Media Circus

Rob Long's dead-on "Conversations With My Agent" is the best book on Hollywood published in the last 15 years.


Catherine Seipp
July 11, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

I met Rob Long at a party in the early '90s. He was 25, a staff writer on "Cheers" and the very model of the astonishingly young, Ivy League-educated writers who were at that time beginning their takeover of the sitcom business. By the time he was 27, Rob and his writing partner, Dan Staley, were running "Cheers." After that phenomenally successful show ended its run, Staley-Long Productions had a short-lived series on the air in 1995 and are now preparing a new sitcom that will debut on CBS in September, "George and Leo," starring Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch as mismatched fathers-in-law.

Over the years, Rob, who is always polite, witty and extremely observant about the ways of Hollywood, became someone I called up regularly as a source. He is an odd combination of the complete insider ("Oh, everyone knows Rob Long," a friend of mine married to another young sitcom writer remarked the other day) and the stubborn outsider.

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Rob is still so recalcitrantly preppie that he seems to treat Hollywood as some sort of 20th century American version of the Raj. He is so at odds, in fact, with the prevailing ethos here that in his off hours he writes the "Letters from Al" column for the National Review, in which he satirizes Al Gore and pretty much everything else dear to the heart of industry liberals. He is one of the original members of the Wednesday Morning Club, a group of Hollywood conservatives organized the morning after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.

After one of our conversations Rob messengered me a package. "The most obnoxiously Hollywood thing I can do is send you a copy of my book," read the enclosed note. "Conversations With My Agent" (Dutton, 229 pages), published this spring, is an account of Rob's life in the sitcom business from shortly before he was hired at "Cheers" to a few years later, when Staley-Long's first post-"Cheers" show, "Pig Sty," got on the air. The story unfolds in conversations between Rob and his agent -- a mysterious, atavistically pushy character who in the book is never given a name or even a gender. Here's a sample passage, set just before a pitch meeting:

MY AGENT

Be very up, okay? Really sell. Put your brain in come-and-get-me mode. Don't just sit there like you do in my office. Come alive.

ME

I'm not going to hop around the room and humiliate myself.

MY AGENT

Who's telling you to do that? Did I say do that? I never said, 'Hop around the room.' I said, 'Be active. Move around the room,' is what I said.

ME

Okay.

MY AGENT

But hopping can be effective, since you brought it up. It gets their attention.

Dryly funny and deadly accurate, "Conversations With My Agent" is the best book about Hollywood since William Goldman's landmark "Adventures In the Screen Trade" came out 15 years ago. To put it in the easily grasped, obsessively referential language of the Hollywood pitch, "Conversations With My Agent" is to the TV business of the '90s what "Adventures In the Screen Trade" was to the movie business of the '80s: subversive, revelatory, indispensable.

In the past decade or so, the Hollywood agent developed into a notably different creature than the antihero of Budd Schulberg's classic study of Hollywood agentry, "What Makes Sammy Run?" The group mentality of Creative Artists Agency, with its whiff of proto-fascism, became a trendsetter in the cooler, modern style. A few years ago, for instance, someone asked TV producer Aaron Spelling why he had such a very long couch in his office. So that when CAA came to visit, Spelling explained, everyone would have a place to sit.

The agent in "Conversations With My Agent" isn't exactly like either type, but somehow embodies the mythic essence of Everyagent. The book is also something of a valentine (if a rather needling one) to Long's real agent, Beth Uffner, a hard-working single mother in her 50s whose sheer unwavering will comes across in the book as something of a force of nature. No CAA-style team player, she walks alone, like Shane. Rob makes it quite clear he owes her pretty much everything.

"She's just a giant in the business," he says, "and she's very different from other agents. She has a complete uninterest in money or deals; she's always focusing on having a show on the air that's good. The show we have on in the fall is entirely due to her tenacity. She always thought the person who should play George was Bob Newhart. Bob Newhart passed twice, but she called up his manager in London to get him to say yes, and then she basically browbeat the president of CBS into putting the show on the air ... probably the only person on the planet who has the ability to do that."

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In the book, Rob recounts a conversation he had with his agent -- who had just gotten off the phone with the network -- after a casting session for Staley-Long's first post-"Cheers" series:

MY AGENT

They think you're going too ... characterish ... with your casting.

ME

What?

MY AGENT

They think you're casting ugly people.

ME

We're trying to cast good actors who can do comedy.

MY AGENT

And?

ME

And what?

MY AGENT

And who look good in their underpants.

ME

How should I know if they look good in their underpants? Let me make this very clear: I am not going to ask someone to take off their trousers just so I can see if they look good in their underpants.

MY AGENT

So you are casting ugly people.

ME

We are trying to cast funny actors.

MY AGENT

Could you please tell me what's so funny about six guys who look like the Elephant Man?

ME

What?

MY AGENT

Maybe you don't understand the power structure here. The network likes young, good-looking people. America likes young, good-looking people. That's how you get on the air. That's how you stay on the air. If you've got some sicko thing for circus freaks, fine. But not on network television. My God, not after dinner.

However, in times of discouragement, Rob's agent can be a mountain of support. As in this scene earlier in the book:

ME

Well, we didn't sell the pilot. We went there to sell a series and we didn't sell it.

MY AGENT

Is that what you think? That you went there to sell a series?

ME

Didn't we?

MY AGENT

Of course not. You're never selling the series. You're never selling the pilot. You're never selling the idea.

ME

Then what are we selling?

MY AGENT

Yourselves, shitbird! You're selling yourselves. You're saying, "Hey, we're players in the big game. Get in business with us!"

ME

And this means ... what, exactly?

MY AGENT

It means four things. It means the network likes you, which means the studio likes you. It means one day, one way you'll have a show on the air. And it means that I am a very, very good agent.

ME (counting)

That's three things.

MY AGENT

My being a good agent counts as two things.

The preface to "Conversations With My Agent" states, "This book is half true." Rob says that the reason he made the larger-than-life agent character so shadowy is that, as he says in the book's dedication, Beth Uffner "resembles the agent in this book in only two respects: she always tells the truth, and she gives excellent advice."

He told me, "Every now and then she'd say, 'It's not me, right?' And I'd say, 'Right.' And in a sense, it's not. It's a portrait of the business." But there are striking similarities between the fictional agent and Rob's real agent. "She doesn't schmooze," he notes. "There's no flattery. The difference between her and the character in the book is that she listens more."

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And here Rob leans forward and adds in a whisper: "But not that much more."


Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Catherine Seipp

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