Quo Vadimus

Tuesday, March 02, 2004


Telly Alert. #017:

Cracking Up (Fox, premieres Tuesday, March 9th, 9:30 p.m.)

From the March 2004 Esquire:

Mike White

Life is good for the funniest great screenwriter in Hollywood. So why does his return to TV have him freaking out?

by Mike Sager

On a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, on the back lot of the Fox studios, Mike White is frozen in the doorway of his office, chewing on a fingernail. He has just finished a long meeting with the network brass. His eyes are wide and unblinking. His strawberry-blond hair is disheveled. His face is florid. In a few days, he's due to begin shooting the first episode of the new TV show he's producing, a midseason replacement called Cracking Up.

"You've kind of hit me at a very, like, curious moment," he says, gnawing now on his cuticle. His tone is childlike and wondrous—a fey little boy from the Valley, precocious and wanting to please, clearly annoyed, toe tapping. "This TV show just got ugly. Now I'm full of rage and hate."

You want to take a minute and collect yourself?

He sits behind his desk. His computer is candy-apple red. It looks like a toy. White—the suddenly ballyhooed screenwriter with the penchant for writing himself into his movies—looks very much like himself. Like Ned Schneebly, the henpecked substitute teacher from School of Rock; like Corny, the evangelical security guard from The Good Girl; like Buck, the lovelorn suitor from Chuck & Buck. Like a nerdy, thirty-three-year-old outcast from Pasadena who set out to be a playwright and ended up the talk of the town.

"I'll be fine," he says. "You'll just have a window into the true dark night of the soul. Here's your angle: a desperate network trying to destroy the only show that can bring them out of their doldrums."

Are you sure you want to . . .

"Destroy my career?"

Why don't you just tell me about the show.

"Maybe you're right." He takes a deep breath, puffing his cheeks out like a fish. With his index finger, he pops one side. "It's a hilarious comedy. It's Molly Shannon and Jason Schwartzman. Jason plays a psych student who is enlisted by his professor to live in the guesthouse of this rich Beverly Hills family because their youngest son is having problems. And then he gets in there and realizes that the kid is the normal one and everyone else is crazy. It's single-camera, half hour. It was my idea. I was really excited about it a couple of days ago."

And then?

A high-pitched maniacal titter, followed by a beatific smile. "There's a lot of, like, panicking going on?" he says, his tone rising as if asking a question, a hallmark of Valleyspeak. "Over at the network? Their whole fall lineup has gone into the . . . into the"—he searches for the right word—"the dumps? So my show went from being very under the radar and on our own to now, where everything is extremely scrutinized!" He throws up his hands beseechingly, like a preacher invoking the Lord, a bit of business he may have learned from his dad, the Reverend Mel White, who once earned a comfortable living as a ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell. Now he leads a gay ministry.

"All the things that seemed so cool and interesting about being in business with me a short time ago now seem like, um, scary and ah . . ." His voice trails away.

Why are you fooling around with TV anyway? With School of Rock such a big hit, shouldn't you be doing another movie?

"I like to write a lot? And I like to keep going back to the same characters and stuff? And I think that's why I keep being lured back into television. But I've never worked on a half-hour show before. Dawson's Creek, Freaks and Geeks, Pasadena—the hour-long thing is different. They leave you alone. With this, they're really in my face! The process is so different. They're from the Land of Jokes."

The land of what ?

He does a voice like a kid imitating a network exec: "This needs to be 100 percent funnier! We need twenty more jokes in this script!"

Twenty exactly?

"Yeah! It's like, Okay! Lemme write this down." He pretends to write on the desktop. "One hundred percent funnier. Twenty more jokes. Got it!"

What are you going to do?

"It kind of goes back to, like, religious camp when I was getting bullied by all the religious kids. And my way of dealing with bullying is becoming like Carrie or something. Like becoming really weird so they'll leave me alone. At this point, I'm thinking about making one of the characters in the show actually be, like, a knock-knock-joke teller. He could come in, say a joke, and leave!"

He leans all the way forward—down, down, down—until his brow comes to rest against the desktop with a muffled thunk .

"Arrrrrgh ," he moans.

ONE MONTH LATER, he is on the phone feeling much more sanguine. "I'm totally excited about the show. I'm in love with the cast," he says breathlessly. "I feel like we have the opportunity to do something different and fun and cool? I'm really bullish about the actual show?"

That's great to hear. Because when I saw you—

Embarrassed giggle. "I, uh, was sort of in the midst of a bitchy moment."

We all have our days.

"Look, the process has been brutal. I mean, I come home every night wanting to pull my hair out. It's weird when you're finally doing the thing you've always wanted to do, and you've never been more miserable and bitchy and a little baby. But I guess it's part of the deal. You get to do something that's really fun, but they want to make sure it's not too much fun. There's always a price to pay."

What kind of price?

"Seventeen more jokes? By Thursday?"

posted by Linus | 7:07 PM