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Chapter One: The Job So Terrible You Can Only Hope to Be Fired
Work is the province of cattle. That's a Fact
I do not like work, even when someone else does it.
I have only been fired once. I was let go from an office job where the boss told me that he was firing me because he wanted someone to work for him who, when he said, "Jump!" would say, "How high?" Ironically, the job was in the offices of the multiple sclerosis society, where the majority of our clients scooted around in motorized wheelchairs.
Rainn Wilson, actor
I did a number of things in the '80s I'm not proud of. On more than one occasion I shouted out the phrase, "Everybody Wang Chung tonight." But there's one thing I did that was so heinous, I've never told anyone about it. In 1984 I wrote for the TV show The Facts of Life.
I'm sure everyone remembers the cultural phenomenon that was The Facts of Life. But for those of you who somehow missed it, The Facts of Life was a coming-of-age saga about four teenage girls at an exclusive boarding school in Peekskill, New York. There was Blair, the sarcastic beautiful one; Natalie, the sarcastic chubby one; Jo, the sarcastic tomboy; and Tootie, the sarcastic sistah. Watching over all of them was their mentor, Edna Garrett, also known as Mrs. Garrett or, when the girls were in full Fonzie mode, Mrs. G.
Oh, and here's one more piece of Facts of Life trivia: It was the worst television show ever produced. Now, given how monumentally it sucked, you may wonder, why did I agree to work on it? Well, quite simply, for the money. You see, I was the sarcastic whore on The Facts of Life. But you have to give me a break: I was just out of college, I was broke, I didn't have a car. I had to take the bus, which in L.A. is tantamount to eating out of a Dumpster.
I remember my first day on the show, going in to pitch stories to the producers. These were two middle-aged women charged with the responsibility of making sure The Facts of Life did not lose its edge. And the show was at a critical point: It was moving from the safe confines of the boarding school to a whole new setting, a gourmet cheese shop cleverly named Edna's Edibles. It was a move fraught with risk. There was no margin for error. And that was the hornets' nest I was stepping into.
As I sat down in the producers' office, I noticed that they each had coffee mugs with the Facts of Life logo on them. I was like, "Cool mugs, where'd you get them?" "Mrs. Garrett gave them to us," one of them explained. It turns out that Charlotte Rae, the actress who played Mrs. Garrett, liked to reward the writers by giving them Facts of Life logo mugs, and the better job you did, the more mugs you got. Now, you want to talk about an incentive!
I started pitching my story, entitled "Gamma Gamma or Bust," in which Blair, the sarcastic beautiful one, pulls out all the stops to get into the Gamma Gamma sorority. The producers took it in, chewed it over, and then one of them finally spoke. "It's an interesting story, Andy," she said. "But what's the 'fact'?"
"Say what?" I said.
"The 'fact,' " she said. "Every Facts of Life story has a fact, a moral lesson, if you will, a deeper truth that the audience can take away with them."
Suddenly the room started to spin. I realized: They don't know the show sucks. They think they're doing Molière here. And I'm a comedian, I don't really do moral lessons, so I just started spinning my wheels...A stitch in time saves nine? Neither a borrower nor a lender be? Finally, with their help, we agreed that the fact of my story would be "Be yourself."
I started to write the script and I thought to myself, I'm going to try something that's never been tried before on The Facts of Life: I'm going to write funny things for the girls to say. I finished it up, handed it in, and didn't hear anything back from the producers for a week. Finally I went up to one of them and said, "Did you get a chance to look at my script?"
"Well, we did, Andy," she said, "and quite frankly, we were disappointed in it."
"What was wrong with it?" I said.
"Well, you didn't get Tootie at all."
I asked her what she meant.
"The way you wrote Tootie, she sounds exactly like Natalie."
I said, "Well, maybe that's because they're both, you know, kind of sarcastic characters."
"They're not sarcastic," she said, genuinely offended.
"Natalie is wisecracking and Tootie is sassy. The way you've written them, you can't tell them apart."
And I was like, "Well, the audience will be able to tell them apart because one's fat and one's black." But I didn't say that. Instead I said, "Well, I'll try to fix it in the next draft."
"That's all right, Andy," she said. "We'll take it from here."
All of a sudden I felt something I hadn't felt since I started working there: I cared. I wanted to prove that I could write The Facts of Life. I wanted to prove that I "got" Tootie.
Well, as the season wore on, it became clear that the decision to move the show to a cheese shop was an unmitigated disaster. The girls were gaining weight at an alarming pace. To counteract this, the producers removed the muffins and cookies from the snack table and replaced them with carrots, celery, and lettuce. It was like we were being catered by Farmer McGregor. The girls noticed, and they were pissed.
At this point I was given one last chance to prove myself. The producers no longer trusted me to write a script on my own, so they teamed me up with their two pet writers, a team of eager-to-please suck-ups known only as the Two Jims. Our assignment: to write a fantasy sequence set twenty-five years in the future, when Jo, the sarcastic tomboy, would be Jo, a sarcastic high-powered businesswoman.
Now, I thought to myself, finally I'm being given a chance to play to my strengths. No facts, no moral lessons, just unbridled wackiness. So, with the Two Jims' agreement, we wrote a scene in which Jo, inhabiting a futuristic world much like the Jetsons did, attempts a leveraged buyout of Spacely Sprockets.
The producers never told me what they thought of the scene, but the Two Jims later told me that they had been called into the producers' office. "We're very disappointed in the Jo fantasy scene," the producers told them. "But we don't blame you because we know Andy was in the room when it was written." I couldn't believe it I had become a cancer on The Facts of Life!
Needless to say, I wasn't asked back for a second season, which means I totally missed the arrival of the young George Clooney, who played a sarcastic handyman. But as I cleaned out my office on the last day of work, I noticed a gift box on the desk. I opened it and inside were two Facts of Life mugs. Could it be that Mrs. Garrett, in her infinite wisdom, had seen something in me that no one else had? I was so excited, I picked them up and ran into the Two Jims' office and saw that each of them had received ten mugs.
As I look back on that year, I ask myself, Is there any moral lesson, any deeper truth that we can take away from this?
I think it's this: The only thing worse than being a whore is being a whore and totally sucking at it. And that, my friends, is a fact.
After being fired from The Facts of Life, Andy Borowitz was "fired up," as often happens in Hollywood, and created the series that launched Will Smith's acting career, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He currently writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and CNN, and is the creator of the very popular Web site and series of books The Borowitz Report.
Increased risk of heart attack faced by employer firing an employee in the week after wielding the ax: 100 percent.
Copyright © 2006 by Annabelle Gurwitch