I endured many long lectures about what kind of a man it takes to make a living by your wits and craft, rather than your obedience. "Fuck galleries, fuck shows, you understand? It's called: if the real society isn't willing to pay you for your shit, what fucking good are you?"

He was a compact man. He gestured broadly. He always looked everyone in the eye. He stood too close to me, and he enjoyed my discomfort.

"It's called: if the people in your culture don't think what you do is worth money, you're just a fucking wanker. You understand?"

Maybe I did understand and maybe I didn't. I've learned that not all of the Sicilian's lessons are clear without time and perspective. But that particular speech was in my mind on the day I gave notice at the multimedia company, and told Littlestar I'd rent her cheap basement.

In which I sat, waiting.

...Eventually, there came a trickle of odd jobs on small projects. Though not enough to stem the tide of my haemorraging savings, it was enough to give me hope. Hope enough to stick at it a while longer, through thin and thinner.

When the telephone rang I jumped on it like a predatory animal. "Hello, Cheeseburger Brown Productions -- this is Cheeseburger Brown speaking."

Usually it was my mom. I tried to hide my anxiety from her.

But soon jobs begat jobs, and I began to suspect that I might last out the year, if the stress of waiting by the phone didn't kill me first. My tiny snowball was starting to roll, growing with every revolution. Word of mouth spread. I went out on a limb and leased me up some phatter hardware, earmarking the last of my savings for next few months of payments.

Things were looking up, but even so: I had a lot of time on my hands, waiting for work to happen. Restless and weary of salesmanship, I decided to spend these hours on a sort of educational project for myself -- professional development, if you will. I would bend my new computing toys toward an experimental end, and so pass my unjobbed days profitably.

And thus, The Bureaucrat was born.


Basho's Brainchild

The summer before I quit my job my friend Plaid asked me if I wanted to drive across the country with him to see the first official Sumo-wrestling basho ever to be held outside of Japan. I said, "Okay."

That mad transcontinental adventure is another story, and shall be told another time. But of it I will say this:

One day as I lay in the back seat watching the prairie sky through the sunroof I invented a silly cartoon to amuse myself. In my mind, I played out a comedic epic in which an invasion by a very caricatured Imperial America can only be stopped by one self-indulgent, alcoholic, philandering Canadian bureaucrat with a weight problem. I made myself giggle.

"What are you giggling about?" asked Plaid as he drove.

"Nothing, nothing," I said, waving it away.

"Let's stop and get us some Brown Cows, dude."

"Okay."

Sitting in Littlestar's basement smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, I decided to force my bureaucrat hero out of head and into the computer. When I was still employed I had been experimenting with misusing a popular compositing programme for the purposes of character animation, and I believed that I could expand this technique to a longer cartoon form using my new hardware.

And so I set to work. I sketched and I scripted and I whipped my machines into submission. To have a purpose that stretched beyond a day or two was exhilirating.

The cornerstone of my technique was that I was and remain a pretty mediocre talent when it comes to drawing, even cartoon drawing. My drawing results are erratic and undisciplined. Traditional animation had always eluded me because of the sheer volume of quality drawings required. But -- by using software to essentially treat flat drawings as the basis of a 3D puppet (that, ironically, was confined to 2D space) -- I could get away with pulling off only a couple of decent drawings per character.

I cast my friends in the key roles, and tried to coax performances out of them that were as professional as possible. The script was not very polished, so we recorded a lot of extra crap that I would later assemble into a coherent story during Lucasian post-production.

And so I fell to animating. My greatest worry on a given day: how to stop joints from floating during a camera move, or how to better keep my mouth library organised. I know no better fun than rolling out of bed and spending countless meditative hours working out visual problems until collapsing from exhaustion, so it was a period of bliss for this immersion-happy cheeseburger.


Enter the Boob

As the second pint hit my empty stomach, I knew I was becoming too loud. But my hosts at the pub booth were enjoying themselves, and I was making them laugh. I am a sucker for making people laugh. I am putty in their hands. It's the most addictive kind of flattery when somebody blows beer suds out their nose.

I was especially tickled because my hosts were professional comedians. Hairless Vic wiped the froth from his beard and sighed. "We're really happy with the video, Burgerboy."

"I'm pleased that you're pleased!"

I had just completed production on a promotional video for the comedy duo, suitable for panning for jobs aboard cruises and at corporate events. The coup de grace: the boys wanted to feature themselves performing at a tropical resort, but lacked the footage -- so I animated it with my new cheapo technique.

"I mean, animation has always been out of our reach, budget-wise," beamed Hairless Vic. "It looks so slick."

Hairless Vic's short, lumpy partner nodded enthusiastically. "Do you have any other animations?" His name was Boob, and he wore Hawai'ian shirts. He fidgeted with his strangely misshapen forearms, where the skin was bulgy and discoloured. Boob didn't drink beer, so he had a 7UP.

"Well, I do have one thing...a sort of experimental project!" I shouted, trying not to look at his arms. "It's called 'Crat."

"I'd love to see it," said Boob.

"Drop by anytime!" I bellowed happily.

Drop by Boob did. The very next day he came to my door and asked about the bowl of dog shit on the stoop. "Crazy neighbour," I explained. "Long story." Boob descended into my grotto and admired my blinking lights. Then, we sat down and watched the first eight minute act of 'Crat.

"That was fabulous!" he exclaimed. (It wasn't, which gave me my first doubts about Boob's critical faculties.)

"Thanks, Boob."

"You know," Boob said thoughtfully, "next week I'm flying out to the television development festival in Banff. Maybe I should take along a copy of this -- you know, just to see if anybody's interested. It's fabulous!"

"It's not really designed as a TV show," I told him.

"That's not important -- it's a proof-of-concept."

"It's not even finished."

"That's okay -- people there just want a hint of the flavour. And I think you've really got something here." Boob goes on the explain that since he's going to Banff to pitch his own shows anyway, he might as well see if anyone likes my tape. "You've got nothing to lose!" smiled Boob.

So I said, "Okay."


Hitch-Hiker

Part of being an artist, any kind of artist, is having a certain appreciation and respect for being profitably exploited. From garage band punks dreaming of being discovered, to a professional who lives by the fervour of an agent who knows he can make a buck off him -- everybody loves a motivated patron.

I'm not an idiot. I watched Boob's tapes, and I knew why he was salivating: after a career of mediocrity, he had set his sights on riding what his questionable faculties had judged to be my ascending ship. Should anything positive happen, what would he ask in return?

I did not trust Boob. Trustworthy people don't wear Hawai'ian shirts and have mysteriously lumpy forearms.

But, I did not worry about it too much, partly because I thought I held all of the cards, but mostly because I doubted that my amateurish unfinished trifle would warrant anybody's attention.

I was right, and I was wrong.

I did hold all of the cards. But my amateurish unfinished trifle did warrant somebody's attention. Boob called from Alberta: "Good news!"

At the pub I had a pint and Boob had a 7UP. He gushed through the details of the way he cornered television executive David Smith at the urinals, and somehow convinced him to watch 'Crat. Boob made no mention of his own shows, but he went on voluminously about how excited David was to meet me.

"They're all the way out in Burlington," said Boob. "My car is broken -- can I ride in yours?"

When I pulled up outside Smith & Smith's nicely landscaped offices, Boob put his hand on my shoulder to stall my exit. Half-way through his rambling I realised that he was trying to give me a pep talk. He was very nervous. I felt disconnected and calm. "It'll be fine, Boob."

A pretty receptionist lead us to a small boardroom filled by an oval marble table. We awkwardly pushed chairs back against the wall, sliding in to our places. The receptionist brought coffee, tea and croissants. "Don't be nervous," Boob whispered, sweating.

That's when David Smith came in, followed by Red Green. They were brothers, and they shared the same sparkling ice blue eyes. David's face broke into a warm smile; his brother's face remained blank and unreadable. "You must be Cheeseburger Brown!" beamed David. His handshake was very friendly.



We all watched the unfinished first act together on a big screen television embedded in the wall. I winced at the roughest parts, and felt the familiar trickle of exhibition sweat running down the sides of my torso. When the lights came back up there was an uncomfortable silence, filled hastily by Boob. When his meandering pitch paused for breath, David cleared his throat.

"Both Steve and I feel that this has a lot of potential," said David. His brother sat unmoved, his hands folded before his mouth. David continued, "We're especially interested in the technique you've used to produce this so fast, and so cheaply. It's really quite incredible. We really like the drawings, and some of the dialogue is really sharp."

"That's nice of you to say," I said, feeling something was required of me.

Boob injected to explain the endless potential of a whole menagerie of possible characters, all loosely based on contemporary political figures. It was the first time I have heard of any such notion, and I noticed Red Green noticing me looking surprised. The discussion then turned briefly to technical matters.

"What we need here is to get a solid cost analysis from an experienced production house," said David. "The fact of the matter is we do have some funds available -- the question is whether or not they're sufficient to support an animated series."

"I will investigate that immediately," I said, wondering how I would go about it.

Hands were shaken all around. As far as I could tell, we had simply agreed to continue exploring the idea, and no commitments had been made. Boob and I had barely reached the car before he exploded with homely jubilance. "I've never had a pitch meeting go so well in my life!" he exclaimed.

During the ride back to Toronto Boob was uncharacteristically quiet, sipping his 7UP and looking out the window.


Cartoon Cougar

Boob and I were enjoying a frankfurter in downtown Toronto, pausing between hoofing it from one animation production house to the next. I applied hot mustard but Boob took his plain.

Within the space of a few blocks on the west side of the downtown core was a concentration of production houses of every scale, collectively responsible for much of the animation seen on international television, outsourced from the American IP/entertainment behemoths, or in tax-sheltered co-production with concerns in Europe and Asia.

We visited William Shatner's private production company, and enjoyed their showy leather chairs. We didn't get to meet Shatner, though. They were cordial, but explained that they could not comment on the project as they were in the midst of developing their own, very similar, technique. I scored a free can of pop.

Boob and I had shown the demonstration tape to dozens of producers, and mined their opinions on cost. The majority could only think in terms of traditional cel animation, and so their budgetary estimates burst at the seams with overseas labour. Most were sceptical that my technique could be scaled up for a series. A few young and nimble companies became very excited. "And you've used the 3D hierarchy to control the 2D artwork -- it's brilliant!"

"Should you be telling everyone about this technique?" Boob asked me as we ate our hot dogs. "I mean, some of them look like they want to steal it."

I snicker. "It's not my idea, Boob, it's an inevitable evolution. If I hadn't told them about it today, they'd have figured it out tomorrow." I tossed my serviette into a bin. "I'm certain that lots of others are already on to it, just like Shatner's boys."

The co-producers at our next meeting were very enthusiastic. "You did this with desktop computers?" they asked. The first partner was a jolly, rotund young fellow with blue hair. The other partner was an older, leggy redhead with a low, cigaretty voice and long lashes. "You should patent this," she said to me.

"It isn't right to patent the obvious," I replied.

Jessica Rabbit called in her pet animators, and we all watched the tape again. More discussion, with Boob interjecting irrelevances. "If you can lock a deal with the Smiths," the jolly partner told us, "we're willing to commit to this...we'll find a way to make the production work."

"Do you and the Smiths have any paperwork between you yet?" asked Jessica Rabbit, watching Boob.

"No," I said.

The animators returned to their duties, and Boob and I got up to leave. More handshaking. Jessica Rabbit promised to put some numbers together for us. "I may need more details," she said. "Can I call you at home?"

"Okay," I said.

Later that week, Jessica Rabbit and I went to a seminar demonstrating Apple's upcoming computers based on the new G4 processor. Like most of the people present, we were fairly blown away. There was a thrilled buzz on the steps outside as we left amid conversations of the creative possibilities offered by such a substantial leap in power. "Real-time manipulations, I tell you, real-fucking-time!"

"Do you want to get some coffee?" asked Jessica Rabbit.

While we sipped she told me about her frustrations with traditional animation execution, and how excited she was by the possibility of running a whole production off of a handful of desktop machines. "Seeing those G4s really opened up my eyes," she said. (I wondered to myself: why is everyone always telling me how excited they are?)

Matters turned more serious. "Boob is going to screw you," she declared.

I paused, surprised by her candour. "He is? How?"

"He already has a deal with the Smiths."

"You think so?"

"Definitely. People are dog-eat-dog in this industry, and I saw that look in his eye. I trust my instinct. He's got a deal." She put out her cigarette. "I just don't want to see this thing ruined because of politicking. I'm trying to look out for you."

I'd have believed her, if she hadn't looked so hungry. "Thank you," I said.


Just the Fax

"It's time we put something on paper, Cheeseburger Brown. I mean, insofar as our business relationship goes. I mean, now that things might really start to happen with the Smiths." This was Boob calling me, the following week.

"So, we haven't had a real offer to commit from the Smiths yet?" I asked. The cost analysis furnished by Jessica Rabbit had been submitted days before.

"No," Boob told me. "Nothing yet."

That's when he faxed over an agreement he had had his lawyer draw up. I read it over while I smoked a cigarette in my basement flat, the smoke illuminated in a shaft of sunlight. Boob basically wanted me to agree that the series was 50% his creation, and that he would be entitled to 50% of all revenue generated. I called Boob back quickly. "Listen Boob," I said, "I have to tell you: this doesn't sit well with me."

"I'm not trying to screw you," Boob quickly interjected.

"Er, okay. I would say my principal problem is this assertion here, in paragraph five, that you are the co-author of the material..."

"Well, I'm sort of acting as an associate producer, and that's a kind of authorship. The exact percentages aren't important, we can finesse them. This is just a sample draft, that you can sign or not sign. I'm not trying to screw you here, Cheeseburger Brown."

"It sure feels like a screw, Boob."

"Just think about it, come up with what you think is fair, and get back to me, okay? We're all friends here. Maybe twenty-five percent? Does that sit better with you?"

"I'll have to call you back, Boob."

I took a moment to try to process the situation. I smoked a joint, and drank a cup of tea. The sun set. I was sitting in the dark when the telephone rang, jarring me out my reverie. "Cheeseburger Brown Productions, this is Cheeseburger Brown speaking."

It was David Smith. He had been trying to call Boob, but kept getting a fax machine. "I thought you guys were trying to fax the agreement back to me," said David.

"What agreement?" I asked.

David was shocked to learn that Boob had not informed me of the pending production agreement to be signed by the authors of the series and the Smiths. "Can I be candid?" David asked me. "What exactly was Boob's role in creating 'Crat?"

"He put me in contact with you nice people."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"Well," said David.

There was a pause. I said, "David, in light of this new information I have come to a decision, and you're the first to know. I am severing my relationship with Boob. His involvement with this project is from this point forward: nil."

"I think that's for the best," said David. "I'll fax over to you a revised agreement right away."

And the fax came through. I sat, staring for a while at the glossy, coated paper. A contract, committing the Smiths to be executive producers of a series entitled The Bureaucrat, with associated development funds for immediate scriptwriting. "Well Cheeseburger Brown, you're now a paid scriptwriter," I said to myself. I signed the fax and sent it back.

I called Boob, and left a message on his machine. "Sorry Boob, no dice."


Barking Beagles

Boob's trusty legal beagle wasted no time. A letter cast in a very severe tone arrived quickly, detailing a list of expenses Boob had incurred on my behalf, and which I was now challenged to repay. Between charging me for his flight to Banff, his cellular telephone airtime and even his precious cans of 7UP, the total tally came to an inexplicable eight thousand dollars.

"I just want what's fair," said Boob on the phone. "I'm not trying to screw you here."

The law is not an arena in which it pays to be penny wise and pound foolish, so I decided to bite the bullet and cough up the money necessary to demolish Boob's claim in one sure and decisive stab. The best lawyers in the world are hundreds of dollars an hour, but I would only need one hour.

I called my mom, a legal secretary, who called her boss, an old friend of the family, who made a few calls to find out who would be the best bet to represent my cause. He settled on John McKellar, father of Canadian super-vedette Don McKellar, whose entertainment interests he also represented.

His offices were at First Canadian Place, a tall white skyscraper that dominates the city's skyline second only to the CN Tower itself. I wandered around the cavernous lobby until I found the bank of elevators that accessed the high storeys, and stepped in. When the doors opened I walked out into a sumptuous waiting room, a wide open sprawl of glass coffee tables, leather couches and endless glossy periodicals.

"Cheeseburger Brown?"

I looked up to see John McKellar standing at the mouth of a nearby corridor, dressed in an immaculate grey suit and shiny, two-tone penny loafers. He wore thin, gold-rimmed half-moon glasses. He was small and fussy looking, his merry shoes standing out in stark contrast. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr McKellar -- thanks for taking the time."

Like the office of any lawyer I have ever known, John's office was filled with tall stacks of folders in every corner. However, other clues in the decor confirmed to me that I had Boob well outgunned: where his lawyer was named "Larry" and had clip-art on his letterhead, John McKellar had pictures of himself hanging out with the Governor-General and the Queen. There were very different kinds of litigators: Larry was a pea-shooter, and John was a thermonuclear warhead.

He placed himself behind his wooden desk and took a second to meticulously re-arrange the accessories around his blotter. Then, no small-talk. "Tell me about Boob's involvement in the creation of the property," he commmanded in a soft, crisp voice.

He took in my story without interruption, and then offered quick pronouncement: should the series ever become profitable on paper, Boob would be paid $ 600.00 for his trouble at a schedule of our convenience in exchange for signing away any future claims; in all other circumstances, he would receive nothing. "I'll have a letter drawn up this afternoon. No charge."

"No charge?"

"I'm sure you won't hear from him again. Don't worry about it. Good luck with your show." He spoke quickly, and left no room for argument.

"Thanks, Mr McKellar. I really appreciate your help." He nodded and turned to other matters on his desk. Sensing that I was dismissed, I left.


If That a Knife in Your Back?

Boob was officially out of the picture, and I felt badly for him. He was just trying to make a grab for what he likely saw as his last chance for glory. He wanted to make sure he got a good piece of the pie. I felt badly for myself, too, because I knew that no matter how I might justify it, I had just tasted dog.

The final obstacle was getting a contract between the executive producers and the animation house, in order to get everybody committed. David and I met with Jessica Rabbit, and we talked turkey. She raved about producing a series with desktop computers, and David asked a few incisive questions. On the way out to the parking lot David told me that he didn't trust Jessica Rabbit. "Who has all of the cost analysis breakdowns she's done?"

"I have them," I said.

"We don't need her," he told me.

My faithful and talented sound designer, RockStar, was the next to go. "We have our own sound people we like to use," David said. Finally, my friends were all cut from the cast.

And so, as it began, our production team was composed of just me. I began to wonder whether The Bureaucrat was the property, or I was. I wondered why I was now willing to shed people who had helped me, in order to make succeed a project I had not believed in from the start. "This could be real," I said to myself; "I could have my own TV show!" Greedy fantasies wound through my mind.

For months my friends and family had been assuring me that I would soon be famous (Canadian-famous, that is -- like Ralph Benmergui or that fiddling chick that dances on the milk commercials). I had found it exceedingly difficult to believe that something as craptacular as what I had done on 'Crat could serve as a vehicle to that kind of opportunity, but -- maybe?

"This is your chance for the limelight, boy," I said to myself. "Make your kick at the can count."

To inaugerate the scriptwriting, David set up a dinner meeting between me and his brother, Steve. I scanned the television channels, trying to bone up on his shitty show for the occasion. "Man," I muttered darkly, "The Red Green Show sure does suck."

None the less, I could not get its damnable theme song out of my head. It tortured me in my dreams as the date for my dinner meeting with Red Green drew nearer.


Starry Interlude

I sat in Littlestar's upstairs kitchen, drinking strong tea and smelling her stronger coffee. She told me I looked tired, and I agreed that I was. "You're not sleeping well?" she asked. She leaned over to pour the milk, and I spent a moment admiring the jiggle of her breasts beneath her T-shirt.

"No."

"You're worried about the show?"

"Yes," I replied, shaking my head sadly. "It's really terrible. These characters were developed for a one-off short film, not for an ongoing series. I'm pretty nervous about having it raked over the coals by Red Green." I sighed, and lit another smoke.

"Well, who says you have to keep it true to the original script? Why not just change the characters around until they work?" She patted my arm. "Besides, he's there to help you, right? He's going to take you under his wing, and teach you how to make a show that will sell."

"I guess so," I said.

"Keep an open mind. He must believe in the show, or he wouldn't be trying to bring it to air."

"That true, I suppose."

"I always knew you'd be famous," she told me.


Possum at the Senator

The Senator is not only a top notch jazz bar, but also serves the city's best brunch. Through my years in Toronto I had frequently sampled the upstairs hall (live music) and the downstairs diner (breakfast through lunch), but I had never been in the restaurant proper before the night I met Red Green for dinner.

"Ah, Cheeseburger Brown!" The Maitre d' recognised me from my appearences at the regular breakfast club of geeks that had been running for a year or more, where I would learn about the mystical world of Unix from Plaid, Falco and Fade. (But that is another story, and shall be told another time.) "You're meeting your friends?" he asked smoothly, the ultimate in queer class.

"No, um, I'm meeting someone for dinner. Older fellow, big white beard."

"Ah, Red Green!" he exclaimed. "Of course. Follow me please."

Red Green was already working on his salad when I joined him at the table. His handshake was too firm. His blue eyes sparkled even in the dim lounge light, and they pierced me. "Order something good, because this is probably the only time I'll ever buy you dinner," he said.

I wasn't sure how much this was meant as a joke, so I sort of half-laughed awkwardly. Then I busied myself scanning the menu while Red Green used his last piece of lettuce to mop up the excess dressing on his plate.

As I read the choices over and over again I found myself flailing inside. I should have been making some of kind of impression on Red Green -- witty if possible, clever if nothing else. But I came up empty. "I might have the filet mignon," I reported dully.

"Hah," said Red Green noncommitally.

While we waited for our steaks to arrive he informed me that the money we were using for developing The Bureaucrat had originally been earmarked for a new live-action American sit-com starring himself. "The Americans have money in this?" I echoed, surprised.

"Half our money is coming from PBS," Red Green explained. "And it didn't come easy in the first place. Dave and I have been leaning into them to fund a new project for years. So, now instead of going to my sit-com, it's going to this."

There came an uncomfortable pause. "Er," I mumbled. "Thank you."

Red Green remained inscrutable behind his beard and crystal eyes. "Of course, because of the PBS involvement we'll have to downplay the Canadian angle. I'm thinking we should move the setting to Anywhereville, North America. I like keeping things generic, so they can appeal to everyone."

"I see..."

"Next, we'll have to lose four of the eight principals. The cops aren't funny -- there's no relationship there; the blind woman isn't funny -- humour about handicapps doesn't work; and I just don't get the homeless guy at all. Also, I meant to ask you: why is the sidekick an East Indian?"

I blinked. "Pardon?"

"Why did you make him from India?"

"I'm sure not what you're asking here..." I said, slowly. "Do you want me to justify his ethnicity? He's East Indian because I live in Toronto, and a lot of the people I know are East Indians." I frowned, and then continued: "What do you mean there's no relationship between the cops? They bristle with buckled-down man-love."

"Making fun of gays isn't funny," Red Green declared.

"I didn't think I was making fun of --" I started, but he interrupted me with a wave of his hand, settling into his seat in a lecturing pose I recognised from my own father.

Quoth Red Green: "A show is like a box," he said. "And your principal characters are the four corners of the box. The further apart the corners are -- ideologically, stylistically, whatever -- the more space you have in the box to fill with stories."

"Ah," I said, trying to sound rapt.

"Cratley LeBlanc, the bureaucrat himself, is one corner of the box, of course. We just need to figure out the other three. One of them should be Cratley's wife."

"His wife?" I interrupt, my brow furrowing. "...But he's a philandering alcholic Hedonist brute."

"PBS really wants to see a wife angle worked into the family dynamic."

"To tell you the truth," I said, "I saw this sit-com as more work-focused than family-focused."

"Well, it is their money..." He trailed off as our steaks arrived. The waiter peppered us elaborately before trotting off. Red Green set to the business of slicing away at his meat decisively, while I poked idly at my peppercorn bacon with a little two-pronged snail fork. I had never been less hungry in my life. So, I thought to myself, this is how steak smells to vegetarians. "Where was I?" Red Green asked the air. "Right: four corners of a box."

It did not take me long to divine a pattern in Red Green's criticisms as his lecture continued: the things about the show I felt were particularly funny were the things he specifically hated, while the elements I found tried and dull he believed held the most comedic potential. I felt a heavy weight settle inside my mumbling gut. As far as humour was concerned, we were polar opposites. How could I convince this man I could be funny?

Crack a joke. Turn a phrase on its ear. Apply for a permit for rezoning charming double-entendres and quick puns. Beat Red Green to the punchline.

But Red Green offered me no opening. He was deadpan serious, business-like, brisk and also brusque. "What I need to have is the confidence that you can make this funny," he challenged me directly, pushing aside his plate.

"I understand," I said.

An uncomfortable pause. "Well -- can you make this funny?"

"Yes sir," I said, trying to sound hearty.

Another uncomfortable silence. As Red Green watched me, it became apparent that there was an expectation for me to demonstrate some of this comedic ability -- right now. I looked down at the cold lump of meat on my plate, and felt my mind drift into trivia. I had nothing. Nothing at all.

"...Maybe his wife," I mumbled, "could be a -- journalist. That's...a distant corner from Cratley's work. One exposes, one hides."

"Hah," said Red Green.

Unsure how to interpret this noise, I continued lamely: "I guess I'm a bit nervous, and I'm not thinking well on the spot." A sign of encouragement, any sign of encouragement, would have pulled me out of my hole. But Red Green offered none -- this was a test, and I was failing.

Any wit I may once have had access to had fled my mind. It was like I was utterly unacquainted with making people laugh. I felt like Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie on the episode when she lost her powers: I kept folding my arms across my chest and blinking, but no magic happened. I was Clark Kent in Superman II, getting his ass kicked in that diner -- I was Chekov in Star Trek IV, trying to stun military police with an unpowered phaser. I was Doc Brown's DeLorean in want of plutonium; I was The Man in Black rescued from The Machine, limp and mostly dead; I was the unfixed hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon.



I felt cold, and sick.

"...Well," said Red Green after a while. "I guess you have plenty to think about." He asked our waiter for the bill. My uneaten meal still sat on the table before me. "Remember," he reminded me: "Four corners of a box."

"Thank you," I mumbled.


Performance Anxiety

I had been charged with the writing of thirteen episode outlines, two complete 22-minute episode scripts, and one "series bible" detailing the backstories of each of the characters. When my first cheque came in the mail, I celebrated with shots and smoke.

And then I went back to brooding and impotence.

I sat in front of my monitor and fell into trances as I gazed at the blinking cursor. Hours passed, then days.

Then weeks. My first deadline loomed. Anxious, frustrated, discouraged and lost, I wrote the entire series bible and all thirteen outlines in one drunken sitting the night before it was due. The results are predictably craptacular, and I expected swift criticism from what David called my "writing partner." I waited by the phone, smoking cigarettes.

Two days later I received an e-mail from Red Green: "OK. We'll submit this to nets. Meanwhile, start writing first episode script."

I was underwhelmed with the feedback. Did that mean he actually liked what I wrote, or that he just didn't care that it sucked? Were his writing standards very low, or was it simply that I was already a lost cause in his mind?

Writing the script with the limitations Red Green had imposed was an uphill battle, a futile attempt to synthesise two contrasting visions for how the show could be funny: mine uncertain and inexperienced, his decisive and historically profitable. The "box" felt about as big as a thimble. After a few earnest attempts, I gave up, and appealed to the Smiths for help, confessing to them in e-mail how I was feeling simultaneously lost and constrained.

A week later came this reply from Red Green: "Don't overthink it. Keep it everyday. Four corners of a box."

"Four corners of a fuck you," I said to the room. My cat ran away.

I was angry. Half of the scriptwriting money was going to this already well-to-do minor celebrity while I sat in a hovel, and what was his resounding contribution to the project? Four corners of a box, four corners of a box, four corners of a box, four corners of a box...


Wannabe Bazooka Joe

I was desperately in need of inspiration. More weeks passed. Finally, another cheque came in the mail.

I cracked my knuckles and put fingers to keys. I bought a two-four of beer and planted myself in front of the computer, drinking and smoking and typing away a marathon night, from light to light outside my small pavement-view window.

The result were two meandering, painfully uncertain tomes several dozen pages too long for a sit-com episode. The formless, badly resolved scripts made me giggle more often than watching actual broadcast television, so I figured it couldn't be all bad. At least I'd get some constructive criticism. I e-mailed the scripts Smithways.

Ten days later, Red Green replied with his rewrites of the episodes. They were now the proper length, each neat act conforming to the standard allotment between American commercial breaks. The plots were concise, and clear. The dialogue was short, and simple.

It was also profoundly unfunny. I recalled spotting more wit in bubble gum inserts.

"Wow," I said. "Crap," I said. "Mung."

I had been pretty sure at some point that I didn't care about the fate of The Bureaucrat, but now I sat down and cried over it.

My opportunity to get Red Green to understand my vision had been squandered, while I sat in tongue-tied silence. My chance to write a great script was wasted, procrastinating and fussing.

I had set out to make a simple short film, which I could no longer complete because my characters were co-owned by the Smiths. As a television show it would never go to air, because the castrated versions of my last-minute scripts added up to nothing short of unadulterated guano.

"I didn't ask to care about such an unlikely thing," I said, pitying myself.

The scripts were submitted to the networks, and my final cheque came. I left a voice message for David asking him how long I should be expect to wait before hearing any news -- weeks, months, years? A couple of weeks later, I received an e-mail reply from his brother. It was brief: "We'll let you know."

Don't call us, we'll call you.


Epilogue

PBS and CBC took a pass on The Bureaucrat, and the intellectual property rights reverted back to me after a couple of years. This happened without fanfare -- it was just a matter of dates.

I never heard from the Smiths again.

I did hear from Jessica Rabbit, however. She said we should have coffee, and talk about animation. Her partner was dissolving the production house from under her, and reforming it with new partners. He was claiming in court that she had contributed nothing to their enterprise, and Jessica Rabbit wanted me to write a letter for her detailing her significant contributions to the development stage of my series.

I wasn't sure I wanted to do that, but then her partner never called me back after I submitted my reel to him so I figured, what the fuck? I dished up some inflated nonsense and phrased it formally, dated it, signed it, and faxed off to the red-haired siren.

I never heard from Jessica Rabbit again.

Boob's friend Hairless Vic called to chat me up one day. He nervously tried to bend the conversation around to whether or not I was making any money off of The Bureaucrat. I told him that I was not.

I never heard from Boob again.

Today, dozens of broadcast cartoons use 3D-style hierachies to control 2D artwork. It has become the key to affordable cel-style pseudo-traditional animation, and a bane to the formerly busy imbetweeners of Korea. What had been the future of animation is now the present.

My business is doing okay, these days. I don't wait by the phone anymore. Things are looking up.

I have very few regrets in life, but the way I bungled the Four Corners of a Box Affair will always bring a foul taste to my mouth in bitter unwilling remembrance. A great opportunity was nearly mine, but I flubbed it.

The end.

Fin.


CONNECTED STORIES
Three Visits | The Sweet Funk of Revenge | Ode to Littlestar | My Cat's Girlfriend

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